In the midst of a heat-wave, as the pressure mounts and disaffected dads decide that they will no longer simply disappear into the shadows, I am thinking about the debacle that is the Coalition efforts to reform support to separated families and the futility and the financial waste that has gone alongside it. Like others, I am considering the ways in which the sticky fingers of the state and its institutions bring not resolution but ruin to the efforts of families to find ways of co-parenting after family separation.
From where I am looking the view is quite dismal.
We have the Child Support Agency, which used to spend 40p on every pound collection on the collection process itself. To ensure that the collection of child maintenance is not as costly to the state, we now have some services which are offered to poor people, some services that tell dads how deficient they are and a call centre which tells people how much he should be paying or how much she should be receiving. If that fails to ensure transfer of resources, payment is levied from parents themselves to cover the cost of transfer of funds and if that fails, enforcement with menaces is the order of the day.
Meanwhile, if you have issues about relationships with your children, you can apply for a contact order, have a mediation session, get a child arrangement order (pending successful progression through the legislative process) have it thwarted, but not have it enforced in any way shape or form because Liz Trinder et al have decided that enforcement is not necessary.
And just in case you find yourself in real trouble, you can go to mediation and the mediation fairy will make everything alright again for you by telling you to:
‘sit down David, this is not helping anybody. Now, what are your access arrangements?’
(Excerpt from HSSF video designed to help separating parents to make their own arrangements)
It would be funny if it were not so sad, so seriously damaging and so dismissive of the real lives and real needs of separated families. I cannot tell you how truly disappointed and how utterly nauseated I am by it.
Which leads me to thinking again about what lies ahead and what can be done differently given the heavy hand of the state has botched it so badly.
In my experience the worst thing that happens to separating parents is that they encounter the discriminatory legislation when they push up against it during the separation itself. The reality is that this discriminatory legislation makes things much much worse, not better. During times of high conflict and deep distress, the reality of this discriminatory legislation is forced upon parents through the state funded services which sit underneath it. Services which are riddled with assumption and bias and which are far removed from the reality of the lived experience of separating mothers and fathers.
I have no idea how we rid the state of those assumptions and bias. Having attempted for many years to raise the reality of the discriminatory practice around separated fathers, it seems to me that there is absolutely no appetite whatsoever to either listen to that or act upon it. Perhaps this is because it would take a change of primary legislation, perhaps it is because there is no-one shaping the new legislation that could deliver different outcomes, perhaps it just is that no-one cares about men as fathers. Whatever it is, the collective shrug of the shoulders in reaction to being confronted with the reality is enough to tell me that whatever we do to highlight the reality, the response will be just the same.
Which leaves us with the old saying, ‘if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got’. Now, more than ever, is the time to do something differently.
So what is it we can do differently? If saying what is wrong and showing what is wrong is not going to get us anywhere, if demonstrating different ways is not going to do it, what can we do that could really change the way that our families are fractured and fathers are forced out of children’s lives. What difference could we, the people who understand what is wrong, make to the lives of those who suffer on a daily basis, the loss and discrimination which is stitched into our legislation and the services that support it.
At the point of separation and even before it, there was somewhere to go where people were therapeutically skilled and able to hold and support you through the pain.
As two separating parents you were helped to listen to each other, helped to understand how your decision to separate will impact upon your children and how, by learning the skills of being a separated parent, you could prevent the problems that children in separated families experience.
Each time you encountered those people who are supporting you, you were met with the utmost respect, dedication and care about what happens to you as a mother, a father and your children.
Those people were willing to go an extra hundred miles with you as you suffered through the days and nights of the most painful life experience (apart from bereavement) it is possible to suffer.
That support was given to you by men and women, by mothers and fathers, by grandmothers and grandfathers, each and every one of whom had experienced your pain, your suffering, your loss and your sorrow.
Your experience as a mother and father were equally valued, equally recognised and equally support for the different things you bring to your children’s lives.
Your agreements were brokered upon that equal value by people who understand that family separation is always going to be about losing some of your precious time with your children.
You could express your suffering in ways that were not immediately interpreted within a framework of patriarchal analysis and that when you express a wish for your children to have a good relationship with their father, this is not interpreted as being evidence of you being controlled.
You could express your suffering in ways that were not immediately interpreted within a framework of patriarchal analysis and that when you say you have been battered by your wife and you are afraid, you are believed, supported and your wife is supported too.
You could express your suffering in ways that were not immediately interpreted within a framework of patriarchal analysis and that when you say you have been battered by your husband and you are afraid, you are supported and your husband is supported too.
There were anger management workshops that you could attend on a regular basis so that your understanding of the world as a violent and angry place is reduced and your ability to manage your angry and violent behaviour is supported positively instead of reinforcing your fear with the experience of being shamed by angry people who believe in a patriarchal society.
The people who supported you could help you to work out how to share your finances so that your children are never dramatically better off with one of you than the other and so that both of you can share care and provision for your children.
As you go through the early days of your new co-parenting agreement, you had a parenting co-ordinator walking with you each step of the way, easing the communication, teaching new behaviours, guiding and supporting you.
When it comes to meeting someone new, the skills you need to integrate your new relationship with your existing responsibilities as a co-parent, were readily available to you.
You never had to give your life over to the state because the support that you need is right there in your own community.
When you emerge from the process of family separation intact, you turn around and give a helping hand to those coming behind you.
The cost of delivering this whole new way of being, was a fraction of what you would pay the state.
In the field of family separation there are many many people who have the awareness and skills to bring together exactly what I have just described. We have legal people, we have therapists, we have social workers, we have parenting co-ordinators, we have mediators, we have conciliators, child psychiatrists, psychologists, goodness me we even have Judges who understand that what is currently being done is not what families need.
People who care, people who understand, people who are close enough to separated families to help them walk, step by step through the most difficult and painful times of their lives.
Men and women who do not need research studies, evidence based parenting programmes imported from other countries, wheezes with knobs on to lever out funding, to deliver the difference that separated families need.
And we have, what is needed most of all, we have access to the families who need the help that we can provide.
Families who, when they are able to get what they need in terms of support before the state run services step in, are able to take up the support that is given and deliver the difference it makes to the children who matter.
And it is amazing how many mothers as well as fathers want to make that difference to their children.
I am not saying that in doing this ourselves we will solve all problems. There will still be parents who wish to take control and utilise all of the powers that the state offers to ensure that they do. For the fathers (and some mothers who are subjected to this we will need the legal experts and the therapists to try to avoid the worst of the damage). We may even still benefit from the tiny tweaks in the legal system proposed in the Children and Families Bill (did you hear that trolls, I said we may even benefit from your so called ‘presumption’ of shared parenting), we can certainly work within that framework.
But it seems to me that if we keep on waiting for the state to deliver and we keep on subjecting parents to the institutionalised state funded services, we will keep on driving families to the same outcomes. Especially when we have to continue to work within a discriminatory framework.
But, brothers and sisters…. imagine the difference if we were doing it for ourselves.