Why family separation is an equalities issue

On the heels of the PM’s outburst about runaway fathers, comes the launch of the new Fathers 4 Justice campaign.  This time the strategy is personal and its right on David Cameron’s doorstep.  The Hunger4Justice Campaign will see founding father of F4J Matt O Conner go on hunger strike, whilst a camp will be set up outside the PM’s private residence to highlight the protest.  Letters and photographs from families who have lost touch with their children after separation will be on display at the camp and a Hunger4Justice ‘battle bus’ will be deployed to keep the presence of the camp on everyone’s radar. Say what you like about Matt O Conner, whatever he does, he doesn’t do it in half measures.

There will be many attacks on this campaign, which also kicks off during the same time that the government’s response to the Green Paper on reform of the Child Maintenance Commission is published.  Child Maintenance, long the battle ground of lobby groups supporting single parents, is just one of the issues facing separating mothers and fathers.  For many however, it is the only issue that separated fathers should be concerned about, paying for kids being far more important than any kind of continued relationship with them.  F4J have rightly highlighted the ways in which fathers are often seen as little more than ‘walking wallets’ after separation and have argued that fathers can and should be so much more to their children.  As the single parent lobby and the fathers rights campaigners line up for the fight however,  it is critical that the core issues facing separated families are not lost in another round of gender wars.

This battle is not about mothers versus fathers although it may seem that way.  This battle is about a fundamental equalities issue, one that will affect our children for generations to come.  In a country already experiencing one of the highest rates of intergenerational family breakdown in Europe, it seems to me essential that we look at the ways in which our current policies and practice have failed our children.  It is also essential to look beyond the stereotyped rhetoric that the single parent lobby groups are so fond of.  The idea that all family separations are about a deadbeat dad who runs off and leaves an heroic mother to bring up children single handedly is one that has been forced upon our policy makers for too long.  As I never tire of saying, the fact is that there are some dads who run off but there are many more who don’t.  The reason why we have another generation of fatherless children is not down to dads, its down to outdated policy and practices that force fathers out of their children’s lives after separation, reducing them to a non resident parent or, as is more often the case, a non parent.  When everyone from the PM down falls for the stereotype, how can fathers possibly compete?   Dads who stick in against all the odds must lose all hope and all heart as they battle day in day out to stay close to their children, all the while being labelled, categorised and judged.  In any other field of equalities there would be an outcry at the blatant discrimination faced by fathers and the way in which this is peddled by the single parent lobby.

The UK currently configures its support services to separated families around a forty year old ‘lone parent’ model.  This means that it delivers all support to one parent and sees the other as holding the responsibility to pay.  This model has been in place for decades now and for too many families it is a strait jacket that limits choices, burdens one parent with the whole of the caring responsibilities and pushes the other parent out of children’s lives.  At the heart of this lone parent model of support was the Child Support Agency, a body that was brought into being in the early nineties, ostensibly to deal with the increase in births outside of marriage and the dependency upon the state that this created. At that time the single parent lobby did an excellent job of ensuring that single parents were not scapegoated and the rhetoric soon shifted to focus upon fathers.  The fact that many children were born without fathers present in their lives because women chose to have children that way was soon lost and instead the rise of the feckless father took pride of place in our consciousness.  Over the next two decades, the fact that family separation affects all families, across the whole of the socio economic spectrum, with the majority having been married before the split, became hidden from our policy makers and practitioners.  The question always on my mind is why?

At the heart of the lone parent model of support to separated families is an absolute focus upon women’s rights.  When current separated family policy is analysed through a gender lens it is glaringly obvious that the emphasis is upon giving women the power to choose how they live their life after separation.  This right to choose how to live life, includes the right to choose how and when a father is involved in a child’s life after separation.  In our current separated family policy,  there is a primary and secondary parent in a child’s life, the primary parent being known as the ‘parent with care.’  We have moved on from the days when the other parent was labelled the ‘absent’ parent, but not much.  These days the other parent is called the ‘non resident parent’, with all the connotations of this label.  Regardless of the fact that the only place that these labels ever had any meaning was in the old system of Child Support, the single parent lobby continues to use the notion of the poor ‘parent with care’ and the ‘non resident parent’ hell bent on avoiding paying his child maintenance in their campaign work.

It is no accident that most ‘parents with care’ are mothers.  Becoming a parent ‘with care’ after separation requires the receipt of Child Benefit.  Given that almost 100% of Child Benefit is paid to the mother, (it has to be, it was designed that way,)  it is not difficult to see why the majority of such parents are women.  All that is left for the single parent lobby to do then is to ensure that mothers are not stigmatised for bringing up children alone – ‘single parents – you’re brilliant’ goes the strapline of one leading single parent lobby group.  Given that in family separation someone always has to take the blame, its not difficult to see why it is fathers who carry the can in every conceivable way.

