The Nuffield Foundation has just released a study, Caring for children after parental separation: would legislation for shared parenting time help children?, that states that shared parenting legislation is not in the best interests of children. On the face of it, given the work that I do with families, I would tend to agree. What worries me about this latest study however, is not so much the findings, but the intention of the researchers in undertaking the study. Faced with two private members bills which call for a presumption of shared parenting in law, it would seem that the well known academics in the field of family separation, are getting themselves into a lather about whether such change may actually be brought about.
In my experience, those ten percent of families that end up in the family courts battling over their children are facing more complex problems than a presumption of shared care can remedy. Many parents who find themselves in entrenched situations are often dealing with complexities left over from their relationship. Some parents in this category have psychological issues, others have enough money to prolong the fight. Others are coping with a set of dynamics that even the most skilled therapist can find challenging. Whatever is going on in that group of high conflict families, you can be sure that it will take a whole lot more than a presumption of shared care to resolve it.
The proponents of a presumption of shared care, argue that with such a framework set out in law, parents will be forced to agree an arrangement for care of children that gives both parents high quality time with their children. Unfortunately, in my experience it is unlikely that this would give children any better a relationship with both of their parents than they currently enjoy. The key issue for all parents who separate is not, how much time can I have with my children, but how well can I resolve the outstanding issues from my relationship so that we can continue to parent effectively together. Too many parents, faced with the hurt, pain and suffering of the end of an adult relationship, expect to agree parenting time without dealing with this pain. Little wonder so many attempts to maintain co-operative relationships around parenting children fail so quickly.
The Nuffield report says that shared parenting works best when it is co-operative and flexible. Understanding that isn’t exactly rocket science, but making that happen takes care, skill and an absolute commitment to helping parents to resolve their unfinished business in order to get to that point. The Nuffield report also says that evidence from Australia shows that presumption of shared care prioritises father’s rights over the child’s needs and that it also means that mothers are less likely to disclose violence and abuse. It is at this point that I really start to hear warning bells ringing.
The Australian project of presumption of shared care has its issues and some of these are around the way in which presumption is interpreted by parents. The picture painted in the Nuffield report however, states that presumption has lead to the upholding of father’s rights over children’s needs and mothers being unable to disclose violence and abuse. This is disingenuous to say the least and to my mind, illuminates the agenda behind the research itself. It is not the case that all fathers in Australia uphold their rights over their children’s needs. Just as it is not the case that all mothers are pressurised into silence around issues of violence and abuse. It may be true in some cases, it is not true in all and it is mischievous to assert that presumption has lead to this.
The agenda behind the research seems to me to be the management and containment of the arguments around the needs of children to have strong relationships with both of their parents after separation, an argument which has grown more powerful over recent years. I am not an advocate of presumption of shared care, those who know my work are aware of that. I am however an advocate for the needs of children to have ongoing, meaningful relationships with both of their parents and their wider family and my view on how to achieve that is shaped by my understanding of the deeply gendered world in which we live and work.
The academics who are busy trying to resist the presumption of shared care, seem to me to be missing the point in a lot of what they say and do. The idea that children do not need both parents is rarely argued nowadays, but the notion that mothers have the right to determine how the father of their children is involved in their lives after separation is barely beneath the surface of much of the arguments I read and hear. In my view, this absolute identification of mothers as the primary or most important parent, is akin to telling women that they belong in the nursery, that their most important role in life is that of carer for children. The notion that fathers can and should care for their children appears lost on them. It is this lack of equalities based analysis that vexes me most when I read reports such as that released by the Nuffield Foundation.
Presumption or not, is not the question. The real question that the UK has to get to grips with is the lack of support for parents as they go through separation, a lack which in my view is scandalous. The Centre for Separated Families has been calling for services to support separating parents to work together for over a decade now, its doesn’t take an academic from Oxford University to tell us what is needed.
Until the services to support separating families are reconfigured around the needs of both parents, until we accept that children benefit from meaningful relationships with their mothers and fathers and until we end the ridiculous stereotyping of men and women in our family services, presuming shared care or not, will not change a thing.
Until then however, take whatever is said by academics with a very large pinch of salt.