Since I downed my bloggers pen, much has occurred in the field of family separation politics. So much has occurred in fact that I have, in just a few short weeks, been lured back to my desk to make one of what will be an occasional public observation from the field of family separation.
You will remember that my reason for waving goodbye to public blogging was the risk that I could be seen as being biased in favour of fathers, the issue being that I have, in the past, been supportive of arguments put forward by F4J and other fathers’ rights organisations about the problems with the current state of family law in this country.
Ironically, the events of the last couple of weeks have acted to ensure that no-one can accuse me of that now. When the CEO of FNF asserts that the Centre for Separated Families does not support shared parenting on air and F4J decides this means we are only in it for the money, it is hard to see how CSF can be construed by anyone as being anything other than what it is; an organisation working with separated families, to help them build co-operative relationships in ways that best benefit their children over time.
I am, however, also someone who spends my working life within the field of family separation and, as a result, I am well placed to observe and understand the different dynamics that influence this sector. Having had a serious dose of other people’s opinions about me in the past few days, (some might say a karmic return of my own tendency to opine at length about the world around me), I shall, perhaps, be circumspect about dishing out my views. Nevertheless, I shall continue to have my say, not least because from where I am currently looking, the family separation field wars look set to be heating up again.
Since I last wrote, there have been some major events in the field of family separation, all of which are noteworthy, none of which will change very much at all in terms of delivering better outcomes for children. The Consultation on Co-operative Parenting after Separation has reported and has chosen its preferred wording for the change in the children act and scrutiny of the government’s plans has begun through the Family Justice Committee.
The Centre for Separated Families, having considered the consultation, responded comprehensively and argued that the notion of a ‘principle’ that a child should have a meaningful relationship with both parents was the best of the pretty ineffective choices put forward. We also argued that labels such as ‘parent with care’ and ‘non resident parent’ should be abolished and the offensive term ‘contact’, which reduces a father’s (or mother’s) precious relationship with their child to something distant and derogatory, should be removed from the legislation completely. And we said that Judicial Guidelines on what is and what is not a meaningful relationship should be introduced so that arguments could be nipped in the bud from the start. We also argued, and continue to do so, that the whole of the architecture around family separation should be dismantled and rebuilt in ways that support both parents to share the care of their children and be supported in doing that.
Whilst that is not good enough for some (who trumpet triumphantly that the Centre for Separated Families does not support shared parenting), and others who judge that we are only in it for the money (which caused a ripple of merriment when I last looked at my bank account), it is good enough for me and it is good enough for the children that we work with and that, at the end of the day, is the only thing that really interests me.
I will let the fathers’ rights groups argue about the semantics of sentences that contain the word ‘presumption’. I have no real interest in spending my time debating whether that word, which I have always considered to be a red herring, is the holy grail or not. I believe that presumption without wholesale reform will change nothing at all, but I shall continue to support those who stand up for fathers over those that spend their time trying to find ways of wriggling out of their responsibility to do so. And whether I like them or loathe them, I know that F4J hold the hopes of so many who are discriminated against in this godawful system that we are working in. A system that so many powerful people and organisations are fighting to keep in place and which I have been accused of propping up, but which I shall continue to work in because of the children who suffer in it.
Which brings me to a recent report released by the Nuffield Foundation, that Charitable body which is charged with improving social well-being in the widest sense. This report that has released just as the issue of shared parenting is back on the public agenda is, in my view, far more dangerous to children than anything a man hanging off tower bridge in a spiderman outfit could do. Above all else, in this short ‘rest’ from blogging, it is this report which has prompted my decision to pick up my pen again, for to not do so, in the face of this kind of poisonous rhetoric, would be to seriously fail my duty to criticise the orthodoxy that has a stranglehold on family policy in this country.
‘Taking a longer view of contact‘1 is a report on a study of young adults who experienced family separation in childhood. The study undertook telephone interviews with 398 young adults who experienced the break up of their parents before they were 16 and 50 in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of young adults who were drawn from a group of 222 people agreeing to be interviewed.
The report is introduced by two contrasting case studies, both of which describe experiences of their relationship with their mother in glowing terms and one of which describes the ‘non resident father’ in very negative terms. The ‘resident’ father, described in the first case study is barely mentioned, but his ex-partner (the ‘non resident’ mother) is described in such a way that one is made to question why this child was ever parted from her mother in the first place. Even the fact that this mother left the family suddenly, is somehow glossed over as we are whisked along by a tale of such love, tenderness and self-sacrifice that our sympathies lie, once again, with the mother whilst the father becomes someone suspicious and concerning.
This introduction tells us more about this report than any of the so-called evidence that it produces. It also tells us about the researchers, their personal and professional belief systems and the underlying motives for the publication of this report at this point in time. The ‘lens’ through which this study has been undertaken is clearly that which is informed by the feminist hostility towards fathers and their relationship with their children.
This feminist lens, which holds that children should be with their mothers after separation and do not need their fathers, never questions once why the young adults that they are interviewing may be reporting a more distant and dislocated relationship with their father and it never questions the reasons why these young adults have, somehow, almost universally portrayed their mothers in glowing terms. Rather than evaluate the experience of young adults and why their views may be so starkly split, these researchers have, in their words ‘given a voice to a group of people largely ignored in UK research on post separation contact ‘ (there’s that horrible word ‘contact’ – pay attention to it, it forms the core of what comes next).
