Monday, June 7, 2010

What Do Children Want?

In his article titled “Australian Study Asks Children Their Ideas About Custody”, Robert Franklin, one of the regular collaborators of the Fathers & Families website, reviews a study done by Dr. Alan Campbell of the University of South Australia (Child Care in Practice, 7/1/08).

Dr. Campbell and his team interviewed a group of Australian children between the ages of 7 and 17, all of them children of divorced or separated parents. The study wanted to answer three basic questions:

1. What are children’s views on their ability to participate in decisions that directly affect them following their parents’ separation?

2. To what extent do children’s interview texts reflect an adequate understanding of children’s rights?

3. How do children construct their understanding of the concept of their ‘‘best interests’’ in relation to post-separation decision-making about their futures?

Campbell questions come from previous studies that show that courts tend to ignore children’s views on divorce, separation, and custody, a behavior that is based on the dubious idea that courts know better than children what is in their “best interests.”

The study proved that children not only have very specific views on these issues, but that they also wanted to express them. For example, most of the interviewed children wanted to have some input in the decisions that were being made about their lives, they believed that this was their right; as Franklin writes, “they wanted their voices to be heard.” When discussing the topic of the so-called “best interests of the child,” they stated that being consulted should be part of the concept. They believed that when courts ignore their voices, they are ignoring one of the main things that would guarantee their best interests.

The children were also concerned about the lack of fairness that prevailing custody arrangements represented for their parents and for them. They considered the practice of awarding primary custody to one parent unfair to both the non-custodial parent and them.

Children wanted fair custody arrangements and considered the common practice of primary custody/visitation unfair. They believed that only fair custody arrangements could satisfy the law’s requirement that the courts act in their best interests.

The interviewed children tended to consider that experts appointed by courts (social workers, psychologists, etc.,) interfere rather than serve the process, and that family members, including members of extended family, should be the ones making decisions about custody. Any input from outside the family was considered less legitimate than the advice and counsel of family members. Although this idea would be almost impossible to put into practice, it shows that children understand family as a complete unit, a concept that family courts tend to ignore.

As Franklin writes, maybe it is time already to start listening to our kids.

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