Magical Milli’s: the future is in our hands

Back in London after a week on the lovely island of Jersey, where our hope has been restored and our faith in humanity has received a huge boost.  This week we have been working with a fantastic group of women who run Milli’s Contact Centre.  Magical thinkers each and every one of them, they are lead by Denise, a woman with courage and passion and absolute belief in the power of the family and the importance of keeping children in strong relationships with both of their parents after separation.  In tribute to the Milli’s team, this post looks at the template that this group of women offer as an antidote to the often lazy, shoddy, state managed services which have emerged from the Coalition’s efforts to reform family separation services. This team of women, like the team on the Isle of Wight, which was visited by Maria Miller in her incarnation as the Minister with responsibility for Child Maintenance, demonstrate the power of what can be done by people who care.  And how little that costs.  Contrast that to the £14 million currently being squandered by the Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative and you will begin to see why I feel ashamed at ever having been part of such a waste of time and money.

Milli’s Contact Centre is a place where mums, dads and their children are able to navigate the difficult tides that create tension after separation so that each parent is able to maintain their relationship with their children.  This place is not a place where dads and kids meet in an atmosphere of hopeless scrutiny so often a feature of contact centres, far from it.  Milli’s is a vibrant, happy, supportive place, where dads are highly valued and their relationships with their children are carefully nurtured, discreetly supported and most of all celebrated.  For the staff at Milli’s, every dad who walks out of their centre for unsupervised parenting time with his child, is a success and another dad who has been helped to navigate the system to freedom.  These women really GET IT, at a deep and intuitive level which is combined with a highly sophisticated set of skills for working with the whole family.

Over the course of this past week, these women have given well over 100 hours of their own time to be trained in our way of working with families.  In truth, our way and their way has such synergy that it felt like we were bringing alive a real force for change on the Island.  Half way through the week I felt my spirits soaring as we worked our way through the psychology of separation and the way in which this creates a life crisis for parents.  I looked around at this group of women, for whom loss and change is a personally and as well as professionally familiar theme and could not help comparing them to the teams of people we have worked with from insitutionalised services.  This group of women never once broke concentration in the daily 8 hour training we delivered to them, from the start to the finish they were interested, involved and inspired (as well as inspiring).

Compare that to the late arrival and early departure of the team that attended the HSSF  telephony training course early this year and the additional lolling around and focus on going to watch the X Factor that went on throughout the day,  all paid for by the state and accompanied by extreme indifference.  When one is faced by this, it is easy to understand why community services are the way forward.  When a family is going through a life crisis what each person needs is another who really cares, someone who is actually there in person as well as in spirit. Not some remote, disinterested, virtual service that offers platitudes in place of personal support and nonsense instead of nurture.

Milli’s is a magical place, it offers sixty families a year the support that makes the difference between fatherlessness and strong and enduring bonds between children and their fathers.  At the same time, it provides mums with the support that they need to move into co-operative arrangements that are child focused and based upon the needs of the whole family.  Staff from Milli’s provide this all at such a low cost it is unbelievable, raising funds to deliver the services themselves, through regular events which include throwing themselves out of aeroplanes from great heights.  Not only is this community based voluntary services at its very best, it is service with a smile, a listening ear and a warmth which nurtures the soul.  For those struggling through the very worst of what life has to throw at them, washing up on Milli’s shore is the very best that they can hope for, it is life changing as well as life affirming. Put it this way,  if it came to choosing between HSSF and Milli’s after separation, I know where I would be heading!

Sadly, on Jersey, this wonderful community group also faces the approbrium of the state.  Just like that faced by those of us who dare to criticise the mess which is made by the indifferent and uncaring servants of the state in the UK, Milli’s comes under attack from the Court based services which have been exported from here to there via the CAFCASS model.  Having worked with the Milli’s team for a week it seems incredible to me that anyone could criticise and yet they have been lambasted, undermined and marginalised by the Jersey version of CAFCASS who consider that they and not Milli’s are the ‘experts’ and they and not Milli’s should be determining what happens to families after separation.

