A report by the Family Solutions Group, entitled What about me?: Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation, has been published.
President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, said: “This report brings together the various lines of thinking of recent years aimed at finding a better way to achieve good co-parenting between separated parents. It is an important and impressive document.
“It should be a matter of concern for society in general to achieve better co-parenting between separating couples. It is thought that about 40% of all separating parents bring issues about their children’s care to the Family Court for determination, rather than exercising parental responsibility and sorting problems out themselves. This figure is both startling and worrying. Where there are no issues of domestic abuse or child protection, parents ought to be able, or encouraged, to make arrangements for their own child, rather than come to a court of law and a judge to resolve the issues.
“The number of these private law applications continues to increase, and the trend is that more and more parents see lawyers and the court as the first port of call in dispute resolution, rather than as the facility of last resort as it should be in all cases where domestic abuse or child protection are not an issue.
“For as long as I can recall, going back to Sir Nicholas Wall’s work on ‘Making Contact Work’ and indeed before that to the philosophy behind the Children Act 1989, 30 years ago, concerted efforts have been made to achieve a major societal shift away from seeing issues about ordinary child care arrangements as involving ‘rights’ or requiring legal redress. The Family Solutions Group are to be commended for mounting a strong case for major change; the courts can only do so much, any major change requires widespread engagement and support. The themes of this report should therefore be of interest to all.”
Here are five overarching recommendations from the report:
- Fill the policy vacuum. Family breakdown affects every government department and its annual cost to the nation is estimated as tens of billions. Yet there is no overarching policy or provision for the children of families who live apart, and no government department with responsibility for separating families. We proposed a coordinated, joined-up approach across government departments to tackle the financial and human cost of family breakdown.
- Change the cultural response to separation. Separating parents need to be steered away from acrimonious court proceedings, unless they need protection from abuse. We recommended a campaign of public information and education with the aim of achieving a permanent shift in cultural attitudes.
- Put the rights and needs of children at the centre of any parental separation. All the evidence points to the detrimental effect of acrimonious court proceedings on children, often for many years to come. Research is clear that psychological harm caused by parental conflict impacts children’s long-term mental health and future life chances. Children become silent victims as their voices are drowned out in the adult conflict and childhoods are lived against a backdrop of parental conflict, often continuing for years after any legal process is completed. We called for a reframing of the conversation so that young people’s needs and voices are centre stage when parents separate.
- Steer some parents to the ‘safety pathway’. There is no doubt that some families need assistance from the family courts: for example where abuse is alleged or there is the potential for harm (perhaps because of addiction or severe mental health issues). We estimate that 20-24% of families fall into these categories and in such cases safety must be prioritised above all else. We recommended that such cases are identified early and directed onto what we called the ‘safety pathway’. This will give them accessible and affordable support, and access to representation in court where needed.
- Steer others to the ‘cooperative parenting pathway’. For the remainder, we need to reframe the conversation so that a legal response is not the default option. In the absence of safety concerns, the goal must be to support parents to resolve issues in a child-focused way themselves. These families require a ‘cooperative parenting pathway’, which presumes that parental involvement, almost always in the form of contact with both parents, is beneficial to a child. Separation can be a distressing process, and we cannot ignore the hurt and often anger that some parents feel at this time. We called for a system which holistically assesses the needs of families and offers clear routes to integrated support and therapeutic services, funded (where financially eligible), and in which the voices of children are central. This will require better coordination of support both locally and nationally.
Parents and their children deserve a more humane response to relationship breakdown.