It’s January 2013. Christmas is behind us and, as the festivities fade, I am called to work with a family of five where separation looms. As I walk up the path to the door of the house and knock, I wonder who I will meet this time and what scene will greet me as I walk through the door. On my desk in my office is the draft of the telephony training that I have written for the Department of Work and Pensions initiative called Help and Support for Separated Families.
A tired looking man opens the door. He looks to be in his early thirties. I smile and he invites me in. As he makes tea, I listen as he tells me that he last saw his children on Christmas Day for an hour. It was the first time he had seen his children since he returned home to find them gone, along with his wife and most of the furnishings in the house. We sit on stiff backed kitchen chairs to drink our tea whilst thin, pale, fingers of light play on the floor in the space where the kitchen table used to be. I listen as he tries to tell me what has happened without crying. I put my hand on his arm to allow the tears to flow. I am reminded again of the horror that awaits too many fathers after separation. I try to remember to breathe.
Back at the office I open the draft of the telephony training. It is destined to train staff on national helplines to offer help and support to separated families. The idea originated in discussions that I had had with the then Minister with responsibility for Child Maintenance, Maria Miller. The reform of family services was intended to move delivery of support to the whole family after separation. I spent many hours sitting in rooms with the heads of government funded charities discussing how to achieve this. During this period F4J and Mumsnet had an angry encounter over the feminist discussions about men and boys on the Mumsnet message boards. At the time, I commented on the way in which this fight reflected the way in which mothers and fathers who are separating have to take up adversarial positions simply because of the way that the single parent and domestic violence lobby have dominated the field of family separation. I watched as the women’s rights representatives dominated the discussion space about family separation. I wondered why no-one representing fathers ever spoke up to defend them or reset the agenda. Working on the telephony training, I thought about the father I had just spent two hours with and wondered how I could ever write the kind of training that would develop compassion in the hearts and minds of the people who work in the field of family separation. Compassion for fathers too often being the missing ingredient in most of the support that is delivered to families after separation.
Two weeks later and I’m working as a parenting co-ordinator, bringing the three children of the tired looking man back to the half empty house that they used to call home, for the first time in three months. As we walk up the path the door is flung open and the man runs to greet the children, all of whom rush at him like hungry little animals dying for a feast. Inside, a makeshift table has been set up in the kitchen with three planks of wood across two chairs, a table cloth covers the wood and cup cakes with sparklers in them have been set out ready. The children are delighted and run through the rooms of the house looking to see the familiar places. ‘Come with us dad’, they shout, as they haul him off to play. I sit and drink tea and listen to the sounds of a family reunited, albeit with one person missing. The house is full of love that day.
In March, back at my desk, I find myself in an increasingly agitated state. Still working on the telephony training I am becoming more and more disillusioned with the Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative that I spent such a long time working on. Back in 2008, I had, alongside Nick, written, developed and delivered, a core part of the training that enabled the reform of Child Maintenance through the development of the Options service. Having been part of the reform of Child Maintenance since before Sir David Henshaw produced his review in 2006, I was well versed in its purpose and the intentions of successive governments to move from a punitive to a supportive system of post separation financial arrangements between parents. Between January and the end of July 2008, Nick and I worked twelve hour days alongside the Child Support Redesign Team in bringing the Options service to life. Between 2009 and 2011, we trained all of the new employees of the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission (as it was then called) Executive in whole family, gender aware, father inclusive support to separated parents. Our training was nominated and won awards, it was voted the best part of the Commissions induction programme. We grew more confident that whole family support to separated families was something the government would adopt on a wider scale. By 2011, when the Coalition government began its simultaneous reform of the Children Act and family services, we were hopeful that a breakthrough could be made. In March 2013, as I sit looking at the Web Application which is now widely touted by the DWP as a a tool to help parents to sort out separation, I feel my heart sinking. Though I had known, on the day that Maria Miller and Tim Loughton were reshuffled, that any real reform hopes were lost for good, the reality of the swing back to the same old women’s rights agenda begins to dawn on me.
April 2013 and I am back at the family home of the tired looking man, supervising ‘contact’ for him and his three children again. There are still outstanding allegations against this father which have not yet been heard in court and, for that reason, a continued supervision order is in place. At least we have managed to agree supervision outside of a contact centre although, looking around at the now practically empty house with the for sale sign outside, it doesn’t feel too comforting. The elder of the three children doesn’t want to play with his dad today and sits with me, chin on his chest and his eyes cast down to the floor. Nothing I can do will cheer him up. ‘When can I go home’, he asks me sullenly and I look around at the home he used to live and love and play in, which is now empty of all feeling other than loss and change. I put my hand on his shoulder and feel my heart sink further. I know what is coming for these children.
Summer arrives and I have decided that I can no longer support the DWP in their Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative. Inspired by a visit to Jersey and the work of some wonderful volunteers at Milli’s which is part of the Jersey Centre for Separated Families and linked in to our growing network, I write a blog contrasting that with the experience of working with managers from the Options service. I have pretty much made up my mind by now that I can no longer work with the DWP because what they have produced is so far away from what parents need that it will cause harm rather than serve to support collaboration between parents. The DWP don’t want me delivering the training I have written for their telephony service after this is published and I am glad to walk away from it. What began as a vision of reform of family services, with a telephony circle of leading charities working to help parents to collaborate, ends up with a tiny handful of organisations – one of which has clearly over exaggerated the number of people delivering their telephone services, another of which is unhappy with the concept of collaboration. Two of the organisations do have an understanding of what faces fathers and their children after separation so I comfort myself with the idea that at least my efforts went to supporting those.
