In the midst of what is actually a momentous time of change in family separation politics I thought it might be useful to revisit the things that we have been saying at the Centre for Separated Families for the past decade or more. The kind of things that we have long ago grown tired of saying but the kind of things that are, actually, the nuts and bolts of the changes that will bring better outcomes for children living in separated family situations. I was reminded of the need to say these things again by a post on Pink Tape about a young parents project in Bristol and a discussion about whether or not dads were being left out of the loop. Being pedantic, as I often am, I could not help but post that it takes more than a picture of a dad and a mention of a contact centre to make young dads feel included and as if the door to services is open to them. The response was that a page on the website is now being dedicated to dads, its not everything that they could be doing to make dad feel at home, but its a darned sight more than was going on before.
I too often forget that the roots of our work at the Centre for Separated Families lie in gender analysis and our understanding of the ways in which use of this and other gender mainstreaming tools can and do deliver the most astonishing outcomes. In the early days of our use of these tools, we increased the use, by dads, of one of our drop in services by a whopping 19% in one year. These days the use of our services are more or less balanced with around 49% use by dads and 51% use by mums. Our specialist services are even more evenly balanced, with engagement with 52% dads and 48% mums and our advice and information services come out at around 54% dads and 46% mums.
Our aim, in using gender mainstreaming tools to plan and deliver our services is to ensure that mothers and fathers are enabled to access the services that they need to carry out their ongoing responsibilities for their children. In the culture that we are currently working in, this means that we have to plan for delivery of more specialist services for fathers, because it is father that currently face the highest barriers to carrying out those responsibilities. I have written on many occasion about the barriers that fathers face, written as they are into the legislation that governs family separation in this country. Thankfully, the government are, now, in the process of unpicking that legislation and in doing so it is possible to see just how gender biased this has been in the past.
Take child maintenance for instance. The Child Support Agency, brought into being in the early nineties, was an agency that was created in order to alleviate the burden on the state, of the financial responsibility for supporting single mothers. Those single mothers, were enabled to make choices about their parenthood outside of a financially supportive relationship, because of the legislation that divorced them from having to depend upon the father of their children. The feminist academics of this world, who created that legislation, deliberately stitched gender bias into it, the whole basis of which was to enable women to live free of dependency upon men. When Mrs Thatcher and her government identified that the burden on the state was too great, the Child Support Agency was the remedy of choice and punishment of fathers, for being reckless and feckless enough to impregnate and then leave the mother of their children, was the media hype that brought the CSA into being.
These days the Child Maintenance Commission looks like a very different organisation. From the reforms that were identified by David Henshaw’s review in 2006 to current day commitments by government to invest in services that support parents to collaborate and make their own agreements, the responsibility is being transferred back from the state to parents themselves. And despite all of the resistance from the organisations concerned with mothers’ rights, this government has never wavered from the objective of shifting the focus from punishing one parent on behalf of the other to supporting parents to collaborate. Gender balance, in reform of child maintenance is, from our perspective, absolutely right and when analysed through a gender lens, demonstrates that balance is being brought back into play through ensuring that the different needs of mothers and fathers are recognised and met.
An area where gender analysis would be really useful is the family courts. Long heralded as delivering gender biased outcomes by fathers groups, the family courts are a fine example of gender blind service delivery. CAFCASS, responsible as they are for frontline services, should, in our view, be routinely collecting gender disagreggated statistics about the numbers of mothers and fathers that they work with and the outcomes that their services deliver for those parents. This is not about ensuring that decisions about children’s relationships with their mother and father are equal in some way or even that mothers and fathers get the same treatment. It is about ensuring that all frontline workers understand that the legislation, cultural expectations and service delivery to fathers is different to that experienced by mothers. A gender analysis of family court outcomes would collect the statistical evidence that is often argued over by the parental rights organisations and would allow us to see how the decisions that are made, reflect the realities of the lives that separated families live in this country. Gender budgeting would ensure that CAFCASS can match the needs of the families that they work with to their staffing levels and it would also ensure that the kind of discrimination faced by too many dads in our country would end tomorrow. The kind of discrimination faced by Gareth, one of the dads we have been working with recently.
Gareth and his partner Shannon separated two years ago, they have two children aged seven and three. Gareth works in local government, Shannon is a Library Manager, both are educated and they are home owners in a reasonable income bracket.
Prior to the separation, Shannon had repeatedly threatened Gareth with physical violence and told him that if he moved out of the house, he would never see his children again. When Gareth walked through our door it was clear that he was a) terrified of Shannon and b) terrified he would not see his children again. Despite that however, he was determined that he would leave Shannon because in the very recent past she had burned his hand with an iron in an argument over money.
We worked with Gareth throughout his journey and prepared him for the difficult road ahead. What we didn’t know was that Gareth was about to undergo the stereotypical journey, an almost identikit journey to that of so many fathers that we hear from.
Gareth and Shannon agreed that they would separate after a long and difficult weekend in which he managed to tell her that he wanted their relationship to end before he was seriously hurt. Shannon laughed off his fear of her as being ridiculous and taunted him with threats to call the police and accuse him of domestic violence. At the end of a tortuous weekend however, it was Shannon who moved out to her mother’s house, taking the children with her. Before she did so however, she did call the police and she told them that Gareth was throwing her out of the house.
