Festivities over and we are heading into what could be the last gasp of this parliament’s efforts to reform the family separation agenda. The proposals for the change to the Children Act are now making their way through the parliamentary process at the same time as the Department for Work and Pensions progress the reforms to the child maintenance system. In the Ministry of Justice, the funding for more mediation is heralded as the answer and, as we head towards April, private firms are jostling for position on cheap support options for the family courts as public funding cuts loom large. In all, it’s a fairly lively looking period during which the battle for hearts and minds will once again take off as the UK lurches under the pressure of the single parent and DV lobby to keep things the same, all the while desperately attempting to shift from the grip of the single parent paradigm towards something different.
It all seemed so hopeful three years ago. Ministers in places of influence and power had the kind of policy shifts in mind that were designed to make bold moves towards father inclusivity and a whole family approach that could change the lives of new generations of children. During the latter part of 2012, however, with the sacking of Tim Loughton and the promotion of Maria Miller to Culture Secretary, two of the people within the Coalition government who really understood what is going on in this country were removed from those positions overnight leaving a void. What we are left with feels like a shadow of what was intended and, with only two years maximum to go before another general election and potential change of government, the question has to be what, if anything, can and will change?
The issue for me, as always, is not about parental rights. It is about the needs of children to have relationships with their mother and father and wider family that best benefit them over their lifetime. For some, the issue is, however, all about rights, a focus that I worry misses the point too many times and, worse than that, allows the opposition to cultural and legislative change to win the arguments for hearts and minds.
Because this fight is not actually about fathers at all, it is about women and mothers and the way in which their needs, and their needs alone, are dominant within the single parent social assistance model that our legislation around separated families has been built for forty years. Within this single parent model, it is just not possible for fathers to be considered as anything other than a financial resource and it doesn’t matter how much we fiddle around with wording in the current legislation, the reality is that nothing will change at all until we shift our family policy from single parent to whole family support. This is going to require so much more than what this Coalition government has been able to achieve, though the pace of change was, at first, breathtakingly quick and promised so much.
What is left of that promise, however, is little more than a sop to those who wish to believe that change has come. As Edward Timpson told the Family Justice Committee in their scrutiny of the proposed change in the wording to the Children Act 1989:
“We are not looking to change the way a judge makes a decision based on the paramountcy principle. Yes, it will be clear on the face of the Act that they will be considering the presumption rebuttal that we have been discussing. To suggest that this is going to create a huge sea change in the way that the judges come to their final decisions about what is in the child’s best interests is not the intention. The intention, as I say, is to deal with the sense that there is an in-built bias towards one parent or another within the current system, to get more confidence into that system with those who come into contact with it, and that, ultimately, with that clear knowledge that that is the way the court’s thinking and process works to come to a decision, parents will think more carefully about how they can resolve their differences before having to go to court and have it all played out in the way that we know it can be.”
Which in other words, in my view, says quite simply, we are not looking to change anything, we are simply looking to make people think we have changed something so that they will make their arrangements outside of the court process.
And given that Justice Ryder, in giving evidence to the same committee suggested the proposed rewording would make no difference at all, it is unsurprising to see that the NSPCC’s thoughts were:
“It is very difficult for us to judge whether the individual decisions of judges will be affected by this. I have certainly heard evidence from Mr Justice Ryder and others that there will be no change in practice.”
Ahead of tonight’s Dispatches programme, derided by F4J for their lack of consultation with the group and heralded today by an article in the Express in which Baroness Butler Sloss makes it clear that the changes to the Children Act will not bring about the presumption of shared parenting that some say it will, the future for the shared parenting project in this country is looking bleak indeed.
Which leaves me concluding that what we are arguing for at the Centre for Separated Families is what is needed in this country – a wholesale reformation of the legislation surrounding separated families. Something akin to that which took place in Australia, in which the financial and benefits system was reformed at the same time as everything else. Without that, we are just tinkering with people’s perceptions and, in the words of F4J in the express today ‘it is likely to lead to more litigation not less’.
Looking over to the Department for Work and Pensions, where Iain Duncan Smith’s championing of fatherhood remains, hopefully, robust, the hopes for changes to the way in which separated families are supported lie with the Child Maintenance Commission and the reform of the voluntary sector services that support families. Here again, however, the promise offered by Maria Miller, of strong, swift and effective reform, appears to have somewhat slowed down. It remains to be seen what the future holds for support services to separated families. My fear is that we will be spending a whole lot more money for doing exactly the same as what we have always done. I hope I am proved wrong.
