On the heels of the PM’s outburst about runaway fathers, comes the launch of the new Fathers 4 Justice campaign. This time the strategy is personal and its right on David Cameron’s doorstep. The Hunger4Justice Campaign will see founding father of F4J Matt O Conner go on hunger strike, whilst a camp will be set up outside the PM’s private residence to highlight the protest. Letters and photographs from families who have lost touch with their children after separation will be on display at the camp and a Hunger4Justice ‘battle bus’ will be deployed to keep the presence of the camp on everyone’s radar. Say what you like about Matt O Conner, whatever he does, he doesn’t do it in half measures.
There will be many attacks on this campaign, which also kicks off during the same time that the government’s response to the Green Paper on reform of the Child Maintenance Commission is published. Child Maintenance, long the battle ground of lobby groups supporting single parents, is just one of the issues facing separating mothers and fathers. For many however, it is the only issue that separated fathers should be concerned about, paying for kids being far more important than any kind of continued relationship with them. F4J have rightly highlighted the ways in which fathers are often seen as little more than ‘walking wallets’ after separation and have argued that fathers can and should be so much more to their children. As the single parent lobby and the fathers rights campaigners line up for the fight however, it is critical that the core issues facing separated families are not lost in another round of gender wars.
This battle is not about mothers versus fathers although it may seem that way. This battle is about a fundamental equalities issue, one that will affect our children for generations to come. In a country already experiencing one of the highest rates of intergenerational family breakdown in Europe, it seems to me essential that we look at the ways in which our current policies and practice have failed our children. It is also essential to look beyond the stereotyped rhetoric that the single parent lobby groups are so fond of. The idea that all family separations are about a deadbeat dad who runs off and leaves an heroic mother to bring up children single handedly is one that has been forced upon our policy makers for too long. As I never tire of saying, the fact is that there are some dads who run off but there are many more who don’t. The reason why we have another generation of fatherless children is not down to dads, its down to outdated policy and practices that force fathers out of their children’s lives after separation, reducing them to a non resident parent or, as is more often the case, a non parent. When everyone from the PM down falls for the stereotype, how can fathers possibly compete? Dads who stick in against all the odds must lose all hope and all heart as they battle day in day out to stay close to their children, all the while being labelled, categorised and judged. In any other field of equalities there would be an outcry at the blatant discrimination faced by fathers and the way in which this is peddled by the single parent lobby.
The UK currently configures its support services to separated families around a forty year old ‘lone parent’ model. This means that it delivers all support to one parent and sees the other as holding the responsibility to pay. This model has been in place for decades now and for too many families it is a strait jacket that limits choices, burdens one parent with the whole of the caring responsibilities and pushes the other parent out of children’s lives. At the heart of this lone parent model of support was the Child Support Agency, a body that was brought into being in the early nineties, ostensibly to deal with the increase in births outside of marriage and the dependency upon the state that this created. At that time the single parent lobby did an excellent job of ensuring that single parents were not scapegoated and the rhetoric soon shifted to focus upon fathers. The fact that many children were born without fathers present in their lives because women chose to have children that way was soon lost and instead the rise of the feckless father took pride of place in our consciousness. Over the next two decades, the fact that family separation affects all families, across the whole of the socio economic spectrum, with the majority having been married before the split, became hidden from our policy makers and practitioners. The question always on my mind is why?
At the heart of the lone parent model of support to separated families is an absolute focus upon women’s rights. When current separated family policy is analysed through a gender lens it is glaringly obvious that the emphasis is upon giving women the power to choose how they live their life after separation. This right to choose how to live life, includes the right to choose how and when a father is involved in a child’s life after separation. In our current separated family policy, there is a primary and secondary parent in a child’s life, the primary parent being known as the ‘parent with care.’ We have moved on from the days when the other parent was labelled the ‘absent’ parent, but not much. These days the other parent is called the ‘non resident parent’, with all the connotations of this label. Regardless of the fact that the only place that these labels ever had any meaning was in the old system of Child Support, the single parent lobby continues to use the notion of the poor ‘parent with care’ and the ‘non resident parent’ hell bent on avoiding paying his child maintenance in their campaign work.
