This is the sixth of the Family Justice Narratives. You can find out what the Family Justice Narratives are all about and how to get involved here. This narrative is in the format of an email addressed to me, and comes from Brian, a social worker.
NARRATIVE NO 5 : SOCIAL WORK PERSPECTIVE
Started reading your blog with interest and admire the way you seem to find incredible amounts of time and patience to debate with and answer contributors, especially the distressed and unhappy fathers who can be abusive and emotional. Dialogue is important but sometimes attitudes are so entrenched dialogue gets us nowhere. I’d just like to share my experience of working with children and families in the family court setting. I’ve no axe to grind other than a professional interest in truth and objectivity in so far as it can be achieved and in balancing some of what sometimes appears in your blog with my own perspective.
I’ve been in social work practice in the family courts for over 30 years as a practitioner, manager and also an experienced mediator. Some believe that people who do my work are not properly trained. I don’t know what training they believe is appropriate, but to hopefully satisfy them, I’m a registered social worker, have a degree in social work, also hold the professional qualification in social work, another qualification in psychotherapy, another in management, a MSc in conflict resolution and mediation and was trained in mediation at the Institute of Family Therapy. During my time I’ve worked with people abusing drugs and alcohol, victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and had some responsibility for a sex offender treatment programme in a prison, as well as working with possibly thousands of families passing through the family courts.
There is no doubt in my mind that fathers and mothers are equally important to their children and that parents are the right people to make decisions about their children. When a family breaks up, most parents sort parenting matters out themselves, though of course it must often be a sad business. Those who can’t do this, a relatively small proportion, turn to the family courts for help. When they do so, they are typically encouraged to either seek mediation or utilise the services of a family court adviser at first directions who will assist them in trying to reach agreement. Approximately 75% of those attending court take advantage of this and the matter often ends on that day with a consent order for the majority. These parents are not forced into an agreement but appreciate that they should be the decision-makers, sometimes see that their options are somewhat limited by their circumstances and may need to compromise to reach an agreement that is workable for them and their children. This is not a perfect service, time is short so meetings can be rushed, the views of children often cannot be taken into account (though there are schemes that involve children) and referral to out of court mediation involves some delay and will involve costs that some parents can’t afford. But it’s a largely successful attempt to deflect parents from damaging adversarial litigation to make their own decisions for their children. You could call it a satisfactory quick fix. There is of course the option of further mediation should they so choose later on.
Broadly, there are two groups not able to go down that dispute resolution/mediation path, some because it is felt their children or one party would be put at risk of harm – they need detailed assessments. The first group includes cases where there is evidence of neglect or abuse of children; domestic violence; substance abuse; psychiatric illness etc. The other group (approximately 10% of applicants in my experience) are mostly highly conflicted and unable to mediate as their hostility is too entrenched. This is the group that courts and organisations like Cafcass have most difficulty helping. Each party is highly emotional, cannot appreciate the perspective of the other and appear incapable of negotiating. This is what some researchers have referred to as ‘the selfishness of conflict’. Although parents in this group may love their children, they are preoccupied with hatred, hurt, desire for revenge and their rights. One parent may be more resistant and entrenched than the other, but usually both contribute to the level of hostility they are experiencing. Children almost always love both their parents, even when they are abused and are very resilient and loyal. But great emotional damage can be done to them by the long-standing and intense conflict of such parents (courts sometimes call it ‘implacable hostility’). These are the families where for various reasons, including the deliberate programming of the children by one parent to turn them against the other (by the mother or the father), children can align themselves with one parent to varying degrees or can be completely irrationally alienated from one parent and even from all the extended relatives on that side of their family (parental alienation). When this has been done it is hard to undo and experts do not always agree on the best way to do it, but wherever possible, continuing contact with the ‘target’ parent is essential.
There is no doubt in my mind that a child’s relationship with each parent is precious and should be maintained as much as possible after parents separate. I believe in shared parenting (though like you, I put a qualitative interpretation on that rather than a quantitative one – though I do take the point that a degree of quantity is necessary to allow quality, though quantity alone does not mean contact is of any qualitative benefit to the child) and I believe absolutely that a child thrives best when positive and caring relationships are maintained with both parents after family breakup. I am also in favour of shared residence where that is possible and workable and have recommended it to courts when giving advice.
I have met individual mothers and representatives of mother’s groups and domestic violence workers, who believe absolutely that the courts are biased heavily in favour of fathers and thereby put many children at risk; I have also met fathers and representatives of father’s groups, who equally, though rather more loudly, believe that courts always favour mothers and automatically accept any allegation mothers may make without evidence. My experience is that each of these perspectives is partial. I have not found any widespread bias against parents of either gender or courts that blindly accept allegations without evidence. It seems to me this is also supported by the research. That is not to say there can’t be individual cases of bias and some injustice. The biggest faults in the family justice system that I experience are: delay, which is appalling and abusive of children (and unfair to parents); lack of judicial continuity; the loss of legal aid for family proceedings, because many parents do not understand procedures and have difficulty presenting their case and asking questions – thus they may lose their right to a fair hearing, it also slows proceedings down adding to delay; changes in Cafcass practice which has moved away from actually working with children and parents to resolve their conflicts towards the production of written risk assessments, partly based on brief telephone discussions, which I regard as inadequate and sometimes unfair to parents (I think fathers groups could rightly and justly attack this practice and the reduction of dispute resolution opportunities at court which can only lead to more unresolved conflict, increased risk of litigation and longer gaps in contact). I share some of the criticisms of Cafcass made by others and want to see a new service set up that has learnt from past mistakes.
In terms of outcomes, I won’t quote statistics, but most applications by fathers are seeking contact, or increased contact with their children and they mostly get what they are asking for, or an arrangement close to it. A small but growing number apply for shared residence. Research and I think common sense, suggests that a 50/50 or thereabouts type of parenting arrangement needs a lot of cooperation between parents as well as: the availability of two homes with suitable accommodation for children within a reasonable distance of each other; parents with working arrangements that allow for the collection and delivery of children; and of sufficient means to afford or provide the necessary transport etc. Many do not have these resources and for practical reasons can’t provide such an arrangement for their children. Others are in such high levels of conflict that they’d never be able to cooperate sufficiently and it could be a living hell for their children. Most do not seek this kind of arrangement. One leading British researcher said to me that in her view, shared residence is unsuitable for most parents who go to court because their conflict levels are too high. These are the reasons, in my view, why shared residence is not more common.
In my experience of those families who go to court, the main cause of children not being able to spend the optimum time with each parent after family breakdown is the level of hostility and conflict between their parents and the various difficulties concerning violence and substance abuse etc. However painful it is for them to accept, parents are responsible for these situations, not courts. I meet so many children who are weary and embarrassed by their parents’ arguments and ask for my help in begging their parents to stop fighting and so many parents who will not listen to their own children who so often have reasonable and helpful views about the decisions that will affect them. The courts and social workers and psychiatric/psychological experts can only do so much to try and help, parents have to do the rest.