Children as pawns in messy divorce cases

10-09-2003

The story of a ten year old boy who had a nervous breakdown because his parents were fighting over him has shocked the nation and highlighted the plight of children caught up in messy divorce cases. Ten year old Honza is now in hospital recovering from shock after his father arrived in school with a bailiff and social worker to enforce his visiting rights. Psychologists say his relationship with both parents may be irrevocably damaged. A shocking story that has left many people wondering how much of this actually goes on in a country with an exceptionally high divorce rate. Jarmila Knight from the Our Child Foundation is an expert on children's rights.

"Unfortunately, I must confirm that it happens much more often than we would like to think, and it is part of the problem that the Czech Republic -but it is probably the same for many other countries - has with safeguarding children's rights. The Convention on Children's Rights actually states that -above all laws- the best interests of the child should come first. But because it is so difficult to define what is in the best interests of a child it is sometimes very difficult to safeguard them. That is why things like this happen and it is always those who are closest to the child who should safeguard his or her interests best and that is the parents."

Well, we have heard several judges say, since the incident happened, that the law was not broken strictly speaking but that the spirit of the law was violated. That is was degrading a human being and reducing the child to the status of an object. When you have this situation - a father has not seen his child for two years and has a court order allowing him to do so...what is the best way to go about it? Obviously sending a bailiff and social worker to school is not the ideal solution.

"Absolutely. That is really the last resort, the worst resort possible. What should have happened is that a social worker should have approached the mother and explained the situation to her, told her that the best interest of the child is such and such and that she should cooperate. You see, this is basically a break down in communication between the mother and the father and they are using the child as a weapon in their own fight. Also when it was decided who should have custody of the child I am not aware that someone actually asked the child where he wanted to be."

Well, in the majority of cases -92percent- Czech courts award the mother custody. Do you feel that in other countries -in the Western world for instance - courts and the authorities listen more to what the child is saying?

"I hope so. I do hope so. And this is actually one of the main activities of the Our Child Foundation and our toll free help line. We try to make sure that not only the parents but also the social workers, police and courts do listen to what the child is trying to tell them. We are now finishing a one year project with the European Union - trying to prevent secondary victimization of children witnesses. Because that is what happens as well, you see. A child is a witness -whether it is a case of family violence or divorce or some kind of criminal offence. And the first trauma of having witnessed that is then multiplied many times by the procedure that awaits the child when he goes through the system - which means interrogations by the police, by social workers, giving evidence in court. Possibly the child may even have to go against the interests of his family -if the perpetrator of that particular crime that the child witnessed is his father or mother. This is a very traumatic experience and all the participants involved in the process are not always sensitive to the needs of the child and having his best interests at heart."

10-09-2003