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Preparing children for parents' battle in court PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Claudia Calleja   
Sunday, June 27, 2010 , by Claudia Calleja

Children who testify in their parents' separation case should be taken on an orientation visit to court to help them prepare themselves for the daunting experience, a social worker has suggested.

"Children are often terrified of going to court. An orientation visit would help them familiarise themselves with the environment and help them understand what's happening," said Daniela Darmanin, who heads the court services' section with Appoġġ - the government's support agency.

She added more needed to be done to educate separating parents about the repercussions of the split on their children.

"Parents should ask for help as soon as there is conflict in their marriage... Couples need to realise that, just like it's okay to go to a doctor when you feel sick, it's alright to ask for help if your marriage is in danger of crumbling," she said.

Last month, UK social worker Diana Houltson pointed out that support services for separating couples could help ease the trauma experienced by children.

Ms Houlston met with stakeholders in the field and will be preparing a report listing recommendations to help children going through separation cases.

In a recent report, Parliament's Social Affairs Committee pointed out that the Family Court needed to become more child-friendly to ease the trauma experienced by children. Some as young as five and six were already on anti-depressants because of separation-related stress, the report said.

Children Commissioner Helen D'Amato said the Family Court's structure and the way it worked had to be revised to ensure children's voices were better heard.

Ms Darmanin said that, ideally, there should be a multi-disciplinary team of experts based at the courts to help couples and families go through the separation proceedings.

The team would include mediators, family therapists, social workers, psychologists, and children's advocates.

She believes all professionals who work with children should be specially trained - including judges and lawyers. Earlier this year, Chief Justice Vincent DeGaetano said lawmakers should consider introducing a special warrant for lawyers to practise in the Family Court to ensure they were trained to deal with the sensitive nature of the cases.

"You cannot take what children say at face value," Ms Darmanin said, adding: "There are lots of undercurrents. Sometimes they are threatened or promised gifts to say certain things and matters get even more sensitive when there are allegations of abuse."

Currently, whenever a judge in the Family Court wants to get a better picture of the child's environment, he appoints a social worker to report back to him.

Social workers speak to children and parents, visit them at home and at school and carry out surprise visits.

Between January and June last year, Appoġġ's court services dealt with 140 cases and received 25 new referrals.

Ms Darmanin's experience with children in court has taught her that children are often left with lots of unanswered questions as their parent separate: Where will I go to school? Why will my father or mother have to leave home? Why do I have to live somewhere else?

Their lifestyle changes as the family faces the financial burden of two homes. Children struggle to get used to a new life that could include changing school and losing contact with extended family.

The situation was made even worse when, all too often, parents use their children as a negotiating currency.

"I've faced situations when one parent tells another: I won't ask for maintenance if I can have full care and custody," Ms Darmanin recalled.

She added that children often faced loyalty issues as they felt they had to take the side of the parent they were living with. Appoġġ offers various services to children and families facing difficulties.


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