Through the looking glass darkly: what next for separated families

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.


  1. When will these people who govern our country realise that it is not just about dad ‘paying up to show he loves his children’. Fathers want shared residence of their children, they want to be there for them as much as their mothers do. They want to provide a home for them, cook for them, ensure they have adequate clothing, settle them in bed, look after them when they are sick, take them to school and all the other day to day attentions that children need. That’s what love is and that’s how dads can show it.

    Government needs to acknowledge the valuable and worthwhile contribution that fathers want to make for their children instead of bashing them over the head via the CSA and depriving them of the very necessary funds they need to do the job properly.


    1. Hi Yvie. I like the positive things you say about Dads. It’s a shame our newspapers portray him as something else. Even the broadsheet that my mother reads had Angelina Jolie’s breast operation as front page news. It’s as if mens fixation is sex, and if it isn’t, it ought to be. Why are this famous womans appendages so important to the nation? I would much rather hear reports on Dad and child’s daring adventures, saving the world. Companionship and camaraderie could be a great title. Father and daughter save “Blue” from mice invaders in nearby field………that’s the name of my daughter’s pet rabbit, he’s had bleary eyes lately and if they don’t improve we’ll have to take him back to the vet. Miraculously he survived a bout of mixi a couple of years ago……………….There you go


  2. Hi Karen,
    I started this am sending the fol email to Craig:
    ‘Am i right that it appears that Ms Nandy has totally spiked the guns of the fathers movement? Presumption seems to have been watered down to ‘involvement’ (despite half the consultees wanting it) We have had ‘involvement’ since 1989…a card once a year and an xmas visit is ‘involvement’…what is going to change? Or have i not picked up on the subtelty of it all??
    Then i read this blog. Seems i have got it right?! Very depressing…the only hope now it seems is if the ‘court woman’ who was bugging you some time ago on here- who said she had noticed a wind of change within the court system…has some veracity. What do you think?
    Have a look at my new Website!
    Best wishes


    1. Hi Anthony, I will take a look at your website later today, what is the address.

      I fear the ‘court woman’ who was on here recently is the one and same person who generally seems to hide behind a made up name and take a pop at me and other people who write blogs about family law. I had a chat recently with someone in NI who confirmed my suspicions of who it is, I don’t think we should hitch our hopes to that wagon.

      I am afraid that the wind of change that was so freely promised has turned into a whole load of funding for Family Mediation which, as we know, is only as good as the mediator who mediates. Now you being a mediator is a good thing, oh for more like you in the world, people who really understand what is needed.

      Sometimes I feel really angry that all of that promise has translated into an illusion, other times I think it is perhaps the thing that will galvanise the change that is really needed. One thing is for sure, hanging our hopes on the state is not going to do it. Doing it ourselves, just might. K


  3. Hi Karen,

    I always enjoy your blogs and largely agree with your analyses. As Chair of FnF NorthEast, a very active branch, I agree that FnF has run aground in England.
    Also, on the wider scene, it does look like self-help and almost starting again from scratch. Any suggestions as to how and who we can work with. Solidarity and numbers are always much better or the current Fathers (& Mothers & others) ‘separated’ movement will remain divided and overruled.
    Incidentally, Anthony, what is your website and who is Ms Nandy ?

    John Painter, Chair North East Families need Fathers


  4. Hi Karen – Did you hear about the most recent episode in the war on dads? The man who was sent to prison (and handcuffed to a hospital bed after a heart attack induced by his sentencing) for simply saying happy birthday to his son on his 21st? I think we can fairly well say that any hope for civilization is now lost.


  5. Thanks for your continued resistance though. One day in the future, long after we have destroyed the planet and each other, someone will come across the work you tried to do and it will get the respect it deserves outside of the unhappy dads club.


  6. John,
    Lisa Nandy is the Labour cabinet something or other to do with the family. If u read section 11 of the Family Law Bill..the important part for us…you will see that she has tried to introduce a plethora of amendments watering down this that and t’other..most of which have been withdrawn..but she is i think managing to ‘water things down’. Website:


  7. Mark
    I’m looking forward with interest to see how my ex (£90,000+ salary) will be able to manipulate the new system to her further advantage. Perhaps she’ll be able to ponder it while she’s on holiday in Tenerife, inspecting possible holiday homes!


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