MPs debate Take Note motion on shared parenting
The House of Assembly on Friday debated the possibility of introducing shared parenting legislation aimed at strengthening families.
Such legislation could ensure that courts, when considering making a parenting order, would be required to presume it is in the best interest of the child for parents to have equal shared parental responsibility, except if there are issues of family violence or child abuse.
Opening the debate, Minister of Youth, Family and Sport Glenn Blakeney detailed legislation already in place in Australia and legislation put forward in the UK, US and Canada.
However, he said that in Bermuda, no legislation specifically mentions shared parenting, although the Childrens Act 1998 does say that the court may make such additional order as the court considers necessary and proper in the circumstances when considering an application for a court order respecting custody or access to a child.
In view of the current legislation, some advocates in our society, including ChildWatch, have asked the question whether, in practice, magistrates are using their discretion in such a way as to prejudice the rights of many fathers in custody and access hearings, Mr Blakeney said.
They go further to assert that the law should be amended to provide a legal presumption of shared parenting, a sort of default position which magistrates can only override if the circumstances of a particular case warrant it.
Mr Blakeney said he has heard reports of fathers being treated as money machines and have had their children turned against them.
I believe that the judiciary is Bermuda does strive to take the best interests of children into account when making decisions about parental access and related manners, Mr Blakeney said.
However, the many anecdotal stories I have been made aware of suggest to me that there may be a need to have a closer look at the long term consequences for the affected children of some of these judiciary decisions.
This is not to suggest that error in the law were made, rather that the inclusion of a legal presumption of shared parenting in the law may have facilitated decisions that ultimately resulted in better outcomes for children than has been observed in some cases.
A change in the structure of family law, he said, could help to send a strong message to parents that they both play an important role in the raising of a child. He also said that such a move may decrease inter-parental conflict as neither parent will feel as threatened about loosing their child.
Shared parenting arrangements more importantly could benefit the children by helping them maintain a relationship with both parents.
However shared parenting arrangements carry their own disadvantages, Mr Blakeney said, as increased contact and disagreements about how the child should be raised can spark conflict between parents.
If shared parenting legislation is being considered for Bermuda, it should apply to parents of all children, whether they are born out of a marriage or out of wedlock, as all children could greatly benefit from having both parents, Mr Blakeney said.
However it light of the many issues that exist among parents, it seems evident that the courts must still have some discretion to determine what is in the best interest of the child.
In order to get it right, and before such legislation is implemented, the first step should be to provide mandatory parenting classes for those in high risk categories, for example, those under 18 that experience unplanned pregnancies.
OBA MP Donte Hunt said he would fully welcome shared parenting legislation, saying: This is about getting patents back on track with raising, with rearing their young.
However, Mr Hunt suggested Government speak to more stakeholders before determining the details of any legislation, noting that parenting is difficult to legislate.
Kim Swan, who was elected under the UBP banner, said that family issues such as broken homes are causing far-reaching problems in the community.
If we are to come to terms with some of the very serious problems that exist in our community where it relates to young people, and not so young people, we need to get to grips with what is taking place in the homes, Mr Swan said.
Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess said that while the majority of families are doing well and raising well-balanced children, there are some families running into difficulties which might be helped by shared parenting legislation.
Most of Bermuda has it right. The thing is, we have some who dont have it right and we must do all we can to try to bring them back where they should be and get them back on the right track, he said.
We have got to keep our children first and foremost despite the difficulties. In order for the children to give love they must receive love.
These parents must be the ones who set the example for those children.
Noting her experiences both as a teacher and a single mother, Government whip Lovitta Foggo said shared parenting just makes sense and children will benefit. She said adults must work in the best interests of their children to provide the best environment within which their children can grow.
Shadow Attorney General Trevor Moniz complained: The Minister says here is a possible solution but what I dont know, and want to see, is who he consulted and what they have to say as a group. He said there was one comment from an unnamed Magistrate but nothing from individuals such as Puisne Judge Norma Wade-Miller who has spent years dealing with family cases, nor from those involved with such cases at Magistrates Court.
What we need here is a better analysis of the situation, he said. I would have liked to see input from the outside agencies such as the Coalition for the Protection of Children.
Shadow Minister of Transport Patricia Gordon-Pamplin said shared parenting legislation could present challenges for blended families and should not be forced upon them. She also expressed concerns over how it would work when one of the parents has been abusive. She went on to suggest that parents who fail to pay maintenance or abide by shared custody orders should perhaps face being banned from foreign travel via having their passports confiscated.
Shadow Minister for Government Estates and Information Cole Simons said the issue is a thorny one that needs to be examined closely. He cautioned against rushing into legislation. He raised the issue of children born to a man outside of his marriage and wondered where they would stand in terms of shared parenting.
Its a thorny issue, but a real issue in this country, he said.
He also inquired whether immigration laws would need to be amended in respect of foreigners who have children with Bermudians, should shared parenting be implemented.
Government backbencher Michael Scott said he has seen huge efforts by the courts to impose what are, in effect, shared parenting orders at present. However, he said fathers face challenges in terms of parenting interference by the mother trying to block access. He also said rules that aim to ensure the father maintains the standard of living of his child prove onerous for fathers who may be earning little or no money.
He went on to comment ChildWatch for its advocacy on the issue and Mr Blakeney for bringing the debate to the House.
Environment Minister Marc Bean told the House he can speak from experience as he has an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son by two different mothers.
In my experience, I have always felt in this country that our family courts are in fact anti family, he said.
I think many fathers have felt aggrieved when seeking some type of remedy within the family court structure. Im not sure if its the existing legislation that causes this grievance to occur or the approach the family courts themselves take to family law in Bermuda.
I have on occasion walked out of family court similar to a volcano.
Mr Bean said that nothing could be more frustrating then someone outside of yourself interfering in your family life.
He said he understood that life is not perfect and third party mediation is necessary at times, but he it is up those having children to be responsible and make sure a lifetime of bitterness does not result from a moment of lust.
PLP backbencher Dale Butler acknowledged that the issue of legislating family matters is a thorny one, but that issues such as segregation was also seen as thorny.
Even if this is a thorny issue, we have a responsibility for our children, he said.
Public Works Minister Michael Weeks noted the difficult times brought on by his own divorce, saying that during the process he felt that as a father he was always on his back foot. Retouching the legislation, he said, would help to keep the emotion out matters and put the emphasis instead on logic.
PLPs Walter Roban said the issue of shared parenting goes beyond legislation, but that children need to be given the best that both parents can provide.
Backbencher Ashfield DeVent however said that forcing a person to be a parent could have negative effects on the child, and be difficult to enforce.
If we are at the point where we have got to legislate and make people parents who dont want to be parents, that is not necessarily the best place to be, he said.
Education Minister Dame Jennifer Smith and Premier Paula Cox praised Mr Blakeney for bringing the debate to the house, saying that more consultation will happen before any legislation is brought to the House.
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