The Queen’s speech this week included an announcement on the examination of change to the Children Act 1989
The Department of Education also announced that –
‘With regard to family law, although going to court to resolve disputes about children should be the last resort, the proposed legislative changes in this Bill make clear that parents should work together to reach agreements about their child’s care when they separate. It would also set out that, where it is safe and in the best interests of the child, both parents should be involved with their child’s upbringing as fully as possible
The pace of change is, therefore, going to be slow. A public consultation will take place and after that an announcement on the changes in the act. Change, when it does come, is likely to be next year and between now and then, the evidence and the arguments for and against the principle of a child having a meaningful relationship with both parents, will be paraded, debated and decided upon all over again. Someone, somewhere is feeling decidely anxious about all of this and you can be sure that the proponents of the ‘all dads are dangerous’ syndrome are hard at work doing what they can to influence the outcome. The phrase included in the government’s announcement this week that best illuminates this anxiety is ‘where it is safe to do so
The sentence ‘where it is safe to do so,’ is one that I have heard repeatedly over the past decade. The mantra is borne out of the legislation that has governed family separation for several decades and the single parent lobby’s focus upon ensuring that the best interests of children remain securely bound to the best interests of their mother. This legislation was designed deliberately to ensure that mothers could leave relationships and take their children with them, the thinking being that if mothers could not take their children, they would be forced to remain in the marriage. Liberating women, from dependence upon men therefore, meant giving mothers the right to make decisions, not only about their own lives, but about their children’s lives too.
Whilst this legislation may (I said may) have been designed to ensure that the most vulnerable mothers were able to leave relationships, it has resulted in several generations of children being separated from any kind of meaningful relationship with their natural father. It has also entrenched some widely held beliefs about fathers after separation, most common of which is the idea that all dads are dangerous until proved otherwise. Like all stereotypes, a grain of truth, a tiny number of fathers are dangerous, is used to describe the whole, with the result that fathers now face trial by assumption starting on the day of the separation. The days and weeks after that trial begins, mean that dads spend their time proving that they are not dangerous to their children instead of protecting the precious bond with them. This is discrimination at its very worst and all fathers, regardless of their conduct pre separation, will face it if the family separates. Unpicking the prejudice against fatherhood that is woven into the very fabric of our society is going to take grit and determination and the patience to do it, if necessary, one stitch at a time.
A public consultation on the proposed changes to the Children Act 1989 will shortly be underway. This will consider views on what should change in the children act and why. For many fathers, already weary of the weight of oppression and prejudice that devastates their post separation relationships with children, the change will be too slow, for groups representing fathers, the changes will be offensively so.
I too am frustrated by the pace of change, I would like to ensure that the world in which the boys in my family do not have to face the horrors that my husband had to face and which I witnessed helplessly over fifteen years. I know too however, that the mills of change grind slowly and just as the sufferagettes suffered years of ridicule, prejudice and fear, so too will it take time to unpick the prejudice against fatherhood that is contained in the phrase ‘where it is safe to do so.’ Having worked with families to help them overcome the emotional car crash of separation for the past twenty years however, I am not going to give up now.
I work with dads every day, I work with mums too. I work with mums and dads who are separating and separated and I work with those with the main day to day care and those without. I know that both mums and dads can be wonderful parents, I know too that mums and dads can be dangerous parents. I am aware of the research in neuroscience that speaks of the particular danger that mothers can bring to their children’s lives if their care is dysfunctional. I am not aware however, of any routine statements that say that children should have strong relationships with their mother after separation, but only where it is safe to do so.
This understanding, of the power imbalance stitched right through the experience of family separation, informs my work with separated families. It means that I do not approach every father with the expectation that he must prove to me that he is not dangerous and I do not give him labels that make require him to conform to particular behaviours. To me, every man that I meet in my work is dad first and foremost and understanding his hopes and dreams as well as his fears and fragilities is my major concern. This does not mean that I value or care for mothers less, each mother that I meet is, to me, a mother first and foremost and her hopes and dreams and fears and fragilities are also my major concern. In understanding each father and each mother I work with, I aim to help them to achieve for their children, a new way of parenting that protects the relationship that each has with their children.
I know however, that I am doing that on a very uneven playing field. Sometimes I explain how uneven that playing field actually is and how much the discrimination that is faced by one parent can affect their behaviour and their reactions through the separation process. Sometimes that helps to put the brakes on mothers taking control and, if I can keep them away from the domestic violence lobby or the solicitor for long enough, it can mean a successful transition to post separation parenting in which children maintain good relationships with both parents. More often however, mothers will, eventually, be advised that if she wants a better deal out of separation, she should utilise the law to gain and maintain control. Advice being dished out to separated mums by the wise women on a recent Mumsnet thread, suggested that, to ensure that heterosexual women are not controlled by men, they should have their children by sperm donor and keep romantic relationships child free. On that kind of playing field, I am surprised that I ever get picked to play on the team, never mind achieve any kind of success in helping families to rebuild after separation.
Working from an equalities based perspective it is difficult, if not impossible, not to speak out on the injustice and imbalance that causes fatherhood to be reviled, whilst motherhood is revered. Especially when it is so apparent that these deeply entrenched beliefs are causing generation after generation of children to suffer the same fate as their parents. I am not a father however, and I do not pretend to speak for fathers. If the balance were out of kilter in the other direction, I would be writing and fighting to rebalance it for mothers. I write and work in the field of equalities and family separation because I understand the injustices that are present and I hate injustice, especially when it impacts upon children.
The announcement this week then, heralds, in my view, the start of something new. Whilst it is going to be slow going and the arguments for and against change are going to be revisited several times over, we are going to need to remain focused, determined and steady in our belief. I remain of the view that the tide of injustice is turning and that there are strong voices in government in favour of change. When that change comes, we must make sure that the imbalance and the injustice is rectified so that mothers and fathers are equally valued for the different things that they bring to their children’s lives. This is not about swinging the pendulum in the other direction, this is about bringing the pendulum, which has swung wildly in the direction of mother = good and father = bad, into a balanced place.
To do that, alongside the bulldozers and the wrecking balls, we are also going to need an eye glass and a fine pair of scissors to unpick the threads of prejudice against fatherhood, that are so fine, we can hardly see them. Prejudice which causes good enough fathers to be subjected to assumptions and stripped of their dignity in even their children’s eyes. As a child I have been working with said to me recently, ‘it seems so unfair, mum has all this power and dad doesn’t seem to have any at all.’
Alongside the wrecking crews then, we need seamstresses and tailors who can do the delicate work of unpicking prejudice and restitching equalities based legislation so that what comes out of the other side of all of this is, never again, the need to end all sentences about relationships between dads and their children, with the phrase ‘where it is safe to do so.’
Whilst the pace of change is slow and frustrating, I still believe that one day, in our lifetime, we will see our children and grandchildren refusing to subject each other to the brutalisation of separation plus discrimination. And as mothers and fathers their relationships with their children will be visible, valued and supported. When that day comes and the phrase ‘where it is safe to do so’ seems like the oppressive and discriminatory utterance that it is, I will put down my tools and be satisfied. Until then I for one will, alongside others, keep on unpicking prejudice, one stitch at a time.