This has been an interesting week so far. As the build up to Fathers Day begins, the Centre for Social Justice released their report on Fatherlessness yesterday. As Nick Woodall, husband of mine and co-worker, is on the Centre for Social Justice panel which is considering all things breakdown and breakup, I feel more than a little bit interested in this report, which tells us that one million children in the UK are growing up without any contact with their father.
I am also interested in the report’s criticism of the lack of investment or attention paid by government to the problem of family breakdown, something that is close to my heart given that I wasted many hours in 2011 helping the government to rethink services in this area. Co-incidentally, the CSJ report arrived in my inbox on the same day that I also received a video from the Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, funded by the DWP to support the reform of family separation services.
Comparing the criticism in the CSJ report with the outputs from the so called reforms of support for separated families, the comprehensive failure of the Coalition government to deliver on this score was starkly underlined for me. The dandy little video, came with a message from the Director of HSSF (once a manager of the Options call centre who now appears to have fashioned a role for herself as the Coalition’s family separation tzar), and features a boy growing to be a man whilst being handed between his two separated parents. The video leads us to the Sorting out Separation web application which, in our self appointed Family Separation Tzar’s words, leaves people feeling ‘upbeat and positive‘.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that the Centre for Separated Families was heavily involved in the work of the Coalition government in the early days. This included sitting on steering groups that were supposedly set up to reform the landscape around family separation services. Our involvement included designing the logic for the Help and Support for Separated Families web application, which was then handed over to the civil servants to connect up to the available advice. The disaster that became the HSSF tool led to us refusing to host it on the Centre for Separated Families website. Primarily because, in our view, it is too poorly connected up to available and appropriate advice to deliver consistent outcomes that promote collaboration. Which, at the end of every day, is our core concern. We don’t want to get it right for some parents, we want to get it right for every parent, because we know that family separation is appallingly painful and because we know that when we get it right, we deliver long lasting change which improves outcomes for children.
Given that the web application is itself, in my view, a comprehensive failure – being poorly linked up to advice and in some cases sending parents to inflammatory information that will make things worse, not better – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Department for Education’s efforts to change the Children Act and Edward Timpson’s mantra ‘nothing has changed, we just want dads to think things have changed’. Producing a skippy little video that promotes the message that kids do well when both parents stay involved is all well and good. The failure to produce anything underneath that, that actually works to ensure that both parents stay involved, is what matters.
And it is this failure – to produce anything underneath the illusion – that the Centre for Social Justice report highlights. Listening and watching to the reactions to the report, yesterday, I was reminded, once again, why significant change in support to separated families is so difficult to achieve. Leaving aside the lip service, the promises of change that do not materialise and the illusions that something has changed when in reality everything remains the same, coming out of yesterdays reactions is the real reason why support to separated families remains exactly the same as it has always been. The real reason why the UK faces fatherlessness on a massive scale is because men not valued, their role as fathers is considered unnecessary and this results in discrimination against men, which is not only tolerated, it is justified by everyone from politicians to service providers.
Analysing what underpins this sorry state of affairs is not difficult. There is, in our society, a deep seated loathing and fear of men and masculinity, which has led to a collective blame culture. In essence, underneath the inability to hold views about men which are ambivalent and which recognise that men can be both good and bad, runs a cultural psychological splitting which creates the belief that men are mad, bad and dangerous, whilst women are sane, good and safe. I call it the Bad Men Project (BMP), created in the second wave liberal feminist capture of social policy in the seventies and perpetuated as a universal truth throughout the ensuing years. Men are inherently bad and women are inherently good. It underpins everything that touches our lives and no amount of platitudes, in the form of fancy little videos telling us that kids need both parents, or tweaks to the Children Act will make one jot of difference to that reality.
The BMP, which is a product of our collective psychological splitting, is evident in the reactions to the CSJ report yesterday where one and all lined up to tell us that fatherlessness is a bad thing but it’s the fault of fathers themselves that we have such a problem in our land. Even the authors of the report and the Head of the Centre for Social Justice, Christian Guy, were heard to repeat the bad men mantra. ‘We are not blaming single mothers for this problem, most of them would like the fathers to be involved in their lives’, he said, during one interview. Listening to the way in which men as fathers were repeatedly battered by perceptions which have been created in order to keep our social policies in place, I began to realise how deep seated this collective hatred and fear of men really is. And why it is proving so difficult to achieve the paradigm shift that will allow separated parents to work together in ways that benefit their children.
