The breakdown of a relationship can be traumatic for children, and sometimes that trauma can stem from events that have taken place during the relationship. Many parents worry about the impact of a separation on their children. Inverness-based family law partner, child law specialist and trauma-informed lawyer, Sarah Lilley, answers questions about the legal process and how to work effectively with children experiencing trauma.
Does a child have to be actively involved in the legal process when their parents' relationship breaks down?
In situations where parents can agree arrangements for their children, it is up to them to decide how much they involve the children in those decisions. If they can't agree then a court action may be required so that an independent third party, a sheriff, decides what should happen. Legislation states that every child must be given the opportunity to express their views as to what should happen. That child may, of course, choose not to express a view.
How is a child's involvement handled by the legal system?
Children never give evidence in the courtroom in situations where parents disagree about their care arrangements. There are a few ways in which a child's views can be taken - the most common is via an 'F9' form. The wording of the form is agreed by the lawyers who act for each parent and then by the sheriff. It is then usually sent to the child's school for them to complete with the assistance of a teacher. This ensures that, so far as is possible, there is no parental influence on the child's views. Another method involves a Child Welfare Reporter meeting with the child and preparing a report. I am often instructed by the court in this role and meet with children, again usually at their school, to chat with them about what they think should happen. A report is then written for the sheriff. Less commonly, the sheriff will invite the child to their office to speak directly with them.
What responsibilities do you have when handling situations where a child has experienced, or is experiencing, trauma?
Parental separation can be, for many children, a source of trauma. This is especially so when they are in the midst of unresolved conflict between their parents. It is very important that all lawyers who work with parents, or directly with children, understand the importance of handling such situations with care. Failure to do so might cause further trauma or the re-traumatising of a child.
How can parents help protect their child from further trauma?
In my experience, by the time parents are involved in a court action about the arrangements for their child, the relationship between them is not good. Children have a strong sense of fairness, and when I meet with those who are in the midst of such situations, the overwhelming message I hear from them is that they love both parents and usually want to spend time with each of them. Unresolved conflict is harmful for children and while most understand and accept that their parents have separated, they really want them both to be happy and treat each other with respect. It's really important to be mindful of the impact upon children of the actions and words of the adults around them.