Which brings us back to the Fathers rights lobby and the real reason for F4J’s return to the battle ground.  Fatherhood has taken an out and out bashing over the past four decades.  In a gender war to capture the control over how generations of our children are brought up, fathers have lost each and every campaign.  Even our fatherhood lobby has emasculated itself for fear of giving offence.  Acceptable fatherhood is now about wearing the right baby changing mat as fashion accessory or about asking permission to have a relationship with a child.  Any sense that fathers have not only the right but the responsibility to be masculine in their children’s lives has disappeared.  Little wonder that those seen as the ‘extremist’ end of the fathers rights lobby are battling back again.

Family separation is an equalities issue and whatever you feel or think about F4J do not let this cloud the fact that fathers are being discriminated against in our policies and practice around separation.  The reason we have so many children growing up without father’s in their lives is not because dads run away, it is because our policies and practice push them away.  Don’t let the single parent lobby fool you, this is not about the well being of children, its about the rights of women to control their own and their children’s lives after separation.  I have absolutely no problem with the existence of the single parent lobby groups, for those mothers bringing up their children entirely on their own I applaud the work that is being done.  What I object to however is the way in which the single parent lobby seek to portray every separated family as being the same and every father as being in need of punishment or enforcement measures.  Their efforts are seen in the PM’s message on Father’s day and in the recent media reports from the Work and Pensions Scrutiny Committee on the Child Maintenance Reforms.  If this government is forced by this to make yet another U turn, this time on the reform to Child Maintenance, it will be a massive step backwards and yet another victory for discrimination against fatherhood.

The battle for equality around family separation is about ensuring that mothers and fathers maintain their relationships with children after separation. It is about making sure that one parent is not advantaged over the other and that our children get the role models that they need in order to go on and build successful relationships in their own adult lives.  The upcoming reforms to Child Maintenance herald a new era in achieving this, removing the automatic use of the Child Support Agency and returning the choice about how to support children to parents themselves.  This respectful engagement with separated families leaves behind the notion that one parent is wholly good and the other wholly in need of punishment.  It also removes the stereotypes from family separation and frees men and women to negotiate the road ahead.  For the single parent lobby, the idea that many fathers might just be capable of being responsible for their children without a big stick beating them into submission is an anathema, something to be avoided at all costs.  For the fatherhood lobby it is something to be welcomed with open arms.  For the rest of us, working with separated families without the strait jacket of gendered policy will enable us to bring about better outcomes for children and a world in which mothers and fathers remain present in their children’s lives after separation.

I am under no illusion, these are uncertain times in the field of family separation and what happens next will affect our children for generations to come.  I have long fought for equalities in this field, the right for mothers and fathers to choose how they maintain their relationships and responsibilities to children after separation and I will continue to do so.  This is not about championing fathers over mothers and its not about one being better or more necessary than the other.  Its about the different things that mothers and fathers bring to their children’s lives and about helping our boys and our girls to feel good about being male or female.  Our children need balance in their lives, they need the difference that relating to mothers and fathers brings.  It is not acceptable to bring up another generation of boys knowing that they will be subjected to the same kind of discrimination as their fathers and another generation of girls who will be burdened with the role of caring alone for children.

The possibility of change is within our grasp, the single parent lobby will fight it all the way, F4J will starve themselves to bring it about.  Those of us who understand what is at stake must speak up now, tomorrow may well be too late.

15 comments

  1. StuG · July 6, 2011

    Well, well, Karen finally comes off the fence. But the only way to get fathers back into the lives of their children is to tell them it is ok for them to do so. To remove the obstacles. To adopt the rebuttable presumption of shared parenting, and define it as the Aussies have – 35-65%. And to stop lawyers, social workers, judges, gender biased agencies and the state being pimps and single mothers being their financially and ideologically enslaved whores. When it pays to share care of children, it’ll happen. Funny enough, research suggests it does, but policy points mothers the other way, showing that the system we now have means mothers lose money of they allow contact – see here:

    https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0BypP5tNaxQHWZjRkMTNmMmItNGRhMy00NDFjLWI4YzktYjg3OWUyYjE1NjYx&hl=en_US

    A very good research paper, but even this researcher cannot, in his closing sentence, rise above the ideology that support for a child is defined in terms of money only.

    Like

  2. karenwoodall · July 8, 2011

    Stu, a note of caution, some single mothers are bringing up kids on their own because the father of their children walked out and wasn’t interested, I know, I was one of those mothers, the father of my child left me when I was pregnant to bring up my daughter entirely on my own. Its not as simple as saying that all single mothers are, as you so delicately put it ‘ideologically enslaved whores’. Some women have vested interests in ousting the fathers of their children from their lives, many more don’t. Its as dangerous to indulge in attacking mothers as it is to indulge in attacking fathers and it serves absolutely no purpose in delivering better outcomes for children.