Which leaves us with the Ministry of Justice and the ‘magic wand’ that is mediation. How I despair when I see the millions being pumped into this – the hope being that a couple of sessions of mediation will help angry, hurt and vengeful parents to resolve their differences and make arrangements outside of the court process. It just ain’t gonna happen. It makes me smile (ironically) when I hear people talk about mediation. It is one of those words which has taken on an almost talismanic importance, especially in the world of policy makers. ‘Mediation’ I hear them say, in almost reverent tones, ‘mediation, will sort it out’. When mediation fails to sort it out, of course, it is not mediation or the mediator that is blamed but the parents themselves for not being ‘mediation ready’, or ‘suitable for mediation.’ Which is nonsense. Mediation is only as good as the mediator that mediates, in my view, and a mediator is just as likely to be as chock full of prejudice and bias as any other person in the street. As far as I am aware, mediators do not have to subject themselves to any kind of equalities training and neither do they have to challenge their own perceptions of what makes a good mum or a good dad. And when I last looked, mediation training did not have a great deal of focus on the neurobiology of the developing child, something that every family court professional should be examined upon in my view in order to force the understanding that children benefit enormously from their relationships with mothers and fathers (as well as other hugely significant men and women in their lives such as grandparents).
And so here we are. January 2013 and it’s all looking just a little bit tired and worn around the edges. The DV and single parent lobby will, without doubt, be pleased with the way in which the progress has slowed, it will give them time to regroup and consider their next moves. The rest will no doubt be either continuing to pin blind hope on the change to the Children Act, escalating action to try and highlight the sheer hopelessness of this whole project or just getting our heads down and carrying on regardless.
But what comes next will, for me, be the doing or undoing of the next four or more generations of children. And what comes next must be considered carefully if we are going to ever undo the damage that has been done to too many generations of our children.
Having been in this game since 1991 I consider myself to be something of a veteran in the field of family separation but even I, after twelve years of saying the same thing over and over again, am starting to wonder whether this society can change. Looking at all of the efforts of the coalition government it strikes me that the change we are seeking is not to be found in the tinkering around the edges or even in the rewriting of legislation from scratch (though that is sorely needed), it is in the hearts and minds of ourselves and each other and the relationship that we have between us.
In 2006 we, at the Centre for Separated Families, began to argue that the way forward for support to separated families lay not within the struggle for rights but in the reformation of the relationship between men and women and their responsibilities to children. We maintained that the rights argument could only lead to an escalation of the conflict that causes many of the problems that children face during and after separation. That the adversarial processes that are configured around rights were responsible for this and should be abolished. During that time, we also argued that fathers were forced into arguing for their rights because the legislation that governs family separation in this country is configured around womens’ rights. In essence, fathers were stripped of their rights so that mothers could obtain theirs. It hasn’t worked. It has lead to generations of fractured fathering and a devaluing of men and boys. It is time for something different.
What could be different is this. We need to shift the argument around post separation parenting from rights to relationships and break the grip of the belief that separation is all about individual rights. Instead of continuing the battle of mothers versus fathers rights, we need to refocus our efforts upon the need of the child to grow up in a world of relationships.
If we look at the issue from the perspective of children’s needs and we accept what people like the Mindful Policy Group tell us, that children need to grow up in a world of relationships, ideally between a mother and a father and all of the other important people in their lives, then relationship is what matters the most. Not rights, not our adult desires, not our sense of entitlement but the interdependent relationship.
And it is that relationship between parents that is effectively eradicated by the DV and single parent lobby after family separation.
Take a recent comment on the forum of our friends the Gingerbread women in a discussion about becoming pregnant accidentally. This discussion was focused around the way in which the woman concerned could ensure that she upheld her rights over the baby’s father’s rights and how to ensure that she maintained control. The conclusion drawn by one commentator was:
“Whatever you do, if you have any doubts, do not put him on the birth certificate, I really wish Id listened to my own instincts.”
Which for me says it all, really, and explains why fathers have, for the past forty years or so, had to fight to maintain a presence, never mind a relationship with their off spring.
The child that was being discussed on that forum had not even been born and yet already the discussion being held was about how to effectively eradicate any chance of the child even knowing who its father is. Instead of focusing upon the potential for a working relationship between the mother and father, all of the commentators homed in on the mother’s right to decide whether the father could be involved and, if so, how. Any chance that the child has of learning from a relationship between its biological mother and father is simply ignored. The inference I take from this being that fatherhood, unlike motherhood, is disposable, as are relationships in the world of the developing child.
Will 2013 bring anything different or will we continue our merry go round of attack and counter attack as the tide shifts and turns and we negotiate the nuances within it. Will rights, fathers, equal or human, win the day or will we decide at some point that if we want something to really change, we must do something very different. Working as I do in the relational world, where the ebb and flow of co-operation, care and compromise are keenly felt and the changes and challenges to individuals affect the relationship between them, I remain convinced that it is here that we must focus and refocus our efforts. That it is when we pay attention to what it is to be a mother or a father after separation and when we really care what happens to the family as it transitions from being together to being apart, we make a difference.
In a world far away from Gingerbread Land, where separating mothers and fathers are given the help that they need to cross the no man’s land called separation, caring about what happens to mothers and fathers is what makes the difference to children; those girls and boys who will, one day, be the next generation of parents. How we get to there from here is currently beyond me but I know somewhere inside that it is about working together for the well being of the relationship between men and women and the valuing of the differences between us. In the words of NLP ‘If we keep on doing what we have always done, we will always get what we have always got…’
In 2013, let’s have the courage to do something different instead.