Family & Education

Speaking up for children in divorce

Children are often the silent victims when their parents split up. Mediator Devorah Greenberg works to change that


Little Girl Crying With Shadow Of Parents Arguing - Home Violence And Divorce

Halfway through my interview with family mediator Devorah Greenberg, she leans in towards the screen and using her hands for emphasis, shares with me a case scenario. “We’ll call them Bob* and Sally*. Bob owns a house, Sally moves in and they have kids together. After 20 years of committed life, they decide to break up. They can go to two separate lawyers. The respective lawyers are duty-bound to look out for the interests of Sally and Bob, but no-one represents the kids.”

The realisation that children are frequently the silent victims of an acrimonious separation was what persuaded Greenberg to train as a family mediator. “A hostile parental split is really detrimental to the welfare of children,” she says. “It can be profoundly harmful to their future relationships, their earning capacity and their ability to succeed in life. When couples are separating, the welfare of the children should be their predominant focus.”

The 44-year-old runs a practice from Golders Green, mediating between couples who are going through divorce or separation at the end of a marriage or civil partnership. She also works with people whose relationship has ended after cohabiting.

Greenberg describes mediation as “an alternative path to the court process for couples to sort out their life after separating.” It is based on four underlying principles. It is voluntary (although courts require divorcing couples to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting, known as a MI-AM); the mediator’s role is to be impartial — they can give legal information, but not advice; the meetings are confidential, barring any safeguarding issues and the clients are ultimately empowered to make their own decisions.

It is this latter principle which differentiates mediation so markedly from the court route, where a judge makes the final decision.

“In mediation, [the clients] create the settlement so it is tailored to their practical and emotional needs. This more nuanced approach can create a more sustainable agreement.” Other key differences, says Greenberg, are that mediation is a less acrimonious and intimidating process and usually, the costs are a fraction of solicitors’ fees.

But most crucially for Greenberg is the importance mediation places on the welfare of all family members. “There are many lawyers who are morally good people, but their professional accountability is to their client only, and not to the family as a whole. The children’s voice can easily be lost throughout court proceedings.”

Greenberg’s practice, Sage Mediation, encourages child-inclusive mediation. “This really helps the child to feel like he or she is being heard, with the knowledge that they don’t have the weight of responsibility on them. The child doesn’t join their parents in a mediation session, but a child-inclusive mediator will create a safe space for the child or children and ask them if there is anything they would like to feedback to mum and dad.”

Greenberg welcomed the recent report What about me?, published by the Family Solutions Group, which calls for the interests of children to be at the centre of the divorce process and for the court route to be the last resort for separating couples. She is also feeling optimistic about the forthcoming change in law to enable no-fault divorce. “It will take out some of the acrimony and unnecessary blame. Couples won’t need to write down damaging reasons for divorce. People will be able to just say: ‘We have come to the end of our marriage.’”

A mother of five, Greenberg would like to see the new law accompanied by a government push urging separating couples to prioritise their children’s welfare. “I remember growing up with the Don’t Drink and Drive campaign. This was ingrained in us, so I know almost no one in my generation who drives after a drink. I’d like to see the same type of government campaign which educates separating couples to take a more holistic view of their journey, and to first visit a ‘family hub’ forum, where parents and children can receive support and learn about all types of dispute resolution options.”

The role of a mediator, she says, is three-fold, hence the ancient Greek triskelion spiral motif in Greenberg’s business logo. “I provide mediation to guide clients through their discussion, but I also need to have a solid knowledge of the law and sound therapeutic intuition, even though I’m neither a lawyer nor a therapist.” Unlike therapy, she stresses that mediation is focused on the future. “It’s rarely helpful for clients to dig up the past.”

With her natural warmth and empathic nature, it is easy to see why clients would feel at ease with Greenberg, even over Zoom, which has replaced her mediation room during lockdown.

“Zoom has its benefits if clients don’t want to be in the room together. I will definitely consider continued use of Zoom after lockdown.” The downside of virtual meetings is that “you can’t offer a box of tissues to someone if they get upset, or a cup of tea.”

It has been a busy few months. “People in unhappy marriages are struggling in lockdown.”

Once in a mediation meeting, Greenberg, who works alongside fellow mediator Venetia Tosswill, says her job is “to keep peace and order and help clients throw out options to think of creative ways to structure their settlement.”

After three or four sessions together, she will present them with what is known as a summary of proposals, which could cover anything from childcare and financial arrangements to who keeps the record collection. If clients want to make the document legally binding, they then have the option of taking it to a solicitor.

Asked about how Jewish law factors into the mediation process, Greenberg says that while some people do use a get as leverage in a Jewish divorce, other types of leverage might be used in civil divorces. “Someone might stop their partner from seeing their children or not want to sell the family home. This is exacerbated by an acrimonious divorce process. If couples could think of coming to a settlement through a less hostile route, one would hope there would be less need for power play.”

Her background is not in law or psychology. After studying art history at Edinburgh University and the Sorbonne in Paris and spending stints in Israel, she moved back to the UK 15 years ago. She worked as an adult and teen educator at Seed, the JLE and J-Link before deciding to work with separating couples.

Her clients are of all faiths and none and Greenberg says that the Jewish value of tikkun olam (healing of the world) infuses her work. “I feel privileged to be part of something that can play a role in healing society.”

Passionate about the benefits of mediation, Greenberg’s hope is that a societal shift towards a more child-centred approach to the process of separation and divorce will lead to happier outcomes for families as a whole. “I hope it paves the way towards cooperative parenting instead of an acrimonious, hostile split. If divorce is handled well, it can be about the changing shape of a family, rather than the destruction of a family.”

* Bob and Sally are pseudonyms.

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