Six weeks later and Shannon has reported Gareth to the police on fourteen different occasions and has also managed to blacken his eye, break one of his fingers and attack him with a garden spade. On each occasion, it was Gareth who was arrested and Gareth who was labelled the domestic violence perpetrator. Shannon now has a collection of domestic violence workers visiting her on a regular basis and has already applied for a non molestation order on an ex parte basis, this eventually being thrown out of court by a Judge who appeared to see right through her.
Twenty weeks later and Social Services are involved with a full Child Protection Conference being convened. Shannon has alleged sexual abuse of the children, Gareth’s time with his children is stopped, further investigations show that no such abuse has taken place.
Fifty weeks later Shannon shows up at Gareth’s house whilst the children are in his care, she is drunk and trying to get the children to go back to her home with her. She accuses Gareth of being domestically violent towards her because he has persisted in court in his application for parenting time with the children. The Freedom Programme is mentioned as evidence that he is abusing Shannon by taking her control over the children away from her. Gareth calls the police when Shannon launches a roof tile at his car window, the police arrive and once again it is Gareth who is arrested.
Two and a half years later CAFCASS are involved and Shannon is asking for the parenting time arrangements to be changed yet again. Gareth is hanging on to his health and well being by the skin of his teeth now, if it was not for the support that we have offered him things would be over and done with by now. He remarks on several occasions that he is unsurprised by the oft quoted figure of 40% of fathers losing touch with their children after separation, how could they stay the course he wonders, we wonder how he has managed to survive this far and how much more he has the strength to cope with.
Gareth is one of the statistics that Liz Trinder, that very useful academic, wheels out on occasions where change in the family courts is being discussed. Gareth is one of the 10% oft quoted as ending up in court and more than that, he is in the 1% involved in ongoing litigation. Liz, as F4J have recently been pointing out, is convinced that these cases are absolutely those where dad is dangerous.
Far from being dangerous, Gareth has sustained several injuries to his person and several years of emotional, mental and psychological battering. His experience however is unrecorded and remains invisible. Where gender awareness should be, Gareth has been faced with gender bias, from the police who arrive at a ‘domestic’ and assume that the man is the perpetrator, to the social worker who assumes that Gareth’s desire to care for his children half of each week is evidence that he is a ‘dominator’. Finally, CAFCASS arrive on the scene and instead of careful analysis and attention, a wishes and feelings report is commissioned which tells them all they need to know, the children want to live with their mum and time with dad is not really working for them.
The government have recently announced their consultation on the issue of changing the children act and this has lead to disappointment amongst father’s groups who will, I imagine, recognise Gareth’s journey as their own. The disappointment seems to lie in the fact that the government have not, in the case of care for children, acted with the same degree of determination that has been shown in the reform of financial support for children. In this arena too however, there is an opportunity for gender mainstreaming to be brought into play in ways that could immediately rectify the gender bias inherent in our service delivery and the appalling discrimination that is being meted out on a daily basis to dads like Gareth.
Gender mainstreaming in the arena of care for children would focus upon the services that support separated families and would ensure that the different experiences of mothers and fathers are recognised and met. It wouldn’t take a great deal of time, effort or cost to implement the same kind of gender mainstreaming that has underpinned the reform of the child maintenance system. And it would eradicate the kind of practice that leads to a male victim of domestic violence being arrested for reporting it and the kind of practice that assumes that dads are perpetrators simply for wanting to care for their children as well as provide for them after separation.
At the Centre for Separated Families we have been saying the same thing for the past twelve years. Gender neutral services deliver gender biased outcomes. Equality is not about treating mothers and fathers the same, it is about acknowledging and meeting their different needs, enabling them to overcome different barriers and about helping them to stay engaged with all of their parenting responsibilities after separation.
Whilst some fathers groups remain disappointed, there is in fact a real opportunity now to reform our family courts and our family services to ensure that whatever the change to the children act, the cultural change that is required to prevent other dads going on Gareth’s journey is brought into being. Our contact with men and boys organisations show us that it is clear that much is going on to ensure that gender equality is being fought for and it is vital now that we keep the pressure on for continued reform.
In other countries gender mainstreaming is a part of life and, in the UK, we should be utilising these tools on a routine basis to ensure that mothers and fathers can continue to remain engaged with their children before and after separation. With that kind of work going on, Gareth might just survive and hang on to his relationship with his children. Gender matters in family separation and it takes more than a picture of dad and a contact centre to ensure that dads like Gareth, who is absolutely not a Liz Trinder version of dad, but an ordinary, everyday kind of dad, can keep on keeping on despite being invisible, despite being frightened, bullied and silenced.
This is not about fathers’ rights and its not about mothers’ rights either, it is about gender equality and the different things that men and women need in order to keep on being the best parents that they can be. When we get that right, we will get the balance right for mothers and for fathers like Gareth and most of all, for the children they are responsible for.