Although marital separation is popularly considered to be damaging to children, much research in the past two decades has shown that psychological complications are caused by the post-separation care arrangement of having children live with one parent, the mother prevailingly, rather than the split itself.
The studies have widely shown that shared parenting provides a buffer against possible psychological damage. By contrast, the prevailing arrangement in which the child or children live with one parent and spend limited time with the other parent is fraught with risks for what psychologists call adjustment – the process of developing into a psychologically rounded, adaptive and centred individual in one’s milieu.
Shared parenting – known as Joint Physical Custody (JPC), as opposed to Sole Physical Custody (SPC) – has been resoundingly shown to be protective, and to lead to better psychological outcomes in children. This remains the case even in instance where parents are riven by conflict; yet this does not apply in cases of abuse and/or violence by one of the parents.
Despite these studies, most children still end up in SPC care after marital breakdown. Culturally entrenched views that hold mothers as caregivers and fathers as breadwinners are reinforced by arrangements imposed by Family Courts in Malta.
The role of the court in preserving the status quo is significant because it holds back fathers who fight in court to play a larger role in children’s upbringing, hence serving as a hurdle to cultural change and providing positive feedback to the traditionalist mentality.
The law and the Family Court
The law on post-separation arrangements for children allows the judiciary wide discretion to take decisions on dynamics of each specific case, but such discretion has been narrowed down to a rigid formula of “access” and “sleepover” in case-law. The typical arrangement is for the child or children to reside with the mother and then see the father for a “sleepover” over the weekend, plus two two-hour slots of “access” on two afternoons (typically Tuesday and Thursday) on weekdays.
In the typical arrangement imposed by Family Courts, the child ends up spending only about 16% of the time with the secondary parent, typically the father. That is only around half the amount of time identified in science as the threshold for shared parenting – JPC is defined as the child spending at least 30-35% of the time with the secondary parent, including nights.
Any attempts by fathers to play a part in caring for children on weekdays, including nights, are shot down in Family Courts on the basis that it is not practical, and even disruptive, for children to hop from home to home. The mantra is that children need stability. Yet studies have now shown that children are more likely to have psychological stability in JPC rather than SPC – living in two homes, rather than one, does not change that all things being equal.
Given the rigidity adopted by the Family Courts, legislative change is needed to create a legal presumption towards shared parenting all things being equal – in this manner, the Family Courts would have to justify deviations from the model of JPC. Such legal reform would bring Malta up to date with psychological studies into care arrangement for children after separation.
Report into science of shared parenting and basis of legal presumption
An extensive report into the science of shared parenting, the current situation in the Family Court and in law, and legislative reform to introduce the concept of 'legal presumption' to JPC, is currently in its final stages.
Dissemination of report to support science-based decision making
Once the report is completed, it will be published on this website so that it can serve as reference material.
Series of investigative and analytical articles
A series of investigative articles and analyses will be published to reveal all that is wrong with the present system and dynamic. These will include articles about the endemic dysfunctions in the family courts.
Videos on experiences of affected parents and children
Short videos, or video interviews, of experiences - good or bad - of other parents.
Contribute to this Cause
Your contribution will help fund completion of the report and its dissemination, researched posts as parts of its promotion, and further inquiries into cases of children/parents wronged.
Initial Funding Target: €500