Allowing the days to pass since the publication of the final report from David Norgrove et al on their review of the Family Justice System, I have had the chance to read and digest the details as well as observe the various reactions from different quarters. Scanning the media, it struck me that the key focus was upon the fact that Norgrove had dropped the phrase ‘children should have a meaningful relationship with both parents’ from the final report. The story being framed around whether by doing so, he might have signed the death warrant for fatherhood. The media coverage certainly raised the F4J flag high again and gave a loud voice to the grievances of fathers, a voice which in my view has been too long silent.
The phrase ‘children should have a meaningful relationship with both of their parents,’ can hardly be disagreed with, it is such an innocuous phrase and one which, in actual fact, is a dilution of the concept of the ‘presumption of shared care’ which the fathers lobby have been pressing for these past few years. Norgrove included the phrase in his interim report, but in the final report it is missing and Norgrove didn’t appear too convincing when pressed in the media coverage on why. Norgrove dropped the phrase and the recommendation from the final report, because, he said, Judges would not be able to understand how to implement it. Having worked with the Judiciary and trained some of them in gender equality, it seems to me that many of them would know exactly how to implement it, there’s something fishy in here, something that doesn’t ring quite true.
You don’t have to look too far in reading the final report of the Family Justice Review to discover exactly who is likely to have nobbled Norgrove. There is a powerful and hitherto dominant matriarchy in UK Social Policy circles and to be on message with this group one has to learn that the mantra ‘in the best interests of children’ really means ‘in the best interests of mothers (and their children).’ Looking at Appendix G of the Family Justice Review, a submission from Helen Rhoades, a researcher from Australia, it becomes abundently clear why the phrase meaningful relationship has been dropped. This submission speaks of the difficulties that come out of the concept of ‘meaningful relationship’ and the myriad of problems that it causes mothers and by virtue of that their children. Without any counter balance at all, or any consideration of the stand point that this researcher has taken , her submission is accepted as absolute fact and becomes the evidence upon which Norgrove relies to justify his actions. No doubt, I am sure, helped along by a hefty dose of pressure from the mariarchal behemoths of UK academia.
Now I have had a bit of a problem with the concept of presumption of shared care over the years, no doubt, if I am honest, caused by the fact that I work with the highest conflict families and the most entrenched attitudes. Still, I have always struggled with the concept of presumption and I have always believed that reform of family services and the family court process itself would deliver better outcomes for children by offering holistic, respectful support for dad as well as mum.
But the phrase ‘children should have a meaningful relationship with both of their parents’ is one that I can comfortably get to grips with, both in the message that it gives about the importance of mothers and fathers, and the way in which I can envisage it being played out into the family court arena and the family support services in the UK. Children having meaningful relationships with both of their parents means that children have the right to spend good quality time with both parents, not just half a day a week or a midweek after school visit. The concept that children should have a meaningful relationship with dad as well as mum after separation, is also one that translates well into all of the arenas that touch the lives of separated families. Schools, Nurseries, GP services, anywhere children are, can be easily helped to understand the ways in which children benefit from good quality time with mum and dad and how small shifts in policy and practice can bring about big changes in outcomes for children. In short, the phrase ‘children should have a meaningful relationship with both of their parents’ could so easily signal an acknowledgement of the essential role that fathers play in their children’s lives and the enduring commitment that this country has to supporting that. In itself, such a small thing, but in its intention and its impact, it could end the horrible processes that lead to fathers being pushed out of their children’s lives and then blamed for not being there.
Norgrove’s assertion that the Judiciary would find it difficult to get to grips with and not understand how to apply it is, in my view, bunkum; it is smoke and mirrors. My guess is that he doesn’t really understand why it was so important to one group to include it and to the other to drop it. The crux of the matter is, that the phrase ‘meaningful relationship’ acknowledges and validates fatherhood and, in one fell swoop, rebalances a dynamic that has too long been out of kilter in this country. For the matriarchy, this rebalancing would be a disaster that would lead to ‘unintended outcomes’ (a frequently heard phrase around this issue) that appears to mean mothers will be controlled by violent ex’s and children in their thousands will be at risk. Bowing to the pressure of this so far extraordinarily powerful lobby, Norgrove has failed to achieve what so many hoped for in this review, fairness and justice, not only for fathers, but for their wider families and most of all their children.
Or has he? Speaking of unintended outcomes, when I review the landscape of post separation support, I cannot help but wonder whether Norgrove might have unwittingly have provided this government, with the long overdue opportunity to challenge the orthodoxy. Reading the response to the report from government, in which a spokesperson for the Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, affirmed the government’s committment to the importance of ‘children having a meaningful relationship with both of their parents,’ it strikes me that perhaps there is a change in the wind. Maybe, Norgrove’s Report will end up being not so much the death of fatherhood, as the last gasp of the matriarchy that has driven social policy around children and families for the last forty years.
