Child specialist panel mooted for custody cases


KUALA LUMPUR: A counselling psychologist has suggested the commissioning of a panel of child specialists to assist judges presiding over child custody cases.

Charis Wong, a former practising lawyer who heads the Kin and Kids Marriage, Family and Child Therapy Centre, said the current situation left judges overwhelmed and overworked.

“In countries such as the United States, the judge is supported by a collaborative team consisting of forensic mental health evaluators, parenting coordinators who take on a quasi-judicial role, divorce mediators, co-parenting educators and facilitators, and child therapists who have specialised training and experience in high conflict families and parent-child reunification therapy,” she told FMT.

“Sometimes the team will include a court-appointed child’s attorney to protect the child’s rights.”

However, she said there were problems to surmount in Malaysia.

One of these problems is that judges are not trained to work collaboratively with a team of support professionals, nor are psychologists or other mental health professionals trained for custody evaluations.

Wong said this was due in part to a general lack of understanding on the difference between a psychologist, a counsellor and a psychiatrist.

“As such, the judiciary, litigants or their lawyers may prefer to refer to psychiatrists who likewise are not trained to do comprehensive evaluations, do not have proper facilities to carry out these evaluations and often do not have the time for such evaluations.”

She said an evaluation would take up an average of 46.5 hours.

“Performing child custody evaluations is one of the most challenging activities of a mental health professional and entails very high risks,” she said. The risks included malpractice suits, she added.

Wong said counsellors and psychologists in Malaysia were, furthermore, unfamiliar with the court process and preferred not to get in custody or child-access battles.

“They fear being dragged into court and being cross-examined by lawyers. Court work involves many non-billable hours, the risk of being sued by an unhappy litigant, and having their clinical work and reputation put under examination in court,” she said.

“Also, most of them do not receive sufficient training in risk management issues and do not have the protection of a professional indemnity coverage.”

Therapeutic intervention

As for assisting the court in providing therapeutic intervention, Wong said Malaysian counsellors and psychologists were generally not trained to work with families experiencing high conflict.

“There are few counsellors who have received training in marriage and family therapy beyond the introductory course offered in graduate school,” she said.

Wong noted that courts dealing with family conflicts were at a loss as to what to do with alienated children who refuse visitation because of negative views and feelings towards a parent. She added that these negative attitudes were often disproportionate to such children’s actual experience with the disfavoured parents.

“It is not uncommon for the parent with custody, or the favoured parent, to continue being in non-compliance with a court order on visitation rights without any repercussions,” she pointed out.

“The Malaysian judiciary system needs to look at other jurisdictions to identify what sanctions the courts can impose under such situations without disregarding the genuine concerns of favoured custodial parents.”

Giving an example of such “genuine concerns,” she said some parents had complained of their struggle to comply with court orders to send their children for visits to the other parents, especially if the children in question did not wish to.

Wong said that prior to setting up a team of child specialists, the judiciary would first need to assemble a task force consisting of experienced family court judges, veteran divorce lawyers, family and divorce mediators and child mental health professionals.

“The task force will firstly need to identify the concerns and challenges from each discipline when working with these families. Judges, lawyers and mental health professionals can dialogue with one another about their expectations and explore how to work together collaboratively.

“Guidelines and policies setting out the nature, roles, responsibilities, procedure, ethical principles and limitations of mental health professionals involved in custody evaluations and providing therapeutic intervention will then need to be drawn up.”

She said that international experts in the field who have been fundamental in establishing policies and guidelines for the family court could be appointed as advisors.

“In Canada, for example, the courts have come up with very detailed Family Law Practice Directions that specifically set out the roles and responsibilities of parenting experts, who assist the court in providing recommendations on custody and access issues or therapeutic interventions to highly conflicted families.

“The plan needs to involve the right people, have proper groundwork involving research on best practices from other model jurisdictions and data of current judicial practices in Malaysia. There must also be sufficient financial support from the government for a long-term implementation. And let’s not forget an ongoing review process.

“Let us not have a repeat of the tragic outcome of S Deepa’s long drawn custody battle.”