In the last 12 months or so, those of us involved in supporting families going through divorce and separation have been onlookers to any number of government announcements:
- Mediation will be the future;
- Huge cut backs in legal aid which will deny many hundreds of thousands of mums and dads the ability to gain legal representation;
- Norgrove and the Family Justice Review may enshrine a legal right for Dads to see their children post divorce/separation; and
- Norgrove will not be doing any such thing, following his review of the Australian legal system where such rights exist.
Finally, now the Government has announced that courts will be placed under a legal duty to ensure both mum and dad are given access to children in divorce settlements. On the face of it, this seems to be in direct opposition to what the Government’s own Family Justice Review will be suggesting. But even with this announcement there comes with it more confusion – what exactly does this ‘legal duty’ mean?
In my role as founder of OnlyDads (and its sister organisation OnlyMums) I have become dismayed at this Government’s ability to really tackle the problems that persist in this area. We need to consider some statistics:
The Daily Telegraph reported this week that 3.8 million children do not live with their dads. This statistic can be broken down to the fact that after five years’ post divorce, at least one in five children end up having no contact with their Dad. That is hundreds of thousands of children who never get to see their father.
Given that it is established wisdom that children prosper with a Dad in their lives, I think as a country we have to ask ourselves some hard questions; for too long we have been debating this subject on a misplaced agenda of ‘father’s rights’ and (in our view) a very limited understanding of what it means to put ‘children’s interest first’.
In the last five years, OnlyDads has been in something of a unique position in that we have encountered thousands of men who have come to us for advice, post-divorce. The sheer variety of advice sought and the stories we have heard leads us to conclude that three things really need to happen, and to happen quickly:
- We need a thorough piece of sociological research into the (often complex) reasons as to why so many dads are absent from their children’s lives. Continuing this debate on the half-baked belief that men are ‘feckless’ (see the PM’s statements on Father’s Day 2011) will get us nowhere. We have to fully understand the problems before we start arriving at possible solutions.
- We need to address the selection procedure and subsequent training of family law judges, family solicitors, CAFCASS officers and others involved in the family justice system. Too many involved in this work seem to conduct themselves with an inbuilt gender-bias towards Mum. Talk to any man who has been through Children’s Act proceedings and ask them if they have encountered ‘institutional sexism’. The answers may or may not surprise!
- Mums (and Dads) need more support to fully implement court orders once they are made. Too many orders are simply ignored. But again, the debate seems to be moving towards what sanctions can be applied (prison or fines or community service) when these orders are broken instead of concentrating on finding out the reasons why they are not working in the first place, and then providing the appropriate support to ensure they do work.
To conclude I keep coming back to the statistics of the number of children without dads in their lives. They make for horrific reading. OnlyDads has one plea to those charged with finding solutions: Find out and fully understand the causes – and only then try and bring in solutions.
The Justice Gap is part of the Mumsnet Bloggers Network.