Social Policy around separating families was developed by feminists in the seventies and as such it is rooted in different times that called for different imperatives. Our modern day mothers are no longer struggling for equality, the right to leave relationships and take their children with them. They are no longer, either, impoverished outcasts living on a pittance (though some would advise you differently). Our modern day mothers are benefiting on a daily basis from the rights and protection they enjoy as a result of the social policy that was developed in order that they were freed from dependency upon men. These rights and protection however have come at a cost and it is fathers (and fatherhood) that have paid the price.
I am not arguing that mothers should have their rights removed or that in order for fathers to get a more just and fair treatment, mothers have to somehow suffer. What I am arguing, is that children benefit from relationship with all of the important adults in their lives, before and after separation and that our current social policy and practice neither supports that or celebrates it. What it does do is turn mothers into heroines and fathers into villains who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And then, when kids are out of control, burning property and stealing designer clothes, rather than asking the fundamental question, is this because fathers have been missing? We turn it all around again and say this is because dads run off and leave mums to pick up the pieces. Its a myth, a stereotype and it bears no relation whatsoever to real life family separation.
To the matriarchy, anyone caught talking about fathers and fatherhood is automatically assumed to be undermining the rights of single mothers and stigmatising lone parents families. Far from it, at least in this quarter. I’ve been a single parent, been right there and done that and its that experience that causes me to continue the work of seeking change. My daughter’s father was pretty hopeless, he was just one out of so many that are not.
We are looking for balance here, something I say to all of the parents that I work with. Balance and the realisation that if children are not going to lose out, both parents are going to have to work hard to recover the ability to parent together, if not in harmony, then at least in a business like manner. To get to that point there is going to have to be compromise, and the single parent lobby is going to have to accept that fathers matter too and co-operation and collaboration are not dirty words that automatically lead to those so called ‘unintended outcomes.’ For the matriarchy, the notion that mothers must compromise in some way appears terrifying. The old ‘give men an inch and before you know it they’ll be in charge again’ mentality, rumbles along under much of the rhetoric I hear these days.
In all of my work with dads though, particularly those involved in family separation or separation support services, the idea of being given an inch only to take a mile is completely alien. Dads that I work with speak less of wanting to be in charge and much more about wanting to feel that their children are able to spend time with them, love them still, do things that they used to do together. Most dads are interested in their children not in controlling their ex partners and, where the odd control freak does appear, its not difficult to spot him and there are enough safeguards in place to ensure that any impact on mum is properly managed. Put this to the matriarchy however and one would believe that if there is one bad apple, the whole cart load has to be affected. The fact is there simply isn’t an army of men out there waiting to take control of women and children, but there is a group of disaffected dads, struggling to cope with the suspicious, domineering and discriminatory policies and practices, that effectively push too many of them out of their children’s lives.
Which leads me neatly back to Norgrove and the pressure he has bowed to, a pressure that is likely to have been created by a group of scaremongers that include some of the prominent matriarchal academics. One of these women recently said to me that ‘single mothers become single mothers because they are dumped by their husbands and left in poverty to bring up the kids.’ A breathtaking statement that she followed up with ‘I know, because I’ve researched this for the past forty years.’ Looking at her research portfolio, its not difficult to see that this myth she peddles as the absolute truth, is created by the fact that the only women she actually interviews, are those that have been left holding the baby. And just like the matriarchy, Norgrove has based his decision to drop the phrase ‘meaningful relationship’ upon one piece of evidence from a researcher more than likely to have perpetuated her own position by interviewing a particular group. Stand point academics, give me strength.
But have these women had their day? Despite Norgrove, despite the stranglehold that matriarchal policies and practice still have on our family courts and family support services, could we be moving into a new era at last, a new era in which we see not the death of fatherhood as predicted by F4J in its response to the Family Justice Review, but the loosening of the matriarchal grip, the rebalancing of social attitudes and in its turn, social policy. If the initial response from the government to Norgrove’s failure to include the meaningful relationship phrase, is to be believed, we certainly are. And, if the social attitudes that we have seen in response to the Norgrove report allow the government to (as one commentator on this subject said to me recently) hold their finger up to the wind, we might just be heading for some very big changes.
Rebalancing our policies and practice around the separated family as a whole is a delicate task, but it is one I believe we are equipped for and one that I firmly believe will deliver the biggest difference for children. I believe that supporting the whole family through and beyond separation brings better outcomes for children. Its work I do every day and its work that would be better supported by the inclusion of the phrase ‘children have the right to meaningful relationship with both parents.’ The government response to Norgrove will tell us much, watch closely, times might just finally be a changing.