Q6) Consider the extract from Judith Wallerstein’s research: ‘The Long Term Impact of Divorce on Children: A First Report from a 25 Year Study’. How would you respond to the statement: ‘This research is a damning indictment on the way in which family law has regard to the needs of children when their parents separate.’ How is this so?
The child is the one most influenced by the decisions in which they have no say and where they are represented by parents who rarely inquire into the child’s preferences or include the child’s wishes in their planning.
When Judith Wallerstein’s first met these young children, at the time of the marital breakup, they were terrified that both parents would abandon them. They concluded that if one parent could leave another, both could surely leave the child.
Children suffered with fears of:
Waking up in the morning to a deserted house;
Returning from nursery school to find no one home.
The world had become for children an unreliable, danger-filled place, in which their closet relationships could not be trusted to hold firm.
One parent, usually the father, had left and the mother in many cases begins to work full time. The child’s loneliness, their sense that no one was there to take care of them, was overwhelming.
Children were being left in the care of strangers, or even worse older siblings who being children themselves did not hesitate to withhold food, to threaten, or to hit the younger children in order to enforce household routines.
As youngsters then, and as adults now, all would have been profoundly astonished to learn that any judge, attorney, mediator, or indeed anyone at all in the entire community had spent a moment considering their best interests or wishes.
Researches have dealt with frequency of contact between father and child, and NOT with the quality of the relationship, whether and in what ways it benefits the child, or the nature of the child’s experience and satisfaction.
Instead, it has been assumed by the legal system that if the mother does not interfere and the father is not dangerous, the child and father would establish a contact schedule and will enjoy and benefit from each other’s company.
The child’s suffering does not reach its peak at the breakup and then level off. On the contrary, divorce is a cumulative experience for the child. Its impact increases over time.
Protection of the best interests of the child involves asking not only how we can protect the child, but, looking ahead, we must ask what measures will protect the child’s interests when they reach each new developmental stage of growing up.
The young people in this study have a lot more to say. Many did not feel protected by their parents or by the legal system. They felt that they had been silenced and expected, without recourse, to follow visiting or custody plans that had not been made with their wishes in mind, and which many found to be oppressive.
The court created child is a passive vessel, a rag doll who stays put in whatever position they are placed.
The child is almost a non-person, strangely lacking in moral vision or opinions that are based on there own observations and experience.
The child is expected to go along contentedly and silently with the custody and contact arrangements that the respective attorneys or the parents directly have arranged.
They are given no formal opportunity to express their view or even a preference among plans.
Most of all, the child’s development is expected to come to a complete halt, so that a court order or agreement that suits them at age six will suit them over the years to come.
The failure of the legal system to acknowledge the child’s changing developmental requirements and the omission of the child as a participant in planning their own life as they mature is hard to justify.
Example on page 208.
Wallerstein argues that children are relatively voiceless in proceedings relating to them. In