When researchers reduce the relationship between a child and a father to the word ‘contact’ and confidently pepper their methodology with notions of ‘good contact’ and ‘bad contact’, it is a pretty safe bet that what you are going to get as an outcome is a validation of the researchers own personal and professional agenda. In my opinion, this report is, quite simply, nothing more than that. A reproduction of the researchers’ own prejudiced attitudes to their preconceived notions of what ‘contact’ looks like and feels like to a child.
This report, is riven with the word ‘contact’ and it is also threaded through with unpleasant connotations so that the word ‘contact’ quite quickly becomes associated with something wrong, something not to be enjoyed, something to be simply endured. As someone said to me recently:
‘whoever decided to call a relationship with a parent after separation ‘contact’ really knew what they were doing in terms of reducing and destroying the importance of that parent in children’s eyes‘
Oh how I agree!
It was clear to me, within five minutes of starting to read this report, that ‘contact’, in the eyes of these researchers, is something that is dangerous, wrong and not to be imposed upon children. The prejudice of the researchers comes screeching off the pages of the report, in sentences like:
‘children having a strongly moralistic response to their non resident parent breaking up the relationship by having an affair’
and comments such as
‘children responding negatively to non resident parent’s failure to overcome drug dependency, alcoholism, depression and violent behaviour’.
In the world that these people inhabit, ‘non resident fathers’ are mad, bad and dangerous to know and children should not be subjected to ‘contact’ because:
‘Our findings indicate that children often emerge from the shock of their parents’ separation with a precocious maturity, a critical awareness of their parents’ frailties and considerable clarity over their own needs’
Now, in psychological terms, I would call that ‘parentification’2 which denotes a broken attachment hierarchy in the family3 and which is deeply concerning in terms of a child’s ongoing welfare. In short, these young adults in this study, who are described as ’emerging with a precocious maturity and a critical awareness of their parents’ frailties’, are children who have been at risk of parenting their own parents and on reading the case studies it would seem to me that they are still suffering from the role corruption caused by this. As such, as a therapist experienced in working with children in separated families, I would argue that they need significant and sustained help, as do their parents. And yet these adult children are those that the researchers in this study are using to base their belief upon that children should be given a greater voice in decisions about ‘contact’.
These adult children are, in my view, damaged children; damaged by the separation, damaged by the system that breaks the attachment hierarchy and damaged by being involved in research like this. And rather than questioning why these children have a critical awareness of their parents frailties and why they have considerable clarity over their own needs, these researchers conclude that these voices are those that should persuade us that more children, not fewer, should be making decisions about their relationships with parents after separation.
In my view, this report is simply a series of interviews with children who have been subjected to institutionalised failures in our family services to support parents to work together. The evidence contained within it, from the adult children who have been interviewed, is, if analysed through a gender lens, a damning indictment of the lack of family support services that are configured around assisting mothers and fathers to keep on being parents after separation. It is also a shocking description of how researchers, instead of being concerned with the ways in which children have been able to become precociously aware, are so blinded by their own agenda that they fail to see the reality that stares them back in the face.
Has no-one in the academic world ever considered asking the question why these children so routinely report negative relationships with their fathers? Or even considered why so many children are precociously aware. And, instead of being so hell bent on contradicting the lived experience of so many fathers in this country, has no-one ever stopped to wonder what it is like to be a child who not only loses the care and safety of their parents in relationship together, but then finds one of them relegated to the part-time, distant and dislocated place called ‘contact’?
I would give up working in the field of family separation tomorrow if I could. When one is bombarded with personal and professional attack on all sides, it is oh so easy to dream of better things to do. But reports like this stop all that dreaming in me and strengthen my determination to go on (and on and on and on) until this kind of research and reliance upon it is stopped for good.
For it is this research, released as it has been just after the Justice Committee have begun scrutiny of the government’s proposals, that could stop the shared parenting project in its tracks for a very long time. And it is this kind of research which, if left unchallenged, will allow the ongoing discrimination against men to continue in this country, rendering generation after generation of our children vulnerable to the loss of good fathers and, worse, coercing young people into participating in the damning of their own and other children’s relationships with their fathers, something that they have had neither choice about or chance to change.
I shall continue, with colleagues, to analyse this report through a gender lens and will report our findings when complete, to ensure that those who turn to this report for guidance, are able to set its findings against another voice and another view. One which is not so blind that it cannot see what drives the agenda and purpose behind it.
I am not going to give up my commentary and I am not going to give up my work (I never was really, I just like to dream about it now and again…) and I will take whatever anyone on either side wants to throw at me and I will keep on saying the same thing that we have always said at the Centre for Separated Families. Until the world in which we live is not ridden with gendered ideas about what it means to be mum and dad after separation, until the word ‘contact’ is eradicated and seen for what it is (a vicious attempt to ruin a precious relationship between a child and a parent), and until researchers are made to analyse their own personal and professional prejudices before they are let loose on our children and young people, I shall remain, steadfast and here. For all of our children, now and in the future, who deserve better than what these young adults and children for too many generations past, have thus far received.
(PS – Can I thank everyone who has written to me and contacted me in recent weeks, your words have been kind, sustaining and encouraging. I am working hard to get my website up and running as I promised and I will, shortly after Christmas, be in touch to send you links and passwords).
1Fortin, Hunt, Scanlan 2012 – Taking a longer view of contact – University of Sussex and University of Oxford
2Parentification – is when a child is given the responsibility of looking after the emotional and psychological needs of a parent and can include a parent using the child as a surrogate or a spouse. Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973) describe this as emotionally deprived parents who unconsciously regard their children as parental figures.
3Children of Divorce – Shaw and Ingoldsby 2001