Just as those of us in the UK however refuse to be bowed, Milli’s has not buckled and neither has Milli’s been bought off by the state.  This group of women have back bones of steel as well as hearts of gold and they have continued, in the face of everything that the state has thrown at them, to deliver their services with grace and with dignity and determination.  So much so that not only do they continue to deliver for new families, those families who were diverted by the court professionals to the new services provided by the Jersey version of CAFCASS, have returned to Milli’s, where the care and the devotion to duty is palpable and where the door doesn’t close at 5pm on a Friday.  Just as in the UK, when the state machinery has whirred on to another doomed effort to create change, community groups like Milli’s will continue to deliver the services that are depended on by ordinary folk in ordinary families.

Which leaves me here, back in London, heading into August, with some thinking to do.   As usual this thinking is along the lines of scaling up what we can do in the community ourselves, away from the sticky fingers of the state and outside of the orthodoxy of the stranglehold of feminist analysis of family separation.  This thinking, which was properly germinated during our visit to Northern Ireland this year, is about how we convene groups of people with similar visions and find the funding to grow our ideas.   So that instead of having to engage with the state after separation, parents are able to engage with community services that are truly able to meet their needs.

What is always astonishing to me is that when these services are provided by people who are not indoctrinated with the poison of the patriarchal analysis (aka women’s rights), mothers as well as fathers are engaged in almost equal numbers. Which of course enables arrangements between parents to be made, not arrangements to be imposed by one upon the other.

This is far away from the ‘very worrying practice‘ which is what one feminist researcher accused us of in a text message this week ( I kid you not, this woman is someone who supposedly researches fatherhood from a feminist perspective, who took exception to my husband raising the issue of female violence in a forum designed to look at fatherlessness).  Because it does not use the patriarchal model of gender based violence, but recognises that men and women, at the point of separation, get into fights as they struggle to become psychologically as well as physically separated.  Far from worrying, this kind of analysis recognises that both parents are vulnerable and both parents are capable of hurting each other, sometimes badly.

As Denise, from Milli’s told us, where someone comes into our centre with the attitude that it is their right to control the other parent through violent language or behaviour, we put them straight right away and if they continue, they are ejected, immediately.  And that goes for the women as well as the men.  Listening to the women talk about the six foot tall fire fighter who was regularly attacked with a broom handle in his sleep by his drunken wife who wanted rid of him, I know for sure that Milli’s truly understands that family violence is not gender based, it is perpetrated by men as well as women, who each need support to get free from each other as well as the behaviour patterns that create such damage.  Erin Pizzey would recognise these women, they are made from the same stuff as she and it is truly liberating to know that her understanding is alive and well in the channel islands and saving families from the scar of fatherlessness on a daily basis.

And so, here I am, back in the metropolis and full of the magical thinking that has infused our week with Milli’s.  Soon, we will launch with this team of intrepid pioneers, the Jersey Centre for Separated Families, which will join the Isle of Wight Separated Families and, with luck and a fair wind behind us the Northern Ireland version too.  Locally based community services which offer mums and dads a haven, a refuge, a place to recover from the maelstrom of family separation, in ways that support the family and nurture it as it goes its separate ways.  Devoid of dogma, these services recognise the frailty and vulnerability of each person within the family and support their different needs through difficult times.

Magical Milli’s offers us the template for reconfiguration of many more locally based services and in the Autumn we will bring together a summit of people who want to work this way.  Whole family, holistic and above all human to the core.  A paradigm shift as yet undreamed of in many quarters, which is happening right here, right now and soon, if I get my way, also in a neighbourhood near you.

15 comments

  1. mnuttall75 · July 28, 2013

    In September I will be taking over the management of a local parent and toddler group on behalf of the church. It makes me so sad to see non-resident parents, where there are no safeguarding issues, using contact centres as a place to develop meaningful relationships with their children.
    I for one spent nearly 2 years using the facilities of a nearby SureStart Centre for unsupervised contact. The support at this centre was fantastic and the ability for both mum and dad to be supported was essential in working towards a co-parenting relationship. This approach to child contact led me to where I am today. My vision is to expand our well attended group to attract non-resident parents as well as resident parents, providing a sanctuary for a few hours and supporting the family to achieve a positive outcome for their child(ren).
    It really pleased me to read about a community project which operates a model which I know from experience works. It worries me that this is not something CAFCASS would support for reasons that you mentioned. Will that stop me? Not at all, and I know it will not stop you either. Keep up the great work.

