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Divorce As Child Abuse

Divorcing couple face prosecution for psychological abuse Richard Owen, Rome
In a case believed to be the first of its kind in Europe an Italian couple
face prosecution for causing their 12-year-old child “psychological
suffering” by going through an acromonious divorce in which they allegedly
argued in front of him and fought for his affection.

Milan prosecutors have asked a judge to charge the couple – who have not
been named under Italian privacy laws – with “ill treatment of a minor”
because of “the psychological suffering inflicted”. The charge carries a
prison sentence of up to five years. Legal experts said they could recall no
such previous prosecution in Britain or Europe.

The case was authorised by Marco Ghezzi, the Milan prosecutor for cases
involving minors, after a health visitor reported that the child was
“disturbed”.

Antonio Sangermano, the magistrate who is conducting the prosecution case,
said the mother and father had blamed each other for their break up in
arguments carried out in front of the child.

The prosecution report states that: “Each blamed the other for shortcomings
and educational errors in bringing up the child”, with each parent trying to
“discredit, devalue and undermine the other” in front of him and “project
their emotions onto him, above all anger”.

The couple had not physically mistreated the child. But this “parental
hyper-conflict” had induced “a syndrome of anxiety and depression” over his
“conflicting loyalties and emotions”, which in turn had led to “problems of
concentration”, with the child falling behind in his school work, the
prosecutors said.

The result had been to “confuse” the child and instil in him “the conviction
that his parents hated each other”. The prosecutors alleged that both
parents had persisted in arguing in front of the child even though he told
them it was “making him feel ill”.

They had “manipulated” the child in an attempt to “make him decide between
them”, using him as a tool in their divorce battle, the prosecutors said.

Cesare Tacconi, a Milan judge, will decide early next month whether to go
ahead with a trial. To protect the identity of the child, judges have
refused to divulge the name of the town near Milan where the family lives.

Piero Caprera, a lawyer for the wife in the case, said it was “undeniable”
there there had been “arguments within the family”. But he said the
prosecutors would be unable to prove the parents had intended to harm the
child, as the charge of “maltreatment” requires, and predicted that the
judge would dismiss the charges.

Corriere della Sera, the Milan newspaper, said if the case went ahead it
could have implications for “untold numbers of other cases” in which
divorcing or separating couples had rows in front of their children.

Cesare Rimini, an Italian divorce and family lawyer, said the Milan case was
“a sign of growing social alarm over the effects of divorce on children”. Mr
Rimini said that all too often children were “the indirect victims of a
fight between their parents”. The law was designed to “protect minors
against abuse within the family and physical or moral harm.” but had not
previously been used in this way.

Frances Hughes, Senior Partner of Hughes Fowler Carruthers and a leading
family lawyer, said: “I am certain that no such prosecution has ever been
brought in the United Kingdom.”

But she said that in parts of Europe it was “now widely accepted that
conflict between parents jeopardises children’s mental health and stability.
For example, in the Netherlands it is now standard practice for interim
orders to be made to ensure that the parents do not live in the same
property while the divorce is going on if there is a child living with them.

“In England we would only make such an order if one of the parties had
behaved violently or threatened violence. It may well be that this area of
law is rather more highly developed throughout the European Union that it is
in England.”

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