It is no accident that most ‘parents with care’ are mothers. Becoming a parent ‘with care’ after separation requires the receipt of Child Benefit. Given that almost 100% of Child Benefit is paid to the mother, (it has to be, it was designed that way,) it is not difficult to see why the majority of such parents are women. All that is left for the single parent lobby to do then is to ensure that mothers are not stigmatised for bringing up children alone – ‘single parents – you’re brilliant’ goes the strapline of one leading single parent lobby group. Given that in family separation someone always has to take the blame, its not difficult to see why it is fathers who carry the can in every conceivable way.
Which brings us back to the Fathers rights lobby and the real reason for F4J’s return to the battle ground. Fatherhood has taken an out and out bashing over the past four decades. In a gender war to capture the control over how generations of our children are brought up, fathers have lost each and every campaign. Even our fatherhood lobby has emasculated itself for fear of giving offence. Acceptable fatherhood is now about wearing the right baby changing mat as fashion accessory or about asking permission to have a relationship with a child. Any sense that fathers have not only the right but the responsibility to be masculine in their children’s lives has disappeared. Little wonder that those seen as the ‘extremist’ end of the fathers rights lobby are battling back again.
Family separation is an equalities issue and whatever you feel or think about F4J do not let this cloud the fact that fathers are being discriminated against in our policies and practice around separation. The reason we have so many children growing up without father’s in their lives is not because dads run away, it is because our policies and practice push them away. Don’t let the single parent lobby fool you, this is not about the well being of children, its about the rights of women to control their own and their children’s lives after separation. I have absolutely no problem with the existence of the single parent lobby groups, for those mothers bringing up their children entirely on their own I applaud the work that is being done. What I object to however is the way in which the single parent lobby seek to portray every separated family as being the same and every father as being in need of punishment or enforcement measures. Their efforts are seen in the PM’s message on Father’s day and in the recent media reports from the Work and Pensions Scrutiny Committee on the Child Maintenance Reforms. If this government is forced by this to make yet another U turn, this time on the reform to Child Maintenance, it will be a massive step backwards and yet another victory for discrimination against fatherhood.
The battle for equality around family separation is about ensuring that mothers and fathers maintain their relationships with children after separation. It is about making sure that one parent is not advantaged over the other and that our children get the role models that they need in order to go on and build successful relationships in their own adult lives. The upcoming reforms to Child Maintenance herald a new era in achieving this, removing the automatic use of the Child Support Agency and returning the choice about how to support children to parents themselves. This respectful engagement with separated families leaves behind the notion that one parent is wholly good and the other wholly in need of punishment. It also removes the stereotypes from family separation and frees men and women to negotiate the road ahead. For the single parent lobby, the idea that many fathers might just be capable of being responsible for their children without a big stick beating them into submission is an anathema, something to be avoided at all costs. For the fatherhood lobby it is something to be welcomed with open arms. For the rest of us, working with separated families without the strait jacket of gendered policy will enable us to bring about better outcomes for children and a world in which mothers and fathers remain present in their children’s lives after separation.
I am under no illusion, these are uncertain times in the field of family separation and what happens next will affect our children for generations to come. I have long fought for equalities in this field, the right for mothers and fathers to choose how they maintain their relationships and responsibilities to children after separation and I will continue to do so. This is not about championing fathers over mothers and its not about one being better or more necessary than the other. Its about the different things that mothers and fathers bring to their children’s lives and about helping our boys and our girls to feel good about being male or female. Our children need balance in their lives, they need the difference that relating to mothers and fathers brings. It is not acceptable to bring up another generation of boys knowing that they will be subjected to the same kind of discrimination as their fathers and another generation of girls who will be burdened with the role of caring alone for children.
The possibility of change is within our grasp, the single parent lobby will fight it all the way, F4J will starve themselves to bring it about. Those of us who understand what is at stake must speak up now, tomorrow may well be too late.