This is going to be another one of those weeks in the world of family separation and its time to start buckling up now as the roller coaster ride sets off again. As F4J gear up for their Central London Fathers Day Service on Saturday, marching barefoot and laying shoes to represent the generations of children lost to one of their parents, the government have, in the last few days, announced the tenders for the development of new services to help separating parents to collaborate and today, the DfE and Ministry of Justice launch details of a consultation on the issue of ensuring the involvement of both parents in a child’s life. Whatever happens next, this debate is about to ignite once again, the core issue being the way in which too many children in the UK are at risk of the complete loss of a parent after family separation.
Expected to cause controversy on both sides of this polarised debate, the announcement on the consultation is sure to displease some, disappoint others and dismay many. This is by no means a static debate, it is alive and kicking and the coalition government are, at least, to be admired for the way in which they have taken this agenda full on. The announcements of tenders for developing new services to help parents to collaborate after separation is an example of this. Barely a year after the Minister with responsibility for reform of Child Maintenance set up a steering group to consider new services, proposals are being translated into reality. We may not like everything that the Child Maintenance Commission does, but the determination to ensure that private agreements are both supported and promoted is changing the language and the landscape of post separation arrangements for supporting children.
Having worked with the Child Maintenance Commission back in 2008 when the new Options service was brought into being, I know that they have faced an almost insurmountable resistance to change. Gingerbread, once the doyenne of family separation, have opposed the reforms at every end and turn, including a mass campaign to influence the House of Lords debate over charging for the use of the Statutory Maintenance Scheme. As Gingerbread lose their once mighty grip on the issue of maintenance and the punishment of fathers, the introduction of new services, to support families to collaborate around the issue of providing for children, forms the backdrop to the next stage. This time the consultation on the issue of caring for children after separation. This twin track approach, tackling provision and care for children is strategic in its thinking and, in my view, courageous. Whilst the announcement is not going to bring everything that the fathers lobby is seeking, it is going to demonstrate some determination to at least have a stab at tackling some of the ingrained issues.
The field of family separation looks incredibly different today to that which was presided over by the last government. During the latter days of their tenure, Labour Ministers threw bundles of cash at the problem of family separation without seeming to have any real understanding or care about the outcomes. Compare that to the speed at which the Coalition government have set about changing the face of family separation support, forcing all third sector organisations to consider how they can support collaboration between parents rather than dividing them further from each other. If you map this, you will get a sense of just how much this government has shifted the focus of support away from the lone parent model and towards a dual parent model. Those power bases of the last government, the Fatherhood Institute for example, for whom representing fatherhood appears to be about what fathers can do for mothers, seem out of step now with government intention and policy progress. As someone who has worked in the field for over two decades now, I cannot ever remember a time like this, when the tightly woven web of matriarchal domination seems to thin further on a daily basis. The coalition may not be delivering utopia in terms of equality today, but as a step on the highway to change, this consultation is absolutely key.
Prepare then for the debate to ignite once again and, within that, see the possibilities for continuing pressure for change. Those opposing a shift away from matriarchal dominance will seek to silence the argument and hold the status quo, those seeking to destroy it will try to show how the government are selling out and selling short. In between those two parameters are possibilities and much work to be done. Pushing for change within the court system using the original early interventions project, educating and encouraging key people to understand what further changes are necessary and setting out guidelines for operating shared parenting agreements in the shadow of changes to the children act, are all examples of what can be done alongside this consultation in the next weeks and months.
As a family practitioner and therapist, I don’t pretend to speak for fathers and I don’t speak for mothers either. I speak because I know that the way in which we have done things has, for too long created loss and grief and sadness and sorrow as well as intergenerational family breakdown. I believe that there is a different, more egalitarian way forward and we can change the future for the next generations of parents. Five years ago, collaboration, co-operation and consultation on the issue of family separation were dirty words. The tragedy of the children, whose feet are missing from the shoes that F4J will lay in London on fathers day, highlights the fact that for thousands of families, five years, five days or five minutes longer is, without doubt, too long a time to wait for change.
But, having watched the landscape around family separation change with astonishing speed this past year, I can see the benefits and I am holding my nerve. There is a long way to go and now is not the time to take the weight off the many levers for change that will bring better outcomes for future generations of children.