Building a new future in a post Norgrove world

This morning, the Telegraph appears to be heralding a whole new world of possibilities in the post separation landscape. Sceptics will say that they will believe it when they see it, but if the Telegraph is to be believed, it appears that this government is about to ignore Norgrove and install the concept that a child should have a meaningful relationship with both parents into our collective consciousness and perhaps even our legislation. The dropping of the recommendation from the Norgrove Report on the Family Law Review, ignited the anger of fathers rights groups up and down the land and prompted threats of escalating action from F4J. The news that the principle that a child should have a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation is not, after all, going to be lost, should bring welcome relief to many as it represents a huge step forward in terms of equalities in the field of family separation. What happens now, in terms of how the principle is enacted, in the family courts, in our social services and most of all in the lives of families, is going to be critical. Now is not the time for banging the triumphant drum. Now is the time for all of us working with separated families and experiencing family separation ourselves, to work out how to build a new future for our children.

Many will consider that this principle is the starting point for a whole  raft of changes that will rebalance the power dynamic between mothers and fathers after separation. Rebalancing the power dynamic, should mean that both parents are enabled to have meaningful input into their children’s lives. It should also mean that mothers and fathers are enabled to work together to make choices and decisions about the things that matter in their children’s lives. The kind of input that has been denied to many parents (usually fathers) for far too long.

My view is that this is indeed a first step towards a greater potential for collaboration and co-operation.  It is also a first step towards greater liberation for mothers from the confines of the role of primary carer.  I have long considered the feminist project of burdening mothers with the role of carer to be suspect.  My understanding of second wave feminism, before it was hijacked by the liberal feminists, was that liberation from the strait jacket of strictly divided gender roles, was  a major driver in the fight for equality.  Somewhere along the road, the notion that women should be the primary carer for children and liberated from the need for men in either their own or their children’s lives, took over.  A grave mistake in my opinion and one that has lead to generations of boys and girls who have grown up without the internalised experience of mothering and fathering in relationship to each other.   Little wonder our girls grow up believing their primary role is to care for children and our boys grow up experiencing themselves as dispensable as fathers.

At last, however, someone is listening and not only hearing but acting upon what is being said.  Iain Duncan Smith and Nick Clegg are both cited in the Telegraph as wanting to reinstate the concept of a child’s right to a meaningful relationship, whilst others in the government are hard at work building the infrastructure that could bring the concept to life.  Times are, indeed, changing and there is a real opportunity now to consider the way in which we can, together, successfully enshrine children’s meaningful relationships with both of their parents within our culture, so that whenever a family faces breakdown, the first question parents deal with together, is how will we make sure our children continue to have a relationship with both of us that matters and makes a difference.

Easier said than done I would argue.  Having experienced it myself, and having worked in the field for two decades, I can testify that family separation brings with it a tsunami of feeling that can be about as toxic a human emotion as it is possible to experience.  Mix up the sense of hurt, betrayal and sheer injustice, with grief, loss and fear that comes with family change and you are dealing with human time bombs. Unfortunately, for too many families, the catalyst for the  point of  catastrophic explosion is relationships with children.  As the pain of separation becomes too great to bear, mothers and fathers become vulnerable to transferring their feelings about each other to their children and chaos erupts. In the midst of this, people working with these families are faced with allegation and counter allegation.  Sorting out a way forward ends up, for too many families, with the idea that children are better off out of the conflict, which effectively means without a relationship with one of their parents.  Because our cultural narrative remains sharply gendered (good women are caring and nurturing, good men are out working and supporting their families), the outcomes are, inevitably, that children lose their relationship with their father.

But a different way forward is possible and I firmly believe that we have the building blocks for this already available.  Getting the starting point right is setting out the concept that children have the right to a meaningful relationship with both of their parents.  The next steps are about setting out, to parents and those who work with them, what this means, what a meaningful relationship looks like and how to get there from the toxic place of pain and suffering that is experienced at the point of separation.