The BMP is exemplified by the ways in which organisations like Gingerbread (architects and purveyors of many BMP fallacies), continually focus upon child maintenance and the need to beat men into conforming to the stereotype of provider. And by Relate, who are busy delivering online services to help dads to understand how deficient they are and how to change so that collaboration is possible. And also by the Fatherhood Institute, whose silence on the matter of fatherlessness speaks far louder than any words they have ever written about whose side they are on. The BMP is a collective brainwashing of our psyche. It works to scare us, terrorise us and set the conditions that ensure that men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t and any man who challenges that can easily be picked off by an allegation of bullying or worse. In short, men, as half of the human race, have, in policy terms at least, collectively become bogeymen; many either dislocated from their own masculinity for fear of offending women or rendered impotent unless deployed as secondary resources at the behest of women.
In the real lives of men and women, however, where ambivalence is still present and each are capable of doing good and bad things, life is not so starkly split and not so haunted by the bogeyman image. Until state services step in that is. What we know, in our work, is that when families separate, if we can get to them before the institutionalised services do, we can prevent the worst of the way in which the state acts… like an incendiary bomb. When we get there too late and parents have already begun to interact with roving domestic violence workers who seem to routinely attach themselves to separating couples, or state funded services which appear to be about collaboration but which in reality are underpinned by the BMP set of beliefs, the split that has already opened up at the point of separation is widened and the rot has begun to set in. Lives which were once reviewed as being normal, not unusual, are suddenly portrayed as being peppered with violence and control and dads who were once beloved and important in children’s lives are suddenly damaging, dangerous and frankly disposable.
The interaction of the state and shared delusion that is the BMP, is a poisonous one and it is the cause of fatherlessness in generation after generation of children. The BMP is at the heart of the Lone Parent Model, which divides parents into one who cares and gets all the state support and the one who provides and gets nothing but our collective vitriol. The BMP is also at the heart of the Children Act 1989 where the ‘rule of law that a father is the natural guardian of his legitimate child is abolished’, is a clause much overlooked and under considered. The BMP was at the heart of Harriet Harman’s unpleasant policy paper called ‘The Family Way’ in which the role of fathers is rendered unnecessary. The BMP is present in just about every CAFCASS office and every Social Services team in the land. The BMP is a hugely successful, collective and deeply discriminatory illusion, which drives our policy, poisons our practice and even involves men themselves in its perpetuation. The notion that bad men can be made good if they conform to the required social norms set by women being pervasive across family services. The Fatherhood Institute was even, unashamedly, set up on this seductive notion – that good men do what women tell them to do, whilst all the rest are mad, bad and dangerous to know. This face of acceptable fatherhood, has contributed to keeping the status quo in place for well over a decade now and effectively strengthens the BMP, rendering dads across the land vulnerable on a daily basis to ongoing individual and collective discrimination.
For me, the Bad Men Project is something that I have worked alongside and around for many years but which I am now no longer willing to collude with or tolerate in any shape or form. My refusal to engage with the state in developing services which create an illusion of change, whilst nothing has changed, is not one that is made on any other basis than my belief that equality means treating women AND men with respect and in ways that meets their different needs at different times. I do not want to offer men happy little illusions that they are important in children’s lives via videos or web applications, whilst at the same time delivering services or signing up to policies which I know are actively pushing them out of their children’s lives. Neither do I want to be involved in keeping discriminatory practice in place whilst perpetuating the idea that no bias exists other than in the minds of fathers. And most of all, I do not want, to work with families in ways that value and exalt one parent whilst the other is demonised and disposed of. Especially when I know how dangerous this kind of deluded practice can be for children.
As we head towards Fathers Day 2013, its time that the BMP was taken on and tackled by all of us who understand what it does to dads and what it does to our society. It is not fathers who are responsible for the ‘dad deserts’ that are described by the Centre for Social Justice report, it is the Bad Men Project; a collective delusion that drives our policy and practice, without which, one million children in this land on Sunday, would able to say to the man that gave them life:
‘Happy father’s day, dad.’