A snapshot of the torn family fabric and the thin thread holding it together
Children are often described as bundles of joy, sources of blessings, and even symbols of wealth more so in the African community. As salient features of the basic unit of society, children are considered the prize of families as they complete the unit and provide hope for a legacy to the parents. One may wonder why these bundles of joy end up being neglected and abandoned by the same parents, in spite of their valued presence in society as blessings. Our society has even labeled such parents ‘deadbeat’ parents for their lack of care and provision to their children. Evidently, children have been at the center of family disputes in our community and bearing the brunt of disputing parents. 10% of Kenyans reported difficulties obtaining child support from a former partner as their most serious family legal problem in 2017 according to the Justice Needs and Satisfaction Survey conducted in Kenya. The survey depicts an unfortunate truth that is rarely revealed in our families where one parent shoulders the responsibility of taking care of children both emotionally and financially while the other parent goes about their life unperturbed.
While the right to equal parental care, provision and protection is enshrined in both the Kenyan and Tanzanian Children’s Acts, several children are not enjoying this right and many parents have neglected the legal responsibility bestowed on them to care and provide for their children. For instance, custody and maintenance of children cases were by far and large the highest number of cases at FIDA Kenya with a total of 13,011 cases in 2018 and 2019 according to the 2019 FIDA Kenya Annual Report. This report further revealed that women and children have suffered most as a result of these cases and some of the causes are: increasing economic hardships families have been facing leading to an upsurge in the number of those unable to meet their parental responsibilities; alcohol and substance abuse which has over time eradicated the sense of duty and responsibility of some parents.
Similarly, Tanzania has been afflicted by the family injustice of parents neglecting their parental responsibilities and ultimately abandoning their children. The Tanzanian Women Lawyers Association recorded 1511 cases of child custody and maintenance in its 2019 annual report making it the third most prevalent family legal issue adversely affecting women in Tanzania. . Additionally, the Women Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania indicated surging cases of child maintenance and custody in its 2012 report as it recorded 169 cases. These cases depict a regional society that is ailing from a torn family fabric which negatively impacts the growth and development of children as they lack equal love, care, and protection from their parents as well as affects the over-burdened parent financially and emotionally.
Admittedly, the contribution of fathers and mothers to child care has not reached an equilibrium globally according to the 2019 State of World’s Fathers Report by MenCare. In the report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) recognizes that over a 15-year time span, across 23 middle- and upper-income countries with comparable data, the unpaid care gap between men and women has decreased by only seven minutes per day. The report further asserts that no country in the world has achieved equality between men and women in unpaid care, and no country in the world has a national goal of men doing 50 percent of the care work. Apparently, this paints a very bleak picture of society’s commitment to ensure children enjoy the right to equal parental care and protection despite having it engraved in our laws. Is it all dull and gloom, or there is room for innovative solutions to resolve the issue of child neglect by parents?
Therapy as an anchor to reel in parents to their parental responsibilities
When relationships in the nuclear family are strained or threatened in our society, more so between couples, mediation or counseling are often recommended as peaceful ways to reconcile the conflicting parties. While mediation is generally more accepted in the african society; whether facilitated by a religious leader or family member or a chief, counseling tends to receive some reluctance due to the stigma that it is associated with either mentally disturbed or emotionally weak individuals. Does therapy then have a place in resolving issues of neglected parental responsibility and child maintenance?
Margaret Njihia, a clinical psychologist and child therapist at the Family Wellness Centre at Sterling Performance Africa, shared amazing insights on the causes, effects and role of counseling in child care and maintenance during the Unmasking the ‘deadbeat’ parent webinar. She highlighted the causes of parental neglect of children to include childhood trauma experienced by the parents when growing up which handicaps them in intimate relationships, unresolved relationship issues between the parents, unplanned childbirths, target children who remind parents of unpleasant experiences, extended family interference, and lack of finances to provide for the children. These are some of the major reasons that lead to parents absconding their parental responsibility and have a dire impact on the children. Part of the negative impact of parental neglect on children includes child trauma which largely affects the child’s mental health and leads to decline in performance in school, high-risk behavior that may lead to crime and inability to form healthy relationships with others.
Therapy, however, plays a major role in resolving parental neglect of children and proves to be effective in quelling the negative effects of childhood trauma resulting from neglect. Margaret shares numerous successes achieved through counseling as she encounters clients referred by Kenyan courts where the Family Wellness Centre at SPA has managed to get parents to agree on the sharing of parental responsibility. She further asserts that some of her organization’s success stories have led to increased parental involvement and provision to their children as well as reconciliations between disputing parents.
Innovation as a legal vehicle to resolving child maintenance and custody issues
As a parent, when you face difficulty in getting your partner to contribute to your child’s care or to share custody of your child, where do you begin? How do you get the other parent to the negotiation table to discuss their contribution to your child when they have chosen to neglect their parental responsibilities and leave you to carry the burden alone? There are legal offices established to assist with child maintenance and custody cases as well as procedures that guide the justice system in each country but the information is not readily available for every person to access or understand and the cost may be too heavy a lift for most claimants. What then is the alternative in seeking justice for parental neglect of children?
Sheria Kinganjani, which is Swahili for law on your palm, is an innovative online legal digital platform in Tanzania that enables an individual, a student, a lawyer, or a group of people to access legal information as well as materials despite their location. An end-user can access various legal articles, materials, news, reported cases, Acts, legal documents and information on their website or Sheria Kiganjani android application. One can also call or send in an inquiry seeking information about their legal problem through Sheria Kiganjani’s website or app and their team of lawyers is able to respond with the appropriate legal information as well as link you with the relevant legal institutions to resolve your problem until your justice journey is complete. This innovation, therefore, provides an avenue for any parent encountering a legal problem in child maintenance and custody to seek information and get connected to the relevant government body that will resolve their problem.
Neema Magimba, a Co-founder of Sheria Kiganjani, shared the model her innovation uses in resolving child maintenance and custody cases during the Unmasking the ‘deadbeat’ parent webinar organized by HiiL East Africa. The model used by Sheria Kiganjani involves a 4 stage process as follows:
- A legal inquiry from a user is received through a call or text message by the in-house legal officer at Sheria Kiganjani who then classifies and understands the legal issue by asking follow- up questions to the user.
- The legal officer advises the user on the available legal options they can explore to resolve their legal problem.
- The user then decides on their best legal option and gets referred to either the nearest social welfare officer to resolve their issue or a lawyer for those seeking to resolve their issue in court.
- Sheria Kiganjani then opens a case file for the user and tracks the progress of the case by following up with both the user and the social welfare officer or lawyer handling the case until its completion.
This model has seen Sheria Kiganjani achieve major successes in resolving child maintenance and custody cases as it assisted in resolving 20 cases through the social welfare office and 3 cases were resolved in court out of the 23 cases received in 2020. This model should be replicated across the East African region to enhance access to justice and impact in resolving family legal problems.
In conclusion, parental neglect of their responsibilities that leads to child maintenance and custody cases is a reality in our community that we need to address. The consequences of this legal problem are dire to children and parents who shoulder the parental responsibilities alone thus threatening the family fabric. Therapy and legal innovation have proved to be efficient solutions in resolving the child maintenance and custody problem with tremendous successes illustrated by Family Wellness Centre at Sterling Performance Africa in Kenya and Sheria Kiganjani in Tanzania. What other innovations and solutions could we adopt for child maintenance and custody legal problems?