    Like

  3. Kip Miller · July 8, 2011

    Karen, Well done! Kip

    Like

  4. Kip Miller · July 8, 2011

    Karen,

    Make sure you see my YouTUBE video clip which features your previous article, “Shared Parenting Study from Oxford University is ‘Mischievous’ ”

    Many thanks,

    Kingsley Miller kip

    Like

  5. Kip Miller · July 8, 2011

    Karen,

    Also if you have time you might like to scan my submission to the Judicial Review Interim Report,

    http://ukfamilyjusticereview2011.blogspot.com/

    Kingsley Miller

    Like

    • karenwoodall · July 8, 2011

      Thanks kip I will take a look at both. K

      Like

  6. Peter morris · July 8, 2011

    Excellent post

    Like

  7. Sean Regan · July 8, 2011

    Karen,

    Well done and thank you for writing this. I was not aware until reading your article that becoming a parent ‘with care’ after separation required the receipt of Child Benefit. This is not a fair way of accessing a child’s needs and needs to change.

    Another injustice on this subject is if the parent with care is deliberately intent on preventing access and the magistrate offers the minimum access, they ask the parent with care to feedback if the contact is or is not going well. Mmm…let me think what the parent with care seeking to stop access will say?

    Like

  8. David · July 9, 2011

    What needs to be attacked is Feminism, it is behind all of it. Matt O’Connor and his awful wife are merely using this issue as a platform for themselves, don’t forget to but some merchandise will you 😉

    Like

  9. Dave James · July 9, 2011

    This puts everything that I have been struggling with over the past ten years into context. I wish that you could get this message across to the Government and the relevant departments.

    Like

  10. StuG · July 14, 2011

    I accept your comment above Karen. I have no time for dads who do not wish to be involved with their kids, but plenty of time for those who do but can’t.

    I will, however, guide readers to the following research about social workers ignoring dads as policy:

    Brown et al, 2008;
    Manufacturing ghost fathers: the paradox of father
    presence and absence in child welfare:

    https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0BypP5tNaxQHWNWJmYTdkYmQtOWZiOC00OGNlLWJiNGMtNTE1NWJmNjVkMTAx&hl=en_US

    On http://www.sharedparentingresearch.info are nearly 30 research papers on the benefits of shared parenting and deleterious effects on children who, for whatever reason, do not have contact to their dads. But when dads try to get contact and it involves the assistance of social workers, they meet the responses outlined in the above linked-to research.

    Put yourself in the position of the average separated dad. He has to pay maintenence, pay increased rent if he wants to have a home fit for the kids to enjoy overnight stays. But then he has to litigate, costing thousands, and, in may cases, this precludes his ability to pay maintenence and higher rent. So, for as long as he unavoidably litigates to have contact, he can’t afford it, or anything else. He is also whore to a lawyer. Young dads must then be shocked at what they encounter when they listen to family division judges. It’s easier to keep your money, shrug off having the responsibility for kids, and smoke dope to deal with the pain of separation. What is the point of having a job and earning money only to litigate it away for years on end, whilst being ignored at institutional level by social workers and old fart judges?

    In my view, no father who chooses the dope and deadbeat route is any more irresponsible than one who faces the courts for an unspecified and unpredictable outcome. Money to drug dealers, or money to lawyers. What is the difference? From what I have seen, the guys who disengage and go on dope and dole and do not bother with the courts are less damaged than those who engage in long term campaigns with false allegations of dv etc etc. If the government chooses to validate a system which inflicts psychological torture, it has no right to demand that victims voluntarily channel themselves as the government and socio-legal professionals intend. There is far too much emphasis on the deadbeat dads, not enough on the causes.

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  11. dermot · November 27, 2011

    single parents your brilliant indeed.

    their forum is full of men and women convincing themselves that it is ok to cut a child off from their other parent. its the children’s choice etc

    the reasons would be laughable if they were not being used to countenance emotional abuse of children. one mother is described as an alcoholic and the child has been allowed to set boundaries for the contact. Another parent is described as having made bad decisions and has a short temper..

    the children without contact are of course flourishing etc and their is little insight into the long term damage and emotional impact of the loss of a parent.

    this country is quite mad and the culture that has allowed this nonsense to prevail is corrupt and fails our children.

    Like

  12. Darren Sharrocks · November 29, 2011

    Stug again the emphaisis on “i have no time fo dads” nothing said i have no time for mothers who deny contact etc, it feels the sterotype, Thanks for the research links

    karen good article i agree.

    Like

  13. Darren Sharrocks · November 29, 2011

    https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0BypP5tNaxQHWZjRkMTNmMmItNGRhMy00NDFjLWI4YzktYjg3OWUyYjE1NjYx&hl=en_US

    This paper to me talks about selling contact time to fathers in exchange for child support, This disgusting, It views children as goods or comodities to be battered by the mother. No thank yiou very much

    why not stick the kids up for sale in a slave market and be done with it

    Like

  14. Bartholomew · April 19, 2012

    I wonder if those who deny gender inequality in family law would still think the same if we had a culture where men did all the childcaring and women had to work, pay maintenance, and only see their children a couple hours twice a month? Hmmmm.

    Like

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