There is widespread acknowledgement and research to confirm that children are affected by parental separation. For some children, the manner of separation and the childhood which follows will cause sufficient harm as to impact their whole life ahead. Which department takes responsibility to protect these children? Where does child welfare as prescribed by s.1 Children Act fall within government?
- Ministry of Justice takes responsibility for all families who bring their issues to the family court;
- Department for Education has responsibility for family hubs, but family hubs, and the Local Authorities through whom they operate, do not have any coordinated policy to protect the children of separated families;
- Department for Work and Pensions has the Reducing Parental Conflict programme, which overlaps with separated families but is not a dedicated resource for all parents and children of families who live apart;
- Department for Health and Social Care has responsibility for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) but no specific service exists to provide information and support for children and young people who experience parental separation.
- There is a ministerial position held by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, but the many responsibilities of the role do not include separated families.
- At present, family breakdown spans 14 departments, with no one department taking responsibility to ensure family separations are managed safely for all children.
The needs of children and their parents in the aftermath of separation fall into a political vacuum.
This need not be so. The FSG seeks a coordinated, joined-up approach across government departments to tackle the financial and human cost of family breakdown. We propose one lead department and one minister to oversee this large cohort of society.
The need for coordination
Over and over again, we have come up against the lack of political oversight and coordination fundamental to realise our recommendations.
- Which department will take responsibility for shaping public awareness of children’s needs when parents live apart?
- Which department will take responsibility for providing an authorised website, so parents, children and young people have access to reliable information and signposting?
- Which department will oversee the implementation of Art 12 UNCRC into domestic legislation to comply with our international obligations, backed up by policy and funding for children and young people as required?
- Which department will take responsibility for providing clear information to schools, GPs, youth services, health visitors and other touchpoints for separating families?
- Which department will provide early information and assessment meetings, to contain issues before they escalate and direct parents to the right support to meet their needs?
- Which department will oversee a national body of Separated Parents Information Programmes, so there’s easy access to a reliable programme by all parents who separate?
- Which department will gather data about the numbers of children who lose a parent relationship, outside of proceedings in the family court?
In every case, the answer at present is none.
The lack of political oversight in this area, which affects so much of society, is costly for us all. Taking just the financial cost, the annual cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer was estimated by the Relationships Foundation in 2018 to be £51billion, up from £37billion ten years before.
Of more significant concern is the cost to children’s lives caused by this omission in our public life.
So far, the moves for change have been driven by headlines regarding the unmanageable volumes of cases turning to the family court. As so often in matters of family breakdown, this frames the problem from the perspective of the adults rather than the risks to the children. The primary concern for society is the high volume of families in crisis and the lack of visible and affordable services to support them. The large numbers turning to court is a challenge. Yet, the real crisis is the impact on the childhoods of so many young people whose families are in difficulty and the lack of any infrastructure or coordinated approach to prioritise these young people’s wellbeing.
Better use can be made of the funds already available. A freedom of information request has confirmed that the total cost of the Family Court in the 2020/21 financial year was almost £326m. Redirecting parents who do not need legal intervention to services that would help them to find their own solutions outside of court would free up funds. These funds could be used to provide much cheaper information and support for such families at an early stage following separation and ensure a more holistic, supportive response is available to all.
The need for change
The need for radical change in our approach to parental separation has been recognised at the highest level. The President of the Family Division says his top priority is to sort out the problems of the private law system.
“I began this address by explaining that my principal priority for the next 3 years was to press for and achieve real change in the field of Private Family Law. If asked to crystalise that priority into one sentence I can easily do so. My aim is to use the FSG report ‘What About Me?’ as the blueprint for radical change and to do all that I can to press for its recommendations to be implemented.”
Jersey International Family Law Conference, October 2021
“The task of identifying, developing and then funding a better way to achieve good enough co-parenting between separated parents is a matter for society in general, policymakers, government and, ultimately Parliament; it is not for the judges. My purpose today is, therefore, simply to call out what is going on in society’s name, and at the state’s expense, and invite others to take up that call.”
Resolution Conference Keynote speech, April 2019.