Any Divorce, however amicable, is hard on children. They suffer collateral, or inadvertent, damage.They lose their sense of security, they probably have to move from their family home, they may not enjoy the same standard of living and they may even be uprooted from schools, neighbourhoods, friends and families.

When the divorce is not amicable, the consequences are much worse, as children are used as hostages, bargaining chips or spies in financial and custody disputes. They may even be denied contact with one of their parents.

Few parents mean to do their children deliberate harm, but feelings at the time of divorce are raw and they become entrenched in their positions. They need help in thinking clearly and in putting the needs of their children first.

The courts, because of their adversarial nature, are not the best place for parents to come to agreements on how to parent after divorce.

Fifteen years ago, the Family Life Centre in Johannesburg developed “The Parenting Plan”, a booklet based on the work of its Australian counterpart. The front page says “Children Are For Keeps”, which sums up the enormous responsibility of having children and of continuing to look after children when parents part.

Regularly updated, it looks at each detail of parenting in the face of a divorce: from how the children’s expenses will be paid, to where the children will live, to how much time each parent gets to spend with the children, to how the parents will share school and extra-mural responsibilities, religious responsibilities and all other responsibilities.

Such is its value that it has been written into Chapter 3, Part 3 of the Children’s Act of 2007, that states: “If parents are experiencing difficulties in exercising their parental responsibilities and rights in respect of a child, those persons, before seeking the intervention of a court, must first seek to agree on a parenting plan determining the exercise of their respective responsibilities and rights in respect of the child.”

While the mandatory nature of the plan is still being discussed, it is already used by the Family Court and the High Court where couples who are unable to reach agreement around parenting are instructed to draw up a parenting plan through the Family Life Centre or a recognised mediator. Several referrals were made by the High Court to the Family Life Centre over the past year.

Parenting plans are already widely in use among couples with children who have opted for mediation, as opposed to solely consulting divorce attorneys, to voluntarily put down on paper how they are going to look after their children once they are divorced.

“The parenting plan is all about reaching decisions when couples plan to divorce, rather than imposing conditions on them, as the courts might do,” explains Jackie Meyerowitz who, on August 16, opened the Jackie Meyerowitz Mediation Centre at the Family Life Centre’s headquarters in Parkwood, Joburg.

The Family Life Centre is a non-profit organisation subsidised by the State, with over 20 experienced social workers, and 60 volunteer mediators and consultants, including psychologists, lawyers, priests, business people and citizens.

Mediators are trained by the Family Life Centre, which has offices all over Johannesburg, including the inner city, Soweto, Lenasia, Alexandra, Witkoppen and Midrand. The Family Life Centre also has mediators based at the Johannesburg courts. Similar centres exist throughout South Africa, and in many other countries in the world.

Meyerowitz has a long-standing relationship with The Family Life Centre, which she joined as a social worker in 1974, and where she dedicated her career for many years to pioneering family therapy and divorce mediation. She founded the Divorce Mediation Centre at the Family Life Centre in 1988. She now lives in Australia but has remained in close contact with the centre.

She and Joan Phillips, a founder of the Family Life Centre, helped raise more than R400 000 to build three new mediation rooms at the Parkwood headquarters. This adds to its existing 12 counselling rooms.

“All over the world governments have become aware of the value of family therapy and divorce mediation as a service to its citizens,” Meyerowitz explains. “It is often incredibly hard for families to cope with the complexities of family life, let alone divorces or re-marriages, especially where children are involved.”

In divorce mediation the mediators use flip charts to help the couple draw up what is called a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’, outlining all the areas that are important to them. The mediators are fair to both parties, they listen to both sides and then help the couple work towards points of agreement rather than disagreement, as to how they wish to conduct the divorce.

The parenting plan is a key component of the Memorandum of Understanding where children are involved. It is either filled out during the mediation sessions, or it can be taken home and filled out by the couple, separately or together, and brought to the next mediation session for discussion.

From maintenance and financial issues to schooling, to where the children will live, to whose surname the child or children will carry where, for example, the mother wishes to revert to her maiden name… they discuss all the couple’s concerns. They even discuss sex education because both parents have to sign an agreement that their child or children can attend sex education classes at school.

“Our philosophy in drawing up the parenting plan is to focus on each parent’s strengths and to treat each couple as unique,” continues Meyerowitz. “For example, one parent might be good at doing maths homework with the children; another might be good at helping them with sport. Convenience and flexibility is also included in the  visiting arrangements where, for example, the children might spend three days of the week with one of the parents and the rest of the week with the other. If one of the parents needs to be away for work, for example, an alternative plan is made, perhaps involving grandparents. Similarly, arrangements are made for school holidays and religious holidays. This way both parents know where they stand in every scenario.”

Finances are a constant source of arguments in divorces. During mediation, a detailed financial plan is reached, sometimes with the help of an accountant and lawyer. In some circumstances, the parent who is, for example, paying for their child or children’s schooling, wants to know that this money is being used solely for schooling. An agreement might be reached that they pay the amount directly to the school.

“Our whole approach is based on empathy. It is scary for most people to take the steps towards divorce and they fear it will be decided that their parenting is not good enough or that they will lose their children,” says Meyerowitz, who adds that many couples facing divorce are at a “low ebb” and may feel anger, a lack of self-worth and be depressed. The mediators may refer couples for counselling at the centre when they are struggling with emotional issues that might be preventing them from making decisions.

The couple getting divorced generally attends the mediation sessions alone, but some sessions can include the children. Meyerowitz cautions that mediation is not for everyone and it is not usually used in situations of violence and/or drug and substance abuse. The Family Life Centre advises legal assistance in this situation. Mediation also does not work if there is absolute refusal from one partner to co-operate.

Where mediation is appropriate, it takes the form of three to six sessions of about one-and-a-half hours each. The sessions are usually weekly, and confidentiality is paramount. If couples travelfrom afar, their sessions can be extended to two to four hours and they can take place over several months. The cost of mediation is considerably more affordable than many divorce attorneys.

The standard rate for a 1.5-hour mediation is R800 but this is negotiable according to what couples can afford. Couples who can only afford R50, for example, are never turned away. The same applies to the legal information sessions offered to couples getting divorce, for which the standard fee is R300 per one-hour session. During the legal information sessions, couples find out all the legal issues and rights associated with divorce.

In 2010 alone the Family Life Centre engaged in 94 mediations and 166 legal information sessions. Of the mediation sessions, 60 percent were successful, the remaining percentage includes couples who are still attending mediation, couples who have opted to try again and asked for marriage counselling to try to sort out their differences, or couples who have taken time out to reconsider their options. The drop-out percentage is very low.

In the 94 mediations, 90 percent of the couples had children, which meant a parenting plan was put in place for each of them.

The Memorandum of Understanding and parenting plan drawn up during mediation is recognised by the courts. Couples can present this directly to the courts as the documentation on which they wish the courts to consider their application for divorce. The Family Life Centre does, however, advise couples to let an attorney see the documentation before going to court. The centre works closely with attorneys and refers couples to them if necessary. Where couples are cash-strapped, the centre recommends
legal aid clinics or attorneys who are prepared to reduce their fees.

Meyerowitz believes the parenting plan is an essential document for all couples with children getting divorced, irrespective of whether it becomes enforced by law or not. “It clearly sets out each parent’s responsibilities and is there for parents to consult whenever they need.”