A meaningful relationship is more than an after school visit for tea once a week and it is more than a visit to dad’s every other weekend.  Meaningful relationships are not about visiting anyone, anywhere, at any time.  Meaningful relationships are about the warmth and closeness and safety and security that children have once enjoyed with a parent and about finding ways of continuing that.  For some children, those who were not able to be close to one parent before the separation, perhaps because of work commitments or a separation early in the child’s life, meaningful relationships are about the opportunity to get to know a child, develop that relationship and maintain it.  All of this requires commitment from both parents, commitment to the importance of mother and father and commitment to ensuring that despite adult differences, a child’s relationship with their other parent will be respected.

For many years the notion that mother is the only important parent in a child’s life has held sway.  The reality is that in the early days, it may well require mum to do more of the primary caring.  As children grow, however, they naturally begin to separate from their mother and their relationship with their father has more meaning.  Different children at different times in their lives will grow closer or more distant from one parent or the other.  Helping separated parents to understand this is one of the key strategies for building the skills for parenting apart.  Helping parents to understand that their roles can be flexible and interchangeable is another step forward.  Successful separated parenting depends upon both mother and father being able to understand the concept that the key thing a child needs is consistency and reliability.  If changeover from mum to dad happens at the same time each week so that it becomes a predictable event in a child’s life, it is absolutely possible for parents to share care.  If however, time spent with one parent or the other is erratic and subject to change too often, children find it difficult to make those transitions.  A meaningful relationship with both parents requires equality of commitment to being there for a child as well as equality of opportunity to be involved.

Those of us working with separated families need to understand how to support a meaningful relationship between children and both of their parents, something that many practitioners that I work with, seem to struggle with.  Hardly surprising when dad is waving his Contact Order around and demanding that the child be delivered to him at a particular time each week.  My starting point in working with meaningful relationships is to help practitioners to understand that the dad waving his contact order around in an angry manner is a disempowered dad, one who is very afraid that he is going to lose his relationship with his children entirely if he does not enforce his ‘contact rights’.  Building empathic understanding of angry parents, helps practitioners to engage with parents in a meaningful way, by walking in their shoes, practitioners can start to understand what a parent experiences when the family falls apart.  This therapeutic approach to supporting parents, means that the pain and the suffering is heard and heard well.  Acknowledging the blocks and the barriers to co-operation that parents face also ensures that the toxic feelings are ventilated and spent.  If a parent is telling the story and processing the pain, they are less likely to be storing up the tension and the risk of emotional explosion is reduced.  This approach is more than mediation, the sticking plaster that is often seen as a cure all.  Mediation can work, where the mediator really cares and really understands.  But  if we are going to help parents to ensure that their children have meaningful relationships with both of their parents, its going to take more than mediation to make it work.

I am however optimistic about the possibilities.  Surveying the landscape, I can see some real changes ahead of us, changes that will make it possible for us all to work together to bring about a different future for the next generations of children.  If the report in the Telegraph is accurate, then the government has taken a brave and incredibly sensible step in ensuring that the concept of meaningful relationships between children and both of their parents is not lost.  It is incumbent now, upon all of us, men and women alike, to ensure that the balance is brought back into our children’s lives in a respectful, committed and, most of all, meaningful way.

14 comments

  1. StuG · January 6, 2012

    “Meaningful relationships are about the warmth and closeness and safety and security that children have once enjoyed with a parent and about finding ways of continuing that.”

    Whatever way anybody tries to define ‘meaningful relationship’ in this context, it is unhelpful when they choose not to tag on the degree of time necessary to create and maintain one. The Australian Institute of Family Studies found this degree of time to range between 35-65% with either parent. Outside of this time, you have a relationship, but it is not of a meaningful type. It’s something else. The existence of a jurisdiction where 50/50 actually happens has enabled further research which claims the optimum meaningful relationship to both parents happens at 50/50; mothers actually ruin their relationship to their own children by over-exposure beyond the 50% bracket. But 35% seems to be good enough to ameliorate the poor effects of not having a meaningful relationship to both parents. Let those of us who write and are read get the definition straight and not let any legal drafter, politician or judge take advantage of our lack of clear definition by substituting their weasel words.

