When Families Break-up

Posted on January 20, 2011. Filed under: Child Abduction, Child Custody and Visitation, Japanese Family Law | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

WHEN FAMILIES BREAK UP / Divorced parents fighting for right to see own children

The Yomiuri Shimbun

We live in a time when divorce has become commonplace. In Japan, a couple gets divorced every two minutes. Consequently, the number of divorced parents filing requests with the courts for visitation rights is increasing.

There is also a growing number of conflicts resulting from breakups of couples from different countries. Due to differences in interpretation regarding child custody, parents have been accused of abducting their own children and taking them to another country.

As families and people’s values diversify, certain problems have become difficult to resolve under the existing system.

Starting today, we will look at some of the problems divorced parents face as they struggle to win the right to see their children.

After separating from her husband five years ago, a 51-year-old woman in Tokyo began a long struggle to see her 15-year-old son.

The woman, a temporary worker, has only been able to see her son twice in the five years that have passed. The meetings, held in a court and in the presence of a court personnel, totaled just 95 minutes.

On both occasions when the woman saw her son, she was unable to stop tears welling up.

“My son, who is taking piano lessons, put his hand on mine to compare the size,” she said. “As I saw him staring at me while talking, I felt we were deeply bound inside.”

Desperately wishing to see her son more often, in July 2007 she applied to the family court for mediation on the issue of visitation rights.

However, the woman’s former husband initially resisted all requests to allow her to visit her son, citing the boy’s need to focus on his schooling, including preparing to move up to the next grade.

As part of the mediation process, in which a voluntary settlement is sought with the help of commissioners, the court initially set up two short meetings between the woman and her son as a way of determining the format future meetings should take.

The two met for 50 minutes in March 2008 and 45 minutes in April 2009.

“My son remembered the meeting we had a year earlier,” the woman said.

While the court advised that the woman be allowed to visit her son every two months, the couple failed to reach an agreement. As a result, the mediation process moved to the next stage, which will see a final decision issued by a judge.

“I’m so worried that I might never be allowed to see my son again,” she said.

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Children caught up in disputes

The number of divorces nationwide reached 250,000 in 2008, according to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey. Of those divorced couples, 140,000 had children aged under 20, which numbered more than 240,000.

The rising number of divorced couples is accompanied by an increasing number of conflicts involving children.

According to an annual survey compiled by the Supreme Court, family courts across the country mediated in 6,261 cases concerning disputes over meetings between divorced parents and their children and judges were forced to deliver a final decision in 1,020 of those cases. Both figures were triple the numbers a decade ago.

Even through such court-mediated procedures, only half of the parents involved in the cases won permission to see their children.

In addition, regardless of an agreement or court order reached on visitation, if the parent who lives with the child strongly resists allowing meetings, it remains difficult for the other parent to see the child.

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Maintaining contact important

Several years ago, a 40-year-old man from Kanagawa Prefecture seeking the right to see his then 1-year-old son applied for court mediation.

He had helped his wife take care of the baby, feeding him milk and changing his diapers at night. On his days off, he took the boy to a park to play. “I had no inkling I’d be prevented from meeting my son after the divorce,” he said. “But I was completely wrong.”

He said that even after the official mediation procedure started, his former wife maintained she would never allow him to see their son. She even pushed back the scheduled date for the mediation. Time passed and no decisions were made.

Desperate to see his son, the man even visited the neighborhood where the boy lived with his mother.

The former couple failed to reach a compromise through the court-led mediation process and began proceedings that would lead to a decision by a judge. Two years later, the court concluded that the man should be allowed to see his son once a month, for half a day. Nevertheless, the former wife broke the appointment set for the first meeting, leaving the man unable to see the boy.

After repeated negotiations with the woman through lawyers, he finally managed to ensure he could regularly see his son. “I believe it’s important for children’s growth to maintain a relationship with both parents,” the father said. “I think adults shouldn’t deprive their children of this right due to selfishness.”

Waseda University Prof. Masayuki Tanamura argues the existing system no longer meets society’s changing needs. “It was previously believed that divorced parents had to accept they couldn’t see children they’d been separated from,” Tanamura said. “In recent years, however, men have become more involved in child rearing and the number of children born to couples has declined. Because of this, many divorced parents have an increased desire to maintain their relationship with their children even after a divorce.”

What needs to be done to ensure that parents can see their children after a divorce? There is a growing need for this nation to find an answer to this question.

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Sole custody causing headaches

A key factor behind disputes involving divorced couples over their children’s custody is a Civil Code stipulation that parental prerogatives are granted to either the mother or father–not both.

The parent who obtains custody assumes rights and duties for his or her child, such as the duty to educate the child and the right to control any assets they might have. However, the parent without parental authority can claim almost no rights concerning their children.

In fact, mothers win in 90 percent of court decisions concerning the custody of a child–known as mediation and determination proceedings.

There is no provision in the Civil Code referring to the visitation rights of a parent living separately from his or her child, so whether the absent parent can meet the child depends on the wishes of the former partner who has been granted custody.

If the parent who has custody refuses to let his or her child meet with the former spouse in a court mediation, it is difficult to arrange visits.

Even if the parent living separately from his or her child or children is allowed to visit, the chances are limited–for example, to once a month. Moreover, if the parents who have custody ignore the court’s decision to grant their spouses visiting rights, there is almost no legal recourse to implement such visits.

Waseda University Prof. Masayuki Tanamura said: “The current system strongly reflects the Japanese family system established in the Meiji era [1868-1912]. Since that time, parental authority has been regarded as the right of the parents to control their children, so couples fight over it.”

Meanwhile, as the number of divorces increased from the 1970s to the ’90s in Europe and the United States, such countries began allowing joint custody, in which former couples cooperate in bringing up their children even after breaking up.

Lawyer Takao Tanase, who also serves as a professor at Chuo University, said: “[In such countries,] the rights of parents who live separately from their children after divorce to visit and communicate with their children are recognized, and such visits occur regularly. For example, there are cases in which such parents meet with their children once a fortnight and spend the weekend together.”

The number of international marriages is increasing yearly–reaching a record high of 18,774 cases in 2008–and the difference in the custody system between Japan and foreign countries causes serious problems when a Japanese splits from his or her foreign spouse.

Cases in which Japanese living in foreign countries take their children back to Japan after divorcing a foreign spouse have become an international problem. The Foreign Ministry confirmed 73 such incidents in the United States, 36 in Canada, 35 in France and 33 in Britain.

There is an international law to deal with such disputes. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction stipulates that if a former husband or wife takes his or her child or children to another country without the consent of the former spouse, the spouse can apply to bring the child back to the country where they were living. Member countries assume an obligation to cooperate in bringing the child back to the home country.

Many European countries and the United States have joined the convention, but Japan has yet to ratify it. International pressure on Japan to adopt the convention is growing.

“We need to separate the problems of parent-child relationships from the problems between couples. We need to establish laws enabling children to meet with the parent who is living separately after divorce, with the exception of cases in which the child is exposed to potential physical danger by meeting the parent,” Tanase said.

“In Japan, divorce is becoming increasingly common, and it’s important to accept the idea that divorced couples will share child-rearing duties even after divorce,” he added.

(Feb. 3, 2010)

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