National Family Breakdown Service for the UK?

karen and Nick Woodall

As anyone who has read this blog since I began writing it in 2009 knows, one of my long time hopes has been for a national family breakdown service.

In 2008, when we worked for the DWP in developing co-ordinated family services to support collaborative child maintenance arrangements, the focus was very much upon helping to close the gap between parents, which opens up when the family separates.

This gap, which is well articulated in the report released this week, by the Family Solutions Group, entitled ‘What About Me? Reframing Support for Separated Families, is at last being addressed.

This is an impressive document which is clearly researched and which identifies all of the points of difficulties facing families as they make the crossing from together to apart. Well balanced in terms of the acknowledgement of the need for assessment tools for issues such as domestic abuse, the report takes into account, but does not bend to the polarised positions within the parental rights groups, which demand the right to include or exclude parents on the basis of allegations alone.

Despite the somewhat ridiculous reporting by the Daily Mail on the report, in which they claim that divorced parents will be required to take an ‘eye contact test’ in order to determine whether they can share care, the level of detail in the report is heartening. Quoting from the book ‘The Guide for Separated Parents’ which Nick and I wrote together in 2007, the making of eye contact during handovers, is recognised in the report, as being an important behavioural support to children, which reduces the psychological and emotional gap that children must cross in the post separation landscape.

Eye contact is how we know that we are connected to other people. Those children who become alienated from a parent, are those who do not have support to make the psychological journey into the care of the other parent. Eye contact demonstrates permission giving, permission to love, permission to leave, permission to return safely. Eyes are indeed the windows to the soul, the neuroscience explains very well that the mirror neurons in the brain are activated by eye contact. Put simply, eye contact between parents on handover, assists a child to make the move from the care of one parent to the other by creatings signals of safety and acceptance. There is a reason why a nursery nurse will kneel down and make eye contact with mum or dad as he/she helps a reluctant toddler to make the crossing into the room. It is because the child in seeing that, receives the message that it is safe to make the crossing and that the nursery is a safe place and that mum or dad will come back to the collect them.

Whilst it is ridiculous of the Mail to suggest that an eye contact test can be applied, this simple guidance can be given to any separating parent who wants to help their child to feel safe in a new landscape. In our work with families over the years, we have had many responses which tell us that these simple things, make a great deal of difference in the lives of children and I am delighted that a book we wrote 13 years ago, is still relevant to the work being done now to support families through separation.

I am now working at the more complex end of the spectrum of family separation but I know how vital it is to have triage and early intervention services for all separating families in place. I have long been a supporter of the Early Interventions Project, which is a great example of how triage can work effectively in family separation support.

We have also continued to support families at the point of separation through our online resources, one of which is The Family Separation Hub, which has been run by Nick on a voluntary basis for the past decade. That the report recommends a national separated families hub, along the same lines, is something we both welcome, because we know from the feedback we receive from families all over the world, how such information supports this difficult transition time in family life.

This is a comprehensive report which has clearly looked at all the dots and joined them up to articulate the problems facing families in the process of separation and beyond. Whilst there is much to digest in the report and clearly, for the government, much work to do in creating the networks that are recommended, I look forward to seeing the positive impact that this will have on the work that we are doing at the most complex end of the spectrum. Because whilst it is not the case that early intervention can eradicate alienation completely, the provision of early support services can, without a doubt, triage those families who can co-operate into services to help them to do so.

Having flagged the need for a National Family Breakdown Service many times over, it looks like my long held hope, is one step closer to coming true. My reading of this report tells me that there is a rich infrastructure ready and waiting to be joined up in the UK, to bring the recommendations of this report to life and I wish the project to do that well.

The Family Solutions Group Report is called ‘What About Me – Reframing Support for Separated Families and it can be read here.

One thought on “National Family Breakdown Service for the UK?

  1. Working in mental health a lot of our work involves helping people who have been adversely affected by traumas of one kind or another. Family separation is perhaps one of those traumas that doesn’t get enough recognition. The impact that trauma has on our behaviour can potentially not only wreck our lives but also those to whom we are close, namely the family.

    The disruption of “attachments”, the social pressures of expectation, the name-calling, shaming and stigmas, the financial burden, isolation, angst, deterioration of physical health, the insecurity of the unknown, the unanswered questions, the relatives, the depression etc.………… all potentially contribute to irrational behaviours.

    You may be erecting psychological barriers, legal barriers, social barriers, geographically distancing barriers, as a defence mechanism just to maintain your own sanity.

    Or you could be the one clutching at straws, screaming for justice, demanding a recount, pleading innocence, complaining of the bill, declining into despair.

    Little Jenny and James are the innocent bystanders in all of this, swayed only by the winds of parental machinations, insecurities, ego and discontent.


    A national family breakdown service sounds like a brilliant idea to help us through this trying period and forward into a happy co-parenting existence, to aid in the smooth transition from one household into two. There is plenty of literature already published to help us through this tricky period.

    However, it’s success will depend upon the nature of the people who run the service that might assist us. What does “national family breakdown service” look like? Could it be run by Cafcass, an organisation geared to protect women’s interests, trained and educated to be wary of men’s culpability, or perhaps run by justice and financial fairness gurus instead forever wary of men’s financial ruin and loss of childcare time? Who respects the connection between a child and their parents without discrimination?

    There are various charitable organisations who have a vested interest in their adult clients none of which would be suitable for this kind of work.

    Co-parenting with the children commuting between two different households does work and is better for the children than complete separation from one parent. Everything depends upon the behaviour of adult caregivers. If there is to be outside assistance it must be focussed on the children’s needs. What is required of the parents? Where should their attention be?

    Early intervention, as in all areas of mental health, is key. What may have been an opportunity to give Dad/Mum more involved time with his kids making healthier connections with the child will be lost once the Court order which prevents him from going anywhere near the school is enacted. The opportunity to improve conversations with his/her children whilst in his care will have been lost once the children no longer want to see their Mum/Dad etc.


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