These are exciting times for those of us working in the field of family separation. In two short weeks the government has announced initiatives which are designed to improve the relationship between children and both of their parents after separation. The first announcement, from the Minister in charge of Child Maintenance Reform is that investment is to be made in joining up services for separated and separating parents, the second, earlier this week, was the response to the Norgorve Review and the news that a Ministerial Group is to review the Children Act 1989. The Review will examine the arguments for the inclusion of a statement about the importance of mothers AND fathers in their children’s lives. This is welcome news indeed and for those of us seeking to unpick the legislation that has pushed fathers out of children’s lives for too long, this week brings hope that the intergenerational problem of family separation might finally be addressed in this country.
However, whilst the government has signalled a clear intention to begin the process of change, those concerned with parental rights are readying for battle. The past few days have seen Guardian commentator Julie Bindel in a debate with Matt O Connor from F4J on Sky news and Liz Trinder, one of the Matriarchs of Academia, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free column, argued (yet again) that the Children Act should not be changed. Elsewhere, Gingerbread, the single parent campaign group, went head to head with F4J on the radio, arguing passionately that the Family Courts serve the best interests of children. The CEO of Gingerbread, who recently asserted to me that Gingerbread is not a ‘parental rights’ organisation but one that promotes collaboration between parents, affirmed the argument that those cases in the Family Courts are only those most conflicted. Listening to this repetition of what sounds to me suspiciously like the line taken by the womens rights groups, left me wondering just what kind of collaboration Gingerbread actually do promote. In another interview, another of their spokeswomen stated fervently that Gingerbread is ‘pro contact’. Given that ‘contact’ is a label devised by the likes of Gingerbread to describe a relationship between dad and his kids after separation, it made me realise that the world in which these people inhabit is, for them, very real. In Gingerbread land, at the point of separation, mum turns into a single parent and dad becomes the non resident parent. Almost like magic, these labels appear and in Gingerbread land labels matter a great deal. Whilst the rest of us are getting on with working with mum and dad and how to support their relationships with their children, Gingerbread are busying themselves with concepts of ‘contact’ and how good or bad it is for children. For an organisation with a high profile campaign entitled ‘let’s lose the labels’, it seems to me that Gingerbread are overly concerned with making sure that post separation we all know which labels to stick on.
The recent encounter between the caped crusaders and Gingerbread has prompted Matt O Conner, to write to Gingerbread to demand the evidence that the Family Courts serve the best interests of children. Prompted by Gingerbread’s assertions that evidence exists to show this, F4J have homed in and are demanding that the evidence is produced. Love them or loathe them, F4J have a point here and Gingerbread spokeswomen should beware of the mistake that Julie Bindel made on Sky news when confronted by the same question. When asked for the evidence that the Family Courts serve the best interests of children Bindel clearly had no idea whether such evidence existed, (it doesn’t). Put on the spot, she hunted around desperately for a reply and having nothing concrete to say she fell back on that old tactic so beloved of passive aggressive people, she accused Matt O Connor of being aggressive towards her. This pointless posturing, seeking to assert something without evidence, serves absolutely no purpose at all. F4J might get up the noses of many, but on this subject at least, they are right. Gingerbread beware, you are entering territory about which you know little, before you even begin to respond, best get your facts right fast.
The fact is that we don’t know whether the Children Act or the Family Courts are acting in the child’s best interests because at present no statistical records are kept of the decisions that are made and the outcomes that they produce for children. CAFCASS, the people who interact daily with families in the Court process do not produce records and there are no studies to offer evidence that the decisions that are being made actually deliver in the best interests of the child. We may think we are making decisions about the best interests of the child in the family courts, but whether these decisions bring about positive outcomes for children is completely unknown.
Liz Trinder and Gingerbread have this week sought to persuade us that the Children Act is fit for purpose because ‘each case is different’ and anyway, ‘only the most conflicted cases end up in the family courts’ (Trinder also intimated that those that do are those in which domestic violence is rife or children are in danger). I work in the Family Courts as a Parenting Co-ordinator and a Therapist, if my experience is anything to go by, those cases that end up in Court are not just those that at the sharp end, the problematic ones, the ones where dad is dangerous. Too many families end up in the families courts simply because of the discrimination, stereotyping and adversarial attitudes of parental rights organisations such as Gingerbread. When Gingerbread puts a warning on its advice sheets that reads, ‘Sharing the care of your child may affect your benefits and tax credits. It may also reduce the level of child support the non-resident parent is required to pay you.’ it is hard to see how this can be construed as promoting collaboration and easy to see why so many parents get into conflict.
In reviewing the Children Act 1989 it is essential that we look at the evidence of what works for children both in this country and others. The Norgrove Review of the Family Justice System identified that the changes to Family Law in Australia had lead to some problems and the report by Helen Rhoades was cited as the reason why the phrase ‘children should have a meaningful relationship with both of their parents’ was dropped. I wrote recently of this and my concern that the pressure to drop the phrase ‘meangingful relationship with both parents’ referred to this report as evidence.