    “As children grow, however, they naturally begin to separate from their mother and their relationship with their father has more meaning. ”
    Let me quote from a piece on attachment I wrote last year:
    “……….Shaffer and Emerson (1964) found that 29% of 8 month old infants had a minimum of 2 attachment figures, rising to 87% by 18 months with at least 30% no longer attached to the mother as the primary figure. Cohen and Campus (1984) corroborated the 1964 findings. Weisner and Gallimore (1979) conducted a cross cultural study to find only one in five cultures had single primary carers. Rutter (1987) found attachment to be a reciprocal process dependent on quality of care………”
    So, the primary carer concept is artificial; it is an ideological, legal imposition; it is evil social constructionism (or rather, destructionism) at its very worst.

    “Hardly surprising when dad is waving his Contact Order around and demanding that the child be delivered to him at a particular time each week. My starting point in working with meaningful relationships is to help practitioners to understand that the dad waving his contact order around in an angry manner is a disempowered dad, one who is very afraid that he is going to lose his relationship with his children entirely if he does not enforce his ‘contact rights’.”
    Very true. You could mention though that the contact order dad waves would not be necessary were the mother of the majority sane type. Also, the contact will not be for 30%, 35%, or anywhere near that. It’ll be about 20% at very best, after years of court hearings. It’ll be a dad who knows he needs to action pack a busy weekend, or couple of hours, to try and boost the quality of the token contact to as near to meaningful as he can get whilst knowing he wont actually get there. When mum is late, probably persistently, the children miss the train, and/or miss the show.

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  2. ^^^ What he said

    Interesting read, but fundamental to Dad’s narrative is the fact that he is in the position he’s in at Mum’s commission.

    It’s the rampant misandry in the system that is the predominant problem. I have often said that if the parents agreed a residence and contact arrangement first, and then flipped a coin for who got which, that would be much fairer and much cheaper.

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    • karenwoodall · January 7, 2012

      hi,

      i would argue that contact and residence should be abandoned completely and the Australian model be adopted where both parents are regarded as lone parents for taxt and welfare purposes.

      i am not convinced that there is rampant misandry as you suggest, it seems to me that there is simply a lack of understanding of the experience of fathers and how they get pushed out of their childrens lives, when we work with early years practitioners I am always astonished at how aware they are if the ability of mum to prevent dad from being part of a childs life, what they want to know most of all is how their work can contribute to preventing this. Similarly, working with the Chid Support Agency in 2008, showed us that there is a huge awareness of how the system is used by mothers to beat up dad, many staff we worked with had sleepless nights over the treatment the Agency meted out to fathers. Thankfully things are changing now in the Child Maintenance system and there are some very switched in people in some very key positions who are able to bring about the change that is needed. lets not make this a gender war because it really is not, its about equality and balance and working together to get it right for the next generations. Very best. K

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  3. karenwoodall · January 6, 2012

    Stu, we dont agree on everything and the world cannot be changed in a day. Attitudes are fixed and need changing, starting where we are now and finding a way forward is essential. you know i do not support division of time in law, but it doesnt stop me advising and supporting parents to ensure children have plenty of time with each in ways that best benefit children. this is not an either or argument in my view, the nuances and complexities of family separation are best dealt with on an individual basis. Not every mother is hell bent on making things difficult and many are grappling with some nasty prejudices that arise each time women dont submit to their gender proscribed roles. And it doesnt matter which way you cut it, women bear children and until that changes, paying attention to the reality of what that means in those early days is also essential. It does not mean that dads are any less important or able to offer children secure attachments. It just means that children often are closer to their mothers at certain points in their lives.

    i fully accept and endorse what you are saying about dads waving their contact orders around, i work with too many for whom the fight is too long, too hard and too damned expensive to keep on going. changes that need to be made around cultural expectations are urgent so that dads dont have to face that horrible road through an adversarial court process. What we are doing at CSF, is working to change the cultural narrative in the early years sector (amongst other projects) so that dads are not routinely excluded and ignored from the pint of separation onwards.

    creating change is a mammoth and mulit layered task. Surely it is incumbent upon all of us working in this field to come together around our shared belief that children need good relationships with mothers and fathers. The womens movement fell at the first fence when difference of opinion and outlook took centre stage, lets not allow our differences to stand in the way of our collaboration. This has to be a step forward (if it is not derailed by infighting between governtment depts), supporting it together, however we make it manifest in our childrens lives, must be our shared endeavour.

