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Dangers of France’s child-sharing custody system

Child custody following divorce is an important issue and garde alternée – where parents share custody equally, often with alternating weeks of care – is common in France.

The child, in effect, has two main homes and splits his or her time equally between them.

However, leading psychologist Maurice Berger (pictured, left), former head of child psychiatry services at the CHU in Saint-Etienne and professor at Lyon University, says it is rarely a good thing for the child.

“Every three years someone proposes a law to generalise garde alternée and every three years we have to explain the damage this does to children,” he said. It was last put forward in 2018 by a Modem MP but the party later renounced the idea.

“Child experts agree it causes children serious psychological damage. It’s not an opinion: it’s been shown time and time again in large-scale studies.

“This latest proposition would include newborn babies, which makes it particularly damaging.

“For under-threes, garde alternée removes security and consistency. They lose their primary carer, can’t be left alone, cling to their mothers, don’t sleep, develop asthma and depression.

“They become emotionally frozen, don’t recognise their rooms, don’t feel at home anywhere and we can’t treat these problems, because they continue as long as the garde alternée continues.

“Children between four and nine can present ‘perfect child syndrome’. They hate endlessly leaving people and belongings so they obsess about rooms not being touched in their absence.

“They can feel that neither parent wants them full-time. So these children put the needs of their parents before their own. This can happen even when both parents are in agreement over it.

“When garde alternée is not consensual, the damage is more pronounced as the child is more stressed. They feel like possessions, not people.

“The only way it works without damaging children is when they are over six, the parents are in agreement and have involved the children in the decision-making, the arrangement is flexible and parents live within walking distance so a child can decide at any point to go and see the other parent.

“Even then, from around nine to 11, garde alternée can produce a phobia of going to school, and during the teenage years it can be difficult.

“Teens can feel that their time is not their own – ‘You’re not going out on Friday with your friends because it’s my night with you’ makes them feel the set-up is too high a price to pay for pleasing both parents. But they know that admitting they hate it would cause trouble. In France, garde alternée is inflexible. It means a 50/50 split of time and some judges have even ordered mothers to stop breast-feeding in order to comply. It’s rigid.

“In cases where the parents were never a couple, I often beg women to resist telling a one-night stand father about the pregnancy because increasing numbers of men are seizing the opportunity to become a father without committing to a relationship. These men often have psychological problems themselves. They don’t value mothers, or even women, and just want control over a child.

“People think children need a man and a woman but apart from being false, it’s damaging for children because often these men just dump these young children with their own mothers.

“Some apply for garde alternée to avoid paying maintenance and, as women often earn less than men, they are left bringing up children in poverty.

“Where a divorcing couple are in agreement about childcare, in 71% of cases the children stay with their mother, 10% with the father and 19% garde alternée. But where there’s disagreement, in 24% of cases the father wins a garde alternée ruling. Men’s groups lobby the French government, and also in Brussels, effectively using fake facts.

“They rely on the fact politicians don’t have the time to read complete reports, so every three years we have to produce the evidence all over again.”

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