Back in London after a week on the lovely island of Jersey, where our hope has been restored and our faith in humanity has received a huge boost. This week we have been working with a fantastic group of women who run Milli’s Contact Centre. Magical thinkers each and every one of them, they are lead by Denise, a woman with courage and passion and absolute belief in the power of the family and the importance of keeping children in strong relationships with both of their parents after separation. In tribute to the Milli’s team, this post looks at the template that this group of women offer as an antidote to the often lazy, shoddy, state managed services which have emerged from the Coalition’s efforts to reform family separation services. This team of women, like the team on the Isle of Wight, which was visited by Maria Miller in her incarnation as the Minister with responsibility for Child Maintenance, demonstrate the power of what can be done by people who care. And how little that costs. Contrast that to the £14 million currently being squandered by the Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative and you will begin to see why I feel ashamed at ever having been part of such a waste of time and money.
Milli’s Contact Centre is a place where mums, dads and their children are able to navigate the difficult tides that create tension after separation so that each parent is able to maintain their relationship with their children. This place is not a place where dads and kids meet in an atmosphere of hopeless scrutiny so often a feature of contact centres, far from it. Milli’s is a vibrant, happy, supportive place, where dads are highly valued and their relationships with their children are carefully nurtured, discreetly supported and most of all celebrated. For the staff at Milli’s, every dad who walks out of their centre for unsupervised parenting time with his child, is a success and another dad who has been helped to navigate the system to freedom. These women really GET IT, at a deep and intuitive level which is combined with a highly sophisticated set of skills for working with the whole family.
Over the course of this past week, these women have given well over 100 hours of their own time to be trained in our way of working with families. In truth, our way and their way has such synergy that it felt like we were bringing alive a real force for change on the Island. Half way through the week I felt my spirits soaring as we worked our way through the psychology of separation and the way in which this creates a life crisis for parents. I looked around at this group of women, for whom loss and change is a personally and as well as professionally familiar theme and could not help comparing them to the teams of people we have worked with from insitutionalised services. This group of women never once broke concentration in the daily 8 hour training we delivered to them, from the start to the finish they were interested, involved and inspired (as well as inspiring).
Compare that to the late arrival and early departure of the team that attended the HSSF telephony training course early this year and the additional lolling around and focus on going to watch the X Factor that went on throughout the day, all paid for by the state and accompanied by extreme indifference. When one is faced by this, it is easy to understand why community services are the way forward. When a family is going through a life crisis what each person needs is another who really cares, someone who is actually there in person as well as in spirit. Not some remote, disinterested, virtual service that offers platitudes in place of personal support and nonsense instead of nurture.
Milli’s is a magical place, it offers sixty families a year the support that makes the difference between fatherlessness and strong and enduring bonds between children and their fathers. At the same time, it provides mums with the support that they need to move into co-operative arrangements that are child focused and based upon the needs of the whole family. Staff from Milli’s provide this all at such a low cost it is unbelievable, raising funds to deliver the services themselves, through regular events which include throwing themselves out of aeroplanes from great heights. Not only is this community based voluntary services at its very best, it is service with a smile, a listening ear and a warmth which nurtures the soul. For those struggling through the very worst of what life has to throw at them, washing up on Milli’s shore is the very best that they can hope for, it is life changing as well as life affirming. Put it this way, if it came to choosing between HSSF and Milli’s after separation, I know where I would be heading!
Sadly, on Jersey, this wonderful community group also faces the approbrium of the state. Just like that faced by those of us who dare to criticise the mess which is made by the indifferent and uncaring servants of the state in the UK, Milli’s comes under attack from the Court based services which have been exported from here to there via the CAFCASS model. Having worked with the Milli’s team for a week it seems incredible to me that anyone could criticise and yet they have been lambasted, undermined and marginalised by the Jersey version of CAFCASS who consider that they and not Milli’s are the ‘experts’ and they and not Milli’s should be determining what happens to families after separation.
Just as those of us in the UK however refuse to be bowed, Milli’s has not buckled and neither has Milli’s been bought off by the state. This group of women have back bones of steel as well as hearts of gold and they have continued, in the face of everything that the state has thrown at them, to deliver their services with grace and with dignity and determination. So much so that not only do they continue to deliver for new families, those families who were diverted by the court professionals to the new services provided by the Jersey version of CAFCASS, have returned to Milli’s, where the care and the devotion to duty is palpable and where the door doesn’t close at 5pm on a Friday. Just as in the UK, when the state machinery has whirred on to another doomed effort to create change, community groups like Milli’s will continue to deliver the services that are depended on by ordinary folk in ordinary families.
Which leaves me here, back in London, heading into August, with some thinking to do. As usual this thinking is along the lines of scaling up what we can do in the community ourselves, away from the sticky fingers of the state and outside of the orthodoxy of the stranglehold of feminist analysis of family separation. This thinking, which was properly germinated during our visit to Northern Ireland this year, is about how we convene groups of people with similar visions and find the funding to grow our ideas. So that instead of having to engage with the state after separation, parents are able to engage with community services that are truly able to meet their needs.
What is always astonishing to me is that when these services are provided by people who are not indoctrinated with the poison of the patriarchal analysis (aka women’s rights), mothers as well as fathers are engaged in almost equal numbers. Which of course enables arrangements between parents to be made, not arrangements to be imposed by one upon the other.
This is far away from the ‘very worrying practice‘ which is what one feminist researcher accused us of in a text message this week ( I kid you not, this woman is someone who supposedly researches fatherhood from a feminist perspective, who took exception to my husband raising the issue of female violence in a forum designed to look at fatherlessness). Because it does not use the patriarchal model of gender based violence, but recognises that men and women, at the point of separation, get into fights as they struggle to become psychologically as well as physically separated. Far from worrying, this kind of analysis recognises that both parents are vulnerable and both parents are capable of hurting each other, sometimes badly.
As Denise, from Milli’s told us, where someone comes into our centre with the attitude that it is their right to control the other parent through violent language or behaviour, we put them straight right away and if they continue, they are ejected, immediately. And that goes for the women as well as the men. Listening to the women talk about the six foot tall fire fighter who was regularly attacked with a broom handle in his sleep by his drunken wife who wanted rid of him, I know for sure that Milli’s truly understands that family violence is not gender based, it is perpetrated by men as well as women, who each need support to get free from each other as well as the behaviour patterns that create such damage. Erin Pizzey would recognise these women, they are made from the same stuff as she and it is truly liberating to know that her understanding is alive and well in the channel islands and saving families from the scar of fatherlessness on a daily basis.
And so, here I am, back in the metropolis and full of the magical thinking that has infused our week with Milli’s. Soon, we will launch with this team of intrepid pioneers, the Jersey Centre for Separated Families, which will join the Isle of Wight Separated Families and, with luck and a fair wind behind us the Northern Ireland version too. Locally based community services which offer mums and dads a haven, a refuge, a place to recover from the maelstrom of family separation, in ways that support the family and nurture it as it goes its separate ways. Devoid of dogma, these services recognise the frailty and vulnerability of each person within the family and support their different needs through difficult times.
Magical Milli’s offers us the template for reconfiguration of many more locally based services and in the Autumn we will bring together a summit of people who want to work this way. Whole family, holistic and above all human to the core. A paradigm shift as yet undreamed of in many quarters, which is happening right here, right now and soon, if I get my way, also in a neighbourhood near you.