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  4. Johnnie · January 6, 2012

    “Hardly surprising when dad is waving his Contact Order around and demanding that the child be delivered to him at a particular time each week. My starting point in working with meaningful relationships is to help practitioners to understand that the dad waving his contact order around in an angry manner is a disempowered dad, one who is very afraid that he is going to lose his relationship with his children entirely if he does not enforce his ‘contact rights’.”

    I used to be very angry and probably very difficult for mother to deal with as I was totally that disempowered dad and that feeling left me very fearful of the potential loss of relationship with my child at any time. I now have a Shared Residence Order after 2 hard years of fight and I feel so much more relaxed which allows me to be so much more flexible about arrangements and definitely a great deal easier for my ex to deal with.

    There is no panacea but there are guiding concepts:

    1. When mother has the feeling that she has someone to answer to if she misbehaves in ways that damage/prevent the father/child relationship, she is going to be SO much easier to co-parent with, and equally,

    2. When father feels secure enough that his relationship with his child cannot be prevented and is in fact being supported, he is going to be SO much easier to co-parent with.

    Shared Residence, Shared Residence, Shared Residence!!

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    • karenwoodall · January 7, 2012

      Hi Johnnie, I am delighted to hear that you have a shared residence order, it should be standard in my view regardless of how arrangements are made for time spent with children. Contact and residence are concepts we should abandon, they are divisive and do. Ot describe the ways in which many parents would like to arrange thing. For too many, the ifght over contAct and residence follows on from the financial arrangements where parents with care get all of the support and the other parent gets nothing at all. this is another layer of change that needs to happen, I prefer the Australian model where both parents are assessed for child maintenance And both parents are regarded as lone parents for welfare and tax purposes.

      Unfortunately for some people, a shared residence order means nothing at all. i work with parents who have shared residence orders but no longer see their children due to the negative influence inflicted by one parent against the other. This determined alienation often happens without any court intervention, even in the High Court where parents have been fighting for years, judgements ar made that exclude a parent often forever based upon lies and the power of one parent to infuence children to refuse to see a parent.

      In other cases, children are simply unable to cope with the split in their parental experience and they develop psychological resistance to transitioning between parents, this is something that is often exploited by a parent seeking to oust the other from their life,

      In my view the change that must happen is within our society. no legislation in the land will, of its own accord, remedy the terrible wrongs that are being done daily. We must fight for change within our culture as well as change the structures that govern us.

      The Centre for Separated Families works to build new support strategies for all parents, we seek to equip them with the knowledge of what happens to their children and how to manage problems and build good quality and flexible relationships that last over time. separated parenting is a skill for life, its not something we are readily equipped for. we consider that the more information, support and help that is available, the better the chances parents have of coping with the change. we campaign and lobby on behalf of families and we work with both mothers and fathers to encourage flexible cooperative relationships. We wold like to see more of what we do made available throughout the UK. We work with other organisations to make that happen. look out for the launch of our Family Separation Clinic website in the next couple of mnths, it will have a wide range of information and advice on childrens needs and how to support them, how to deal with difficulties such as children resisting or refusing contact and how to enourage collaboration from the other parent. We will also have forums on which we will discuss these issues and more.

      we are keen to involve parents who have experienced the difficulties and found ways of overcoming them, especially where collaboration and shared care is working. It sounds to me as though you have been riht through the mill and are now in a better position, you would be very welcome as a parent supporter in this arena, I will update you as we get closer to launch. Very best wishes K

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      • Johnnie · January 25, 2012

        Hi Karen,

        Thanks very much for your reply.
        Sorry for the late response but for some reason Yahoo decided to put all emails from your blog into my spam so I just noticed the update emails!

        I would be happy to be a parent supporter. Please keep me informed and I will do whatever I can to contribute.

        I have very recently experienced something new with my daughter and our Shared Residence arrangement. My daughter seems to be struggling with coping with the situation and is expressing an unwillingness to come to my house. It’s something that has been brewing for a few weeks and I believe my ex is revelling in it. It is therefore in line with what you say about Court Orders not being worth very much in some cases. Therefore, the parent spending the most time with the child will always be in a position to control the situation more. How can that be changed? No amount of legislation can address that sort of thing and re-education of mothers and fathers to ‘do the right thing’ is 1,000 years away in my opinion.

