Buckle your seat belts this is going to be a bumpy ride over the coming days as the government makes its announcement about shared parenting legislation. Widely expected is an amendment to the Children Act 1989 to set out that the best interests of the child lie in having a strong relationship with both parents after separation. Expect once again, to have the big guns against shared parenting rolled out, Trinder, Mclean and Hunt will once again be used to ‘prove’ that the government are making a mistake. Expect also to hear a cacophony of dissent from the legal people, many of whom will use the same old statistics (10% of parents who use the court system are those most conflicted or those with issues around violence and alcohol) and the same old arguments that every case is different and nothing should change.
But listen hard and you will hear other voices speaking up for shared parenting. Listen to the government and you will hear a lot of support for the reforms that are being brought through. This week, Professor Patrick Parkinson from Australia, spoke at a Family Law Presentation at Westminster. Professor Parkinson is an important figure in Australia, someone who has been at the heart of many of the changes around family law and the child support system over there. It is unlikely to be a co-incidence that he is here, just as the government prepare to make what for many is a controversial announcement. Perhaps Professor Parkinson is on hand to allay many of the fears that are being expressed about the UK moving towards an Australian model of dual parent support after separation, something that is far removed from our current single parent model.
The arguments against shared parenting will be aired in full elsewhere and, having spent the last decade arguing back, I shall no longer waste time by going over them again. The decision is made that shared parenting after separation will be the expected norm for families in the UK, the reforms across the legislation that touches the lives of separated parents are clear evidence of this.
Our interest now, has to be on how the reforms can be translated into the real lives of parents and children who face separation. It is here now, that we must concentrate all of our efforts because the forces ranged against the reforms will be watching closely and gathering evidence to support their argument, that shared parenting is not in the best interests of children.
One of the biggest issues that we have to tackle is the all pervasive assumption that the single parent model of support is the right one. This model is firmly underpinned by several key assumptions. a) that all men are dangerous, b) that children do not need a father and c) that single parenting is as good as dual parenting.
The model rests upon a moral imperative, which is that to challenge the single parent model is to stigmatise single parents and make them feel that they are somehow less than their dual parenting peers. This is further supported by the crusade to inculcate into our consciousness that single parents are parenting alone because they have been abandoned by a feckless father. The manipulation of our belief structure is completed by the widespread propaganda that tells us that children do just as well with one parent as they do with two. It is literally as easy as a,b,c, you cannot challenge single parenting because to do so is to stigmatise parents who have been abandoned and their children, who are doing very well indeed.
This single parent model of support has indeed supported and protected those parents who have been abandoned or, for whatever reason, have had to take up parenting alone. But it has also trapped, within its tightly woven web, all of those families who could have done things differently by removing all of their choices about how to make post separation arrangements.
I would argue that the single parent model has gone further, much much further than protecting parents and children from stigma, it has become a choice that many feel able to make because single parenting is portrayed, as often as not, as being just another family formation. Couple this with the pervasive notion that dads are dispensable or dangerous and it is possible to see how the UK has ended up being branded by F4J as the ‘fatherless generation’ in their up and coming Olympiad Campaign.
So what of dual or shared parenting. How are we going to translate the government’s intention into reality on the ground. After decades of pushing for change, how we will move from our single parent model of support to dual or shared parenting model of support. We have a lot of work to do and an awful lot of catching up because as things stand, much of the support that is currently available is for one parent or the other and not both parents and many of the service providers are still scratching their heads and arguing whether shared parenting is the right thing in the first place.
In Australia, when the reforms were first brought through, a rush to the court ensued as dads aimed to get their rights enacted as quickly as possible. A spike in court applications occurred within the first couple of years, exactly the opposite of what was intended by the reforms. Here too, there is a risk that as soon as the reforms are brought through, a flight into court will occur as more dads will seek a shared residence and shared parenting agreement. What is needed, of course, to prevent this, is a concerted effort to educate and support mothers, to understand what shared parenting looks like and to believe that sharing parenting after separation is not, somehow, to fail to be a good mother.
Without question it is going to be difficult for those first waves of mothers who find themselves in a situation where they are being advised of one thing, only to find that another, quite different outcome is expected of them. Many mothers go into separation in the full expectation that they will be the parent with care and that they will dictate the pace of post separation parenting. This is how it used to be, but already, in cases in the courts, there are winds of change and the expectation of mothers is no longer a guaranteed outcome. When the amendments to the children act come through, more mothers will find themselves in a position where they are expected to make a shared parenting agreement. Caught between the old and the new, these mothers are likely to find themselves being advised by those against the shared parenting project with the result that conflict around agreements is likely to be prolonged instead of prevented.
We must then work hard to ensure that the support services that are available to parents work in their best interests and most of all in their children’s best interests. Whilst the rest are busy arguing about shared parenting and its rights and wrongs, we, at the Centre for Separated Families, are making as much information, education and support available as we possibly can, to help parents to make shared parenting a reality that works for children. There is a huge gaping hole where support for shared parenting should be and this must be filled and filled quickly.
The support that parents need after separation can be broken down into three parts. The first is support to get through the early days when re negotiation of the parenting contract must take place often in very difficult emotional circumstances. The second is support to set up and manage a shared parenting agreement and the third is arms length support when things are up and running, to manage changes in the agreements and deal with difficulties that inevitably arise. In Australia, the most effective and widely used services were those that offered education and information to parents and it is our experience at the Centre for Separated Families that parents are in desperate need of these too.
Building the road ahead then is our key task if we are to make shared parenting a reality in the UK. You will notice, as I am writing, that I have not mentioned once, the issue of time, which is one of the foundation stones of the road that we are seeking to travel on. I have not mentioned it because largely I consider that it is not necessary to do so. When the expectation is laid out in the Children Act, it will be for us to translate that into the lives of the parents we work with and, dare I say it, every case is different and therefore every family will need to work out its own arrangement. What will be needed therefore is information about how children fare at different ages in different shared parenting arrangements. We are preparing information, based upon research into outcomes for children, the latest evidence on the neuroscience of children’s developmental stages and how to manage transitions between households. When the fact that children benefit from strong relationships with both of their parents is accepted and the support delivered comes from a place of understanding that children need more than a visit every other weekend to build a strong relationship, the issue of time is not one to argue about. It is simply something that must be managed in a child focused way that will change as children grow older.
As the government prepares to make its announcement, its time to put the hard hats on and get to work. On the road far behind us, many will argue the merits of shared parenting and the pitfalls and the pains. For the rest of us, its time to look ahead and build what we have been arguing for, over many years. Those voices, which have had so much control over so many lives for such a very long time are becoming distant and we will, in our lifetime, look back in shame and wonder how we could have allowed that to happen for so long. When we look at our own work, in supporting shared care in years to come, we must ensure that what we have done is something to be proud of.