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    • karenwoodall · July 29, 2013

      Hi, it sounds as though you are doing what we are doing, finding places to establish community services for mum and dad. The reason JFCASS will not support Milli’s in any significant way is, I imagine, the same reason why CAFCASS are so resistant to community based services, the attitude that they know best and that unless a service treats dads as dangerous until proved otherwise, it is not to be trusted. The problem is that the state and its agents treat separated families as if they are problem families not families with problems and by doing so it pathologises them and says that only social work models of support will do in working with such families. Its all wrong and, in my view, a product of the way in which the feminist underpinning of social work has affected all of family services. In 1970 when the divorce rate rocketed, family separation was seen as a feminist issue, it was about liberating women from marriage, that notion still underpins all family services in my experience even though we are 40 years beyond all of that. This is why state services are so resistant to the work that we do with families, because the state in the arena of the family is still largely controlled by feminist academics and their counterparts in the voluntary sector, which is why fathers and fatherhood are seen as the problem and anyone speaking up for the family is seen as undermining women’s rights. A complex combination of rights based arguments which are dressed up as ‘in the best interests of the child’ in my opinion. What the state is actually doing is upholding the best interests of women at every end and turn, children and the loss of their relationship with their fathers is simply an ‘unintended consequence’ of that.

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  2. Anonymous · July 28, 2013

    Great to read about such positive people, people who genuinely care. Actually there are a great number of people just like them, going about supporting and listening carefully. Sadly all too often these people don’t make good news stories as there is no sensationalism, nothing to ‘dig up’ on them.
    I know from my own experience that getting involved with any organisation who is affiliated in any way with government, or someone who is making money out of the issue you are trying to work on, is tainted.
    They have employees who are doing a job of work,their hearts are not genuinely concerned, it is not an issue that they have been personally involved in. The true experts are those who are living through separation of one sort or another, ourselves.
    I am delighted that you have spent a week in the company of likeminded uplifting people, they are out there.

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    • karenwoodall · July 29, 2013

      They are out there and they are truly the backbone of what we need to help families who are struggling with the fall out from separation. The people I have worked with in government are but pale shadows compared to the vibrancy and skill of those who care and want to help others. It was a ridiculous notion really, to think that staff from the Child Maintenance Commission could implement such services, I fell for it because we originally trained all of the people who were delivering it, what I didn’t factor in was the way in which the state interferes with the psychology of its workers, ensuring that each and everyone one of them readily forgets anything that goes against the indoctrination of the state and that working for the state appears to effectively eradicate not only free will but conscience too! A lesson well learned for me and timely too, I am happier in the community and more effective, being with people who understand and really care was always the place I wanted to be. Now I just have to work out how to upscale what we do in ways that do not allow the state to interfere which means working out how to find the funding and how to deliver around the back of the government so that no-one has to interact with it, they can just do it for themselves.

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  3. Sue Deans · July 28, 2013

    Thank you Karen, we feel reassured and invigorated by your and Nick’s dedication and enthusiasm

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    • karenwoodall · July 28, 2013

      its a positive reflection of how we feel Sue, those mirror neurons did us all good last week! We were so pleased to meet and work with you all, you are inspiring as well as hugely skilled and I am just delighted that Jersey has such a rich seam of support for families, we look forward to working with you in months to come. K

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  4. Nick Langford · July 28, 2013

    You seem to be surrounding Britain with an off-shore ring of dogma-free, inspirational thinking, Karen. I hope you can begin to tighten the net and bring these initiatives to the mainland. I have no doubt that these small-scale, community based initiatives are the way to go, and not government-run, ideology-riddled services, just as it is far better for parents to be helped to agreement themselves and not have solutions imposed on them by a judge.