        It’s basically a very unnatural and difficult situation to manage when parents split, and I personally am thinking that it might be time for me to accept that one parent must be sidelined, albeit to a different degree in each case.

        Kind regards,

        Johnnie

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    • karenwoodall · January 25, 2012

      Hi johnnie, great to hear from you though sorry to hear things are turning more difficult, I want to send you some info on psychological splitting, something that some children in shared care situations become vulnerable to, it sounds like yours might be affected. ‘splitting’ is the root cause of parental alienation and if your child’s mother is using the anxiety that a child displays in splitting as a reason to stop or even reduce contact you must take action now. splitting is a reaction to a child finding it difficult to make the transition from one parent to the other and back again, its a coping mechanism that can lead to refusal to see a parent. But you can stop it and you can do a lot to protect it from starting again. Can you let me have your email address and I will send the info to you, the Family Separation Clinic at the Centre for Separated Families will soon be online at http://www.familyseparationclinic.co.uk where you will be able to download a lot of this kind of information to help manage children’s reactions at different ages. i will keep you in touch with our launch date so that we can discuss being a parent supporter too. Bst wishes k

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  5. Paul Manning · January 6, 2012

    Hello again Karen. As usual you come across as caring and sensible in your articles and I know that you deeply concerned about children and us many fathers who do not see thier own kids. However, even though you dwell on the good news that Norgrove has been put on the back boiler and we dads could possibly have better rights in the future, how will things change if mum, (or dad) continues to lie and about their x partner? I mean aren’t we still at square one if that happens? In my case I have lost my contact with my son, because the Judge chose to believe my x over me, there was no fact finding, just that if mom is possibly telling the truth, then better not take any chances with the kids! know what I mean. nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more. after separation, its just to easy for a parent to lie, and usually its mom that’s believed over dad. Your thinking that maybe im dwelling on the negative, but if this issue is not dealt with nothing will change, not in the female environment of Cafcass and the childrens courts. Sorry if I sound anti-mother, im not really, but im in contact with to many dads who would tell you the same old story… whoever is first to put the other in a bad light is the one who will probably get the kids… now thats has to change, because the propensity to lie is usually the mother and nat dad. Am I a shauvanist or what, tell me?

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    • karenwoodall · January 6, 2012

      Hi Paul,

      The problem is that family separation is so painful that it is bound to cause conflict between parents. When conflict erupts and outside agencies are involved, too often the idea that dads are dispensable whilst mums are not, drives the agenda. Even where outside agencies are not involved, the issue parents face in our current system is that the legislation set up to support parents automatically divides them into a parent who cares and a parent who provides. When we asked 100 parents, ‘who decided which one of you would be the parent with care’ all the mothers said ‘I did’ and all the dads said ‘she did’. To choose not to be the parent with care as a woman is incredibly difficult. Non resident mothers are extremely discriminated against, judged and found wanting by far too many people. So, we end up with mothers assumng the role and a culture in which practitioners assume that they a the proper carers for children. Following on from this comes all of the opportunities for mothers to mess up relationships with the other parent and interfere at will, though i should stress that not every mother does this, just as not every father fits the stereotype.

      When we recognise that conflict is a art of family separation and it can be resolved and it can be dealt with by giving the right support, the right tools, the right interventions, we will get somewhere. When we expect parents to work together and put concepts like meaningful relationships with both parents at the heart of our work, then we will move further towards poisitive outcomes. when we place sanctions on parents (mothers who block relationships, fathers who are not consistent and reliable), then we will start to offer our children what they need. Its not chauvanist to state what you see Paul, what you see is discrimination in action, its wrong and it needs to be stopped.