On reading the full review of the reforms of the Family Justice System in Australia, it becomes very clear that the evidence that comes out of it is open to interpretation. Self reporting by parents on the changes gives two very different views, whilst reporting by agencies gives other views entirely. Agencies concerned with early years work, were more likely to report that the inclusion of shared parenting in law brought positive outcomes in the ways that children related to both of their parents. Agencies supporting mothers however and mothers themselves were more likely to report that shared parenting legislation created difficulties, whilst fathers reported greater confidence in their ability to remain connected to their children over time. The reforms in Australia it would seem, meant different things to different people and just like standpoint politics, one can use the same report to evidence claims from both sides of the argument.
In seeking to reform the Children Act therefore, Ministers will need to keep a clear head and be able to see and hear beyond the rhetoric and the campaign and lobbying. Doing so will enable decisions to be made that really are in the best interests of children. In gathering evidence, we do not need to look outside of the UK. Professor Judy Dunn’s study, Children of the Nineties, demonstrated in her words, ‘unequivocally’ that those children who did best across all of the performance indicators, were those with high quality relationships with their non resident (sic) parent. Whilst Gingerbread will try to challenge that with their own study into contact relationships (‘I am not saying it was easy’ by Joan Hunt from Oxford University,) we should be mindful that Hunt is, herself, a standpoint academic, with views about family separation that she upholds through her studies. As I have said elsewhere, Gingerbread have, for many years, perpetuated the myth that family separation only looks like one thing, a mother being abandoned by a father and left to care for children alone. In Gingerbread land, where their only contact is with those parents who have been left holding the baby, it is easy for researchers to perpetuate the stereotype that upholds their own belief.
The reality of family separation is that mothers and fathers leave relationships but is more likely that mothers will take up the label parent with care or single parent. This is because motherhood in the UK is synonymous with caring and to choose not to be the main carer as a woman is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It is also the result of the the use of Child Benefit to denote the status parent ‘with care’. This one parent carer, the other parent provider model, is divisive and pushes fathers out of children’s lives and ultimately, we may need to examine this if we are truly going to liberate children to have good quality relationships with both parents. Australia did just that, bringing in a model of support where both parents are supported to care for children and both parents are assessed for their ability to make child maintenance contributions…but I am getting ahead of myself in the excitment of the possibilities, for now, let’s stick to the Children Act and the task ahead.
The reality is that if children are to be helped to maintain their relationships with both of their parents after separation, we are all going to have to accept that a) fathers make a difference in children’s lives and b) what we have been doing for the past forty years has failed our children miserably. From there, the changes that we make are relatively easy, because we will have defined what is actually ‘in the child’s best interests’ instead of leaving it to other people to interpret. In doing so, it then becomes a matter of setting out guidance and developing the kinds of services that help parents to sort it out for themselves. Parenting Co-ordination for example, Family Therapy and support to understand children’s adjustments and reactions to change. Our work at the Centre for Separated Families has taken us into this territory, a landscape that Gingerbread have thus far refused to countenance. In this territory, under current conditions, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that our family justice system is not balanced in the favour of children and their relationships with both parents, but is balanced in favour of mothers first and their children as an adjunct. Whilst the Children Act 1989 may have been designed to support the best interests of children, sadly, the way that it has been enacted has often fallen far short of that.
At the Centre for Separated Families we have been arguing for the past decade or more that family separation should be analysed through a gender lens. It sounds grand but it simply means that we should understand how legislation impacts upon men and women differently and how it affects their choices. In the field of family separation, a gender analysis would require us to keep records of the decisions made in the Family Courts about children’s relationships with their parents and how those decisions impact upon children’s lives. In short, a gender analysis (which would actually ensure that we conform to the Gender Equality duty 2007) would provide for us the missing evidence that F4J are asking Gingerbread to supply. And it would help Gingerbread to come into the real world instead of relying only upon one side of the story of separation in their campaign and lobby work. A gender analysis would have prevented the kind of stereotyping that GIngerbread swamped the House of Lords with during the debate on the Child Maintenance Reform and a gender analysis would ensure that new legislation impacts upon men and women in ways that require them to do the best by their children. Gender analysis is not a magic wand, but it can help us to get closer to the real lives of family separation instead of arguing disengenuously that myths and stereotypes are the whole story.
The days ahead are likely to see more of the battle between F4J and Gingerbread and the arguments will become more and more polarised. In the midst of this it is important to ensure that the core issues of this debate are not lost. This may be portrayed by the media as a fight between men and women and, in the case of Gingerbread at least, it may well be underpinned by a struggle to maintain control over a sector that they have dominated for four decades. But it is not a gender war and it is not about who is right and who is wrong. Separated mothers and separated fathers are not inherently good and bad respectively, they do not wake up on the morning of their separation wearing a t shirt saying ‘parent with care’ and ‘non resident’ parent. Separated mothers and fathers are each capable of working together in the best interests of their children and they are each capable of leaving, of wreaking havoc on each other and ruining their children’s lives. Family separation is an event that causes pain and suffering and lastly but definitely not least, family separation has a lasting impact on children and the Children Act does not make that go away. Only by putting in place the kind of legislation that gives clear messages about the importance of relationships with mothers and fathers and supporting that with services that parents need whilst delivering these in ways that are accessible to each, empowering and above all respectful, will we help mothers and fathers to make a difference for the next generation of children.
The government has signalled that a new way forward is here. Whilst Gingerbread battle to hang on to the old, the rest of us need to get on with making that new future happen, right here and now.