Summer rolls on and I read that the DWP has funded a raft of new services to help parents to collaborate. One of these services has received funding to help fathers to understand what they need to do to stop the conflict and another proposes to tell dads how to stop being quite so deficient. Mediation is funded aplenty and I am unsurprised to read on the pages of one chosen organisation how women are more likely to live in poverty after separation than anyone else. Nowhere do I see a word about how supporting families to work together helps children over their lifetime. Elsewhere, someone is getting a gang of teenagers to raise money for an idea called ‘Kids in the Middle’, this is child labour for the twenty first century in my view, but hey, what’s not to like when its all about getting kids to tell their parents what they should be doing after separation! Snuggling in with CAFCASS and a few Family Law firms, Kids in the Middle will fit very nicely into the government funded family services, I think. Back at the tired looking man’s new flat, he tells me sadly that his eldest boy said to him last week that he doesn’t want to come anymore. I wonder how much longer the other two will keep making the trip.
Autumn, and I’m heading into a massive life transition. A house move looms and we have both left the Centre for Separated Families behind. Now we can properly focus on the work that we really want to do, which is therapeutic support to the whole family through separation and beyond. Our plans for research are coming to fruition and we are meeting new people, our new project, the National Network of Separated Family Centres is starting to flourish. The tired looking man cries as he asks me what he can do, now that all three of his children will not come to see him. The fact finding hearing in April found that there was no case to answer, the allegations were disproved, contact should have been happening every other weekend and once in the week in between. There is radio silence from his children’s mother. I try to find out what is happening. He fills out another court application.
It’s November when I raise my head above the parapet again. I have survived the move and am now heading into preparation for a doctoral thesis on generational patterns of estrangement in families where alienation is present. Cases are coming at me thick and fast and our therapeutic mediation services are in demand. I continue to act as a parenting co-ordinator for the tired looking man who is now thin and gaunt. I run a training day on Parental Alienation and as I talk about the process of delay in our family courts and the way in which an alienating parent has all the time in the world to build reluctance in a child to make transitions, I think of him and his children.
The following day I manage to get the youngest two to come with me to his flat where we spend three hours making and sticking and cooking and baking. The youngest takes a cake he has baked back to his mother’s house. She puts it in the bin without even opening the bag. I watch the boy’s face as he struggles with the confusion caused by her actions, I can tell he is wondering what he has done wrong. I gently try to let mum know that her actions speak too loudly in her son’s ears, she snorts in derision at me and tells me its a trick her ex is playing to try and use the kids to ‘get back in’ with her emotionally. I go home and, as I sit on the tube reading, I see an article by the head of the single parent charity, Gingerbread, in the paper. Single parents ‘you’re brilliant’ goes the strap line. I think about the little one’s face as the bun in the bag went in the bin. I wonder how, for so long, our children’s precious hearts and minds have been allowed to be treated with such callous indifference. Where are the services that help parents to understand the impact of separation on their children? Where are the helplines that offer advice and guidance? Where is the compassion that offers grieving and heartbroken parents and their children, the support that they need to recover from one of life’s most awful challenges? Gingerbread’s CEO is ranting about the money that single parents need. I close the newspaper. My heart feels heavy in my chest.
And so this is Christmas 2013 and I am about to close down for a few days to rest and recuperate so that I can return to my work with renewed vim and vigour in 2014. Yesterday I went to see the tired looking man, who is thin and gaunt and has almost given up. His children keep saying they do not want to see him. A CAFCASS officer will visit him just after Christmas. We drink tea and I put my hand on his forearm as he cries again. I make sure he has people around him during this most awful time of year for separated families who are still in the early days, I tell him over and over again to hang on, to keep going, to never ever give up.
Back at the office I read about the millions just granted by the DWP for more mediation and, bizarrely, for gardening and painting activities, as part of the Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative. Thankfully, Nick gives me a copy of the Centre for Social Justice report Fractured Families and I am heartened to see that our visions and our values and our expertise are not completely lost. Nick’s work on Child Maintenance has contributed to the report and I can see that there is a way to keep hope for change alive. I talk with colleagues about the Early Intervention Project; we hatch plans to bring it back to the public stage for discussion in 2014. I plan more work on research into generational experiences of parental alienation. The ideas of equality, dignity and the relationship between us are never more important to keep alive than now.
I pick up the phone and its the tired looking man. He is distraught and I cannot hear what he is saying. When I finally calm him down enough to hear him, he tells me that his ex has made more allegations against him. All contact is suspended pending investigation. A court hearing has been set for mid March 2014.
On LBC Radio, F4J are talking about fatherlessness and the family courts, the issue rising rapidly to the surface via the fight between this campaign group and Kate Winslet’s statements about the living arrangements of her children.
I think about the space that opens up between parents after separation and the appalling lack of guidance and support that remains and the family law process, grinding its slow and painfully destructive way, leaving generation after generation of fractured and fragile families.
And I think about the tired man and his three children who will grow up without a father, burdened by the responsibility of having to choose between two parents.
Towards equality, dignity and respect for the relationships between us.
Happy Christmas Britain.