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    • karenwoodall · July 28, 2013

      Up to Scotland and over to Wales next for our work Nick, we will keep on keeping on until one day, what we do is what everyone would like to do and then when its the thing that everyone does, our work will be done and we will get some rest! One fine day!

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  5. Anne O Regan · July 28, 2013

    Karen as always you cut through the crap.Could you help us in Wales? Currently there is a policy consultation on debating positive parenting and the legal defence of reasonable punishment of the child.We also have proposed legislation on ending violence against women domestic abuse and sexual violence.The latter does not recognise women can be perpetrators and only sees them as victims. It also demonisies and stereotypes men and boys. So one proposed policy ,sees boys as victims and the other does not. We need some joined up thinking to sort us out.
    Also do you think a petition of some kind could help magical Millis.

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    • karenwoodall · July 29, 2013

      Hi Anne, we will be heading to Wales in the Autumn and we will do what we can, I am aware of the Welsh nightmare that is the VAWAG proposals and how they will impact on men. I think Magical Milli’s will do ok, they have stood firm in the winds of change and with our support I think they will be well on the way to establishing a firm new base for their Centre. The community around them love the work they are doing and recognise the impact of JFCASS, I would love to think that in time JFCASS could learn from this group of women, they would be absolute fools not to. WIll let you know when we are heading to Wales. K

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  6. Grandmani · July 29, 2013

    Well done to Magical Millies… Karen hope you can come down to Bristol sometime soon where Jane has been running a good grandparents support for over two years.
    I feel sure our members would support any new action to help parents and children in conflicts -our sons,daughters and grandchildren.

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    • karenwoodall · July 29, 2013

      Grandmani, we have a workshop set for the Autumn in Bristol, our schedule will go up in the next couple of weeks, I will post it on here but I know for sure we have booked in a full day workshop for parents and grandparents in Bristol and I will liaise with Jane to let her know too. K

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  7. Anonymous · July 29, 2013

    Hi Karen. Thanks for taking the bull by the horns. As all the family focused groups throughout the Country begin to grow and flourish we will become less dependant on the poor services that are currently available. Rather than encouraging the existing services to change you are growing something much better….it’s like a projection of your personality, quite refreshing! I would like to see your pdf file on the ten stages of transition. Quite apart from the value to my own family I will be able to help those in our group with similar problems. If there isn’t a group of like-minded people in Sheffield perhaps you can help me set one up. Although I feel that the monthly meetings we currently hold are a vital support mechanism it obviously isn’t enough to cope with families in crisis.

    Kind regards

    Andy

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    • karenwoodall · July 30, 2013

      Hi Andy, I will put the Ten steps over the transition bridge up this morning, and yes, we would love to assist where-ever we can in setting up local community groups, it is most certainly, to my mind, the way forward. K

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  8. David Pearce · July 30, 2013

    I used Milli’s contact centre when I separated from my first relationship with two children. Milli’s helped me immensely and now my two boys stay with me regularly, and more often as the months go by. My relationship with their mum is now exceptional and they have helped both of us beyond what I could explain in words. Our children are happy.

    I am now separated from a second relationship from which I have a daughter who I have been trying to get contact with through the Jersey Courts for over 9 months, experiencing many of the types of issues you have mentioned.

    This is a quote from an email I wrote months ago (in January 2013) to a legal agent…

    ————————————————————————————————————————-

    I have been down this road before and come out the other end with the support of Milli’s. In short, what they are doing is amazing, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Yes, it takes time and support, but it is not a 9-5 job and the helpers at Milli’s are there because they want to be there with no financial reward (on a Sunday!). I suppose it is not rocket science really… They have no timesheets, just TIME, to adapt, understand, work with, be there for, and support families. This coupled with a flexible, TRUE interest in what benefits the children of separated parents.

    ————————————————————————————————————————

    The lawyers don’t care. They have no ethics, they are not required to.

    Please, please, please keep pushing for Milli’s… I don’t understand the wider picture across the UK or anywhere else, but I know that people who live where I live, and most importantly, the children who live where I live, need Milli’s when their parents break up.

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