      The key thing for all of us is to remember that there are good mums and good dads and its not a gender war between us, we are in this together and working collaboratively could bring about big changes. I am one of a number of people working to create change for families so that children can enjoy their relationships with mum and dad. The more of us that work together the faster and bigger the change. very best. K

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    • Johnnie · January 7, 2012

      Paul,

      My heart goes out to you brother, having been through similar. Don’t you ever give up though. Take a look at this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/8995395/Divorced-mums-and-dads-could-get-legal-right-to-see-their-children.html

      It may be that Karen is right about the climate changing…

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  6. William B Hammond · January 10, 2012

    Karen, I’m with Paul on this one because he takes the pragmatic view: what really happens as opposed to what we would like to see happening. The false allegation is a huge problem, as is PAS, and to my mind even if a presumtion of shared parenting as a starting point becaomes the norm it will not address either of these issues. There may be little evidence of misandry in the family courts, but sadly it is in the culture and permeates almost imperceptably into the public consciousness. A typical example is the way in which the publics perception on domestic violence has been manipulated by well funded womens organisations. Judges make the final decision on who gets what, but rarely do they deviate from the recommendations made by court appointed social workers and Cafcass officers. And it is the views of these people that are often biased in favour of mothers. How do you legislate against that? If this sounds negative it is not the intention, but rather an attempt to take a realistic view of what happens in many cases. My firm belief is that it is almost impossible to swim against the prevailing culture, and it is that which we must set about changing first.

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    • karenwoodall · January 11, 2012

      William, i completely agree with you, the culture in which we live must change and we must find a way to change it. I do not beleive that misadnry is as rampant as it appears, in many arenas it is ignorance and unchallenged assumptions that cause the worst of the problems. We work regularly with the early years sector who very willingly go through our experiential training and realise as they do that the illusions that they have been labouring under are just that. Others go through it knowing that the stereotypes and illusions are there but they have no idea how to challenge them. Almost 100 percent of those people express delight at being able to work in ways that include fathers, they know how necessary it is. It rare that we get anyone wanting to get rid of men, particularly amongst the younger workforce.

      there has been a historical problem that liberal feminist academics have held a tight grip on the design and delivery of social policy around families but this is changing, I know because I am involved in this field. They are being challenged, particularly by this government and it is possible now for those of us working with a whole family approach to be heard and have influence.

      We must believe that balance is possible and work for it every single day, we will fail our children and their children if we do not. I am not a man and i have not had to face what too many dads have had to go through, but i have watched my husband suffer the horrors of it all for too many years, my greatest fear is that his son will go through the same. good men and good fathers being labelled and criticised and seen as dispensable, it is, to my mind, the shame of my generation. Best K

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  7. William B Hammond · January 14, 2012

    Hi Karen, if we can agree that changing the culture is the overiding issue here, even above reform of famiy law, then surely the next logical step is to take a close look at how the culture is formed and who is doing the forming. I have been in the workplace now for almost 50 years and worked for several large companies. In my experience, and without exception, the culture cascades down from the very top. The top people set the scene and those below have no option but to get in line for better or worse. Failure to do so means being sidelined for promotion or at worse the sack.

    Regarding family law, I believe we have the very same scenario, but it is absolutely clear to me that the culture is not confined to nations, but is in fact global. How can this be? Stephen Baskerville has recently wrote a paper on the worldwide influence of the United Nations, specifically the various womens groups, and how they have in turn influenced what has become a defacto globalised judiciary.
    http://independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_16_03_2_baskerville.pdf

    In the light of this information I think we need to ask ourselves what chance we have of changing anything on a national basis when the judiciary (and social services) are networking with each other globally and conforming to dictats and recommendations that emanate from outside our borders.
    http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/daw/index.html

    Of course many women suffer terribly in third world countries and UN Women take up these issues. But it would seem that in the developed nations we are seeing the overspill from treaties that are aimed elsewhere. For example, domestic violence has been a priority crime for many years now, which would appear to be a move in the right direction. Unfortunately the way this is applied in practice is that a father can be removed from his home immediately, even if he is only defending himself from an attack by his female partner. A policeman living next door to me confirmed that this was the case and the order had “come from the top”. He said he no option but to make an arrest and remove the father. There is something seriously wrong here and I suspect this order also emanates from outside our borders.

    For some reason there seems to be a reluctance on the part of those seeking reform to take a peek into the activities of the UN and how they have contributed to the inhumane treatment of fathers, and occasionally mothers. If we are to change the culture then I believe we must look further up the ladder, way above government.

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