Courts address divorce aftermathIn September, Ju-min’s parents stood before the Seoul Family Court seeking a divorce. They had been living separately since 2008, and when filing for divorce each had sought custody of their 5-year-old child.
Each parent blamed the other for the situation.
Ju-min’s mother told judge that her child displays strange behavior after spending time with her father.
Ju-min’s father would have none of that.
“My child’s intelligence dropped greatly while living with her mother,” he argued.
The case in itself was not unusual. But the response by the court was, and it represents a new Korean judicial approach to divorce.
The change isn’t in the matter of custody; Korean law gives one parent full custody while the other gets visitation rights. The new approach addresses the psychological welfare of both parents and children.
Ju-min, who was too young to understand her parents’ divorce, suffered from social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, because she believed she had caused the discord between her parents.
Because Ju-min had been living with her mother since 2008 and didn’t have the opportunity to spend time with her father, the court ordered that Ju-min’s parents participate in a court-organized camp in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi, with four other families in similar situations.
All the children enjoyed the day out with their parents.
At the end of the day, Ju-min burst into tears as she realized it was time to say goodbye to her father.
The court last month ruled that while Ju-min’s mother would retain custody of the child, her father will have the right to spend time with her upon his request. This means the girl will be able to see both her parents.
Lee Seon-mi, the judge who presided over the case, said the parents’ accusations were little more than pent-up emotional lies.
The judge said though the divorce rate is at a record high in Korea, the perception of divorce has not changed.
“Usually the child’s parents are too focused on winning custody to pay attention to how much their child will be hurt by their separation,” said the judge.
To change parents’ perception of divorce, last month the Seoul Family Court began a program providing solutions for children of divorced families. The program aims to prevent parents - who often get overemotional during the course of a divorce - from using their children as tools during trial.
The team in charge of the program is comprised of six judges, five family-issue investigation experts and seven outside advisers.
The team offers parents psychological counseling to help them understand the reasons behind their divorce, how to deal with their children after they’ve separated and how to act after the divorce has become final.
The team said some parents need more therapy than others. These include fathers who threaten their children with physical punishment if they see their mother without permission, and mothers who tell their children that their fathers are solely to blame for the situation.
The teams conduct one-on-one counseling to help parents understand how reckless words in court can severely damage a child’s mental well-being. If a divorce causes a child severe anxiety, the court sends the child to a state-run family support center in his or her neighborhood for therapy.
“In the past, counseling programs offered by the court were centered on finding the cause of the couple’s discord and seeking a path to reconciliation,” said a team official. “Now the court’s solution - therapy - pays attention to the pain and psychological distress that the child may suffer from his or her parents’ divorce.”
Hwang Hye-sun, the court’s family-issue investigation expert, said parents “should separate their own quarrels from parental issues.”
“This is to ensure that children do not feel they are the cause of their parent’s divorce and feel guilty,” Hwang said in a lecture provided to divorcing parents at the court on Jan. 25.
“Don’t say you’re separating because of your child’s mother or father,” Hwang said. “Rather, tell your child that, ‘Although your mom and dad have changed how they feel about each other, their affection for you hasn’t changed at all.’”
The Seoul Family Court’s team will run the pilot program for the time being. It is expected to expand the program to local family courts across the country soon.
By Lee Hyun-taek, Kim Mi-ju [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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