Back from a break in Northern Ireland, ‘so I am’, and what a wonderful time we have had over the waters where we met like minded people working with separated families as well as parents themselves. Chugging back across the Irish Sea, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the people that we met would ever use any of the services funded by government and whether any of those services would actually recognise the needs of those people in the first place. I fell to thinking about something I have always known, that when the state machinery gets involved in the personal lives of families, it rarely gets it right. From the waste of money that is the Department for Work and Pensions’ Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, to the millions being wasted on family mediation, not one of those people we worked with had either heard of, or ever used, government funded services.
Which leaves me wondering who, exactly, does?
Surveying the post Coalition landscape of reforms to family law and to child maintenance (the two areas where the state is most likely to touch the lives of parents), all I can see is a disaster unfolding ahead of us. When the woman who told me that ‘dads only want overnights with their children to reduce their maintenance payments’ is the lead speaker on a DWP/Gingerbread/Resolution sponsored seminar trailed with the statement ‘4 out of 5 separated parents are meeting their financial responsibilities’, it is hard to see how David Henshaw’s 2006 review of the Child Support System has any bearing whatsoever on what is being rolled out by the civil servants charged with responsibility for child maintenance. And with G4S now in charge of Child Maintenance Options, I fully expect the service to be wound down over the coming five years, leading us right back to the big stick (without the carrot) approach. Which is so far away from the intention of Henshaw’s proposals and so far away from Maria Miller’s intentions that I cannot help but wonder exactly who is in charge of child maintenance at the DWP these days. Not Steve Webb, that’s for sure, who appears to happily preside over a department which tells him that services to help parents collaborate are being funded when in fact the very opposite is true.
Over at the Department for Education, Edward Timpson, the replacement for the ousted Tim Loughton, is busy with the continued passing through Parliament of the Children and Families Bill. Busy telling us all that the only thing wrong with Family Law is that dads perceive it to be biased against them. It isn’t, of course. He knows that because Joan Hunt and Liz Trinder have told him so. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read the forty fifth email in my inbox on the subject of alienation, rejection, breaking of parenting time orders and the rest, whether all of these dads (and some mums) are just making it all up. After all, Joan and Liz have done some research that tells us these people do not exist or if they do, its all in their imagination. Which allows Edward Timpson to trill that there is nothing wrong with family law, its just that parents are bad, or mad, or both.
Which leaves us washed up on the shores of the Coalition reforms of the world of support for separated families. Leading the way to the promised land are National Family Mediation, Resolution and Relate, with One Plus One and a few other ex New Labour government funded behemoths following up behind. Every one of them wedded to the idea that mums care and are good people and dads (should) provide and are largely not good people unless they are forced to be. All we need to finish off the scene is a strong dose of the Fatherhood Institute telling us that dads should be supported because, when they are, they are more likely to pay their child support (which, according to them, their children recognise, at a ‘primitive level’, as love).
Those of us who know that separated parents are just people, with real lives and real love for their children, are not welcome at this party (we only spoil the self congratulatory atmosphere by pointing out the illusion), and so we carry on, doing what we have always done, which is help parents to work out their own arrangements for care and support of their children in ways that protect and support children’s relationships with both of their parents.
‘Tis a sorry state of affairs and, so as to preempt the phrase ‘I told you so’ coming from some quarters, I regret that I ever wasted a moment of my time on the Steering Groups for the DWP and DfE. I believed at the time that there was a possibility for change. I did not give enough thought to the power of the prevailing paradigm that we cannot seem to shift. Good mums and bad dads and all that underpins it. Until we do shift it nothing, but nothing, will change.
So what next for separated families now that the illusion has once again been created that something has changed whilst in reality everything has stayed the same? What next for dads and mums who are pushed out of their children’s lives after separation? What next for children who will continue to lose one of their parents (which continues to be acceptable so long as the one they lose pays up regularly)? With no voices for fathers (and those mothers who are pushed out of children’s lives) at the policy tables, who will speak for the fractured and fragile family? F4J continue to be held at arms length by all but George Galloway, FNF (in England at least) have run aground and the rest of us who understand what is needed are so small against the immense power of the prevailing winds that our voices are reduced to whispers.
Apart from when we meet with the parents who need our help, that is. Parents like those we met in Northern Ireland this past week and those we will meet on our courses this summer and those we will bring together on a weekly basis to assist them through the pain of separation and beyond. Our work with FNFNI, this last week, has showed us once again that the power of the personal, in connecting with the real lives of separated families, delivers difference that the remote and rarefied atmosphere of the state can never match. The changes to parents lives, those who are long term separated as well as those who are in the early days, are powerful and present when the delivery of services are configured around the understanding that both parents need help and both parents love their children; deeply.
As the gender stereotypes are replicated by delivery of services funded by the state, something interesting is happening away from that. Something that echoes struggles of all marginalized people in coming together to bring about the changes that meet their needs. Ironically, this something has echoes of the feminist groups of my youth, where women would meet and set up their own services to support their own needs. In this century it is a meeting of men and women who are coming together to create something that does what we know families need so desperately. I felt it in Northern Ireland these past few days, the power of mutual understanding and acceptance of difference, where the solution lies in real people serving the needs of real families. A world away from the machinations of the state and the infection of lofty assumption that is caused by remote academics informing dislocated civil servants about the lives of the people that they study.
Through the looking glass, the future may not be so dark as we thought.