February 8, 2024
SINGAPORE – A father has regained care and control of his 11-year-old daughter after Singapore’s highest court overturned the decision of a judge who sent the only child to live with her mother following a short interview with the girl.
The Court of Appeal also barred the mother from contacting the girl for at least four weeks after the child is handed over to the father. This is to allow the man to set up a stable structure without interference by his former wife.
Both parents and the child, identified as C, were also directed to go for mandatory counselling.
In written grounds of decision issued on Feb 7, the three-judge apex court said it had considered two sets of child welfare reports which showed that the mother was “wilfully carrying out a campaign” to turn the girl against her father.
The mother had filed several police reports against the father with unfounded allegations of abuse and neglect, peddled a constant negative narrative of him, and encouraged the girl to make disrespectful remarks about the father.
“In our view, it is in the best interests of C for her to be given an opportunity to heal and rebuild her relationship with the father without any interference from the mother,” said the court.
“Until the mother has gained greater insight into the negative impact of her destructive behaviour, we ordered that she should only be allowed limited interaction with C.”
The father was originally granted care and control of the child after the couple divorced in 2016. The girl was then four.
The parent who has care and control lives with the child and makes day-to-day decisions concerning the child’s life.
In May 2023, a High Court judge allowed the woman’s appeal and reversed the care and control order after an interview with the child.
The judge’s decision was largely based on the girl’s responses during the short interview, where she “made it clear” that she preferred to live with her mother, who remarried in 2019.
In its written grounds, the Court of Appeal said the contents of a judicial interview should be assessed together with all other relevant information available to the judge.
The court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Justices Debbie Ong and Judith Prakash, said judges can conduct interviews to ascertain the wishes of the child.
However, the apex court added: “The judicial interview should not become a step where the court takes a snapshot of an emotional position at a particular point in time and reaches a decision based on that momentary picture.
“Information obtained through other sources would enable the court to have a longitudinal view of the history of the case and a fuller understanding of the family’s relationships and issues.”
The court stressed that interview sessions should be kept confidential to ensure that children can express their honest views without being torn by a conflict of loyalty.
Children should not be pressured to say what the parents want them to tell the judge, and should not bear the burden for any decision that is ultimately reached, said the court.
In the present case, the apex court said if C’s views in the interview had been considered against the various child welfare reports, it would have been clear that her answers were strongly influenced by the mother.
The three judges said they were “deeply troubled” by the reports, which revealed a picture of instability and conflict, and the negative consequences it has had on the girl’s life.
On Nov 5, 2021, after the father handed the girl over for the weekend, he received a call from an investigation officer who said the mother had lodged a police report alleging that the girl had been abused by his mother’s maid.
That month, the mother filed two more police reports against the father and the helper, alleging physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
On Nov 23, 2021, the father applied to the court to compel the mother to return the girl to his care.
The mother then applied for care and control, and sole custody.
The mother’s bid was dismissed by a district judge, who said no change in the arrangements was warranted as no further action was taken by the authorities against either party.
On April 10, 2023, police officers went to the father’s home following a report by the mother. The girl was taken to hospital for harming herself.
After the mother’s appeal to the High Court was allowed, the father took the case to the Court of Appeal.