Experts express concerns about the threat of shared custody in divorces

A new revision of the civil code that introduces joint child custody in Japan for the first time reflects the ideal that divorced couples should work together for the benefit of their children.

But a supporter who has worked with many divorced families has identified a number of challenges that remain as families and parenting styles become more diverse.

The law “may spread the value that even if a couple separates, they are still responsible for their children,” said Terue Shinkawa, 59.

Shinkawa leads a group called Oyako Link Service, which advocates for visitation rights for divorced families.

During deliberations in the state parliament, several voices raised the question of whether divorced parents could build a cooperative relationship before the revision was passed on May 17th.

One of those voices said, “If they could work together, they wouldn’t go so far as to divorce.”

With her 20 years of experience, including supporting single-parent families, Shinkawa said she has met many cohabiting parents who told her they did not want contact with their former spouses.

A cohabiting parent requested that a toy that the other, separated parent had purchased while visiting their child not be taken home.

However, Shinkawa said that even if there is initially mutual distrust between parents, dissatisfaction gradually subsides when a third party meets with the parties involved or as a result of repeated visits.

Although custody and visitation are two separate issues, Shinkawa hopes the revised law will change attitudes about raising children after divorce and increase the number of parents who want visitation rights.

Among other concerns, she expressed concerns that there is not enough support for parents and children who have difficulty communicating with each other.

The Justice Ministry lists fewer than 60 visitation support organizations across Japan on its website. Shinkawa's organization sometimes receives requests from remote areas.

“All organizations have their hands full. “It is necessary for the government to set up a support system and not leave it to the private sector alone,” Shinkawa said.

Shinkawa also believes there is a need for education and counseling for parents during the divorce process and afterward.

She said she has seen cases where the poor relationship between parents spills over into the parent-child relationship, such as a mother forbidding her child from calling the estranged parent “Daddy.”

“It is important to have a mindset that puts the well-being of the child above the relationship between the parents. They must be given the opportunity to become aware of this,” Shinkawa said.

A key point of contention regarding the revised law was concern about the continuation of domestic violence.

In Japan, domestic violence is considered a virtual refuge for victims to divorce their children and gain sole custody.

The revised law requires a family court to award sole custody if there is domestic violence or there is a threat of such abuse.

However, there remains concern that family courts will ignore domestic violence that is difficult to identify, such as psychological violence, and award joint custody.

Tadashi Nakamura, a special professor at Ritsumeikan University and a member of the Cabinet Office panel on violence against women, said it was a prerequisite for the parties to have a support system in place for joint custody to “work to some extent.” .”

“Since there are various forms of domestic violence, it is necessary to create objective indicators for assessment, including not only psychiatric diagnoses, but also psychological approaches that analyze the closeness of family relationships,” he said.

Nakamura proposes, in particular, to introduce a risk assessment method for the temporary protection of victims of abuse and to assign social work professionals to family courts in addition to investigators.

Domestic violence measures in Japan focus on “escapes,” such as temporary protection for victims and measures to help the government keep the address where the victim has moved secret.

In response to this current situation, a supplementary resolution to the revised law provides for the introduction of a program for offenders.

Nakamura runs such a program in the Kansai region in collaboration with local governments.

Domestic violence and abuse perpetrators share their experiences with each other to change their misconception that violence is how to control a person.

Nakamura said that after participating in such a program, 20 to 30 percent of participants are able to develop a cooperative relationship with their former spouses in raising their children.

“Parents become role models for their children’s future. The changes they experience through the program have a positive impact on their children,” he said.

However, he also warned: “We must be wary of perpetrators who use such a program as a basis for negotiations in the family courts.”

The revised law will come into force within two years of its promulgation.

“We need to develop a systematic domestic violence policy that includes risk assessment and perpetrator programs rather than leaving it to the parties involved,” Nakamura said.

(This article was written by Emika Terashima and Satomi Sugihara.)

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