This is the fifth of the Family Justice Narratives. You can find out what the Family Justice Narratives are all about and how to get involved here.
NARRATIVE NO 5 : Anonymous Advice Worker
- Tell us where you fit in (solicitor, barrister, social worker, guardian, judge, researcher, court staff, something else)
- Tell us about your typical week
- Tell us about where you’re at this week (bad week, good week, rewarding week, soul destroying *headdesk* kind of week?)
- Tell us about the highs and lows and the reasons you do the job
- Tell us about what works well in the system and tell us about what does not work at all
- Tell us about how you see the family justice system and how you think others see you and the system you work in
- Tell us about an important influence on your work
- Tell us about how you combine your family with your work and how your experiences impact on your relationships and your parenting
- Tell us – would you choose this job in your next life? and will you be doing it in ten years time?
- And tell us your bright ideas for change and for dialogue
I suppose I fit in two main ways:
Firstly, I am an adviser to parents on family law. On a daily basis I speak to separated parents about their issues around contact, residence, PR, child maintenance and welfare benefits and property rights. As well as giving parents information on the legal aspect to their situation, I feel that my job involves discussing the ‘softer’ issues around their situation, such as exploring the reasons why they feel a particular way about something, the way their actions could be perceived by others and the possible reactions to that behaviour and looking at the situation from the other parent’s perspective. I approach my work from a standpoint of trying to see if any solution can be found to resolve the issues they have and exploring these softer issues can sometimes help the parent see a different way of trying to achieve a solution. In doing so I aim to maintain their focus on the child and on ways in which they can move their situation forward. It’s important that I keep bringing them back to what they are trying to achieve: the best possible outcome for their children. When not advising parents I’m working on policy development contributing to government consultations on child maintenance, the Family Justice Review and the Welfare Reform Bill, and also help get information out to parents in a variety of ways to try to raise awareness of the free advice we can offer. I’ve also worked on published texts on child support legislation; worked closely with CMEC on their information output and worked with two different universities on both undergraduate and postgraduate knowledge of child support legislation.
Secondly, I’m one of the children that has been through the family justice system due to separated parents. This is probably the fundamental reason as to why I do my job and why I engage myself with the parents and policy issues as I do.
This week has so far, seemed a very typical week. Nothing majorly startling or difficult has come up with clients. We pretty much hear everything, the anger, the hurt, the bitterness and resentment, the tears and the fear of uncertainty of what their future holds and how it will pan out. At first, this can be quite difficult to deal with, but having been there 3 years, the one thing I’ve noticed is that even though each case is different in its nuances and details, the general themes are still the same. And it becomes apparent that most of the conflict that the parents face is not necessarily due to the fault of the law, or a bias in the system or because of their gender, it’s because of personality and behaviour, of either one or both of them. Many want us to provide a solution to their conflict by giving them a specific law which says what is what, and many are disappointed that we can’t give that to them, and really, nobody can give that to them. However, many do actually feel better about moving their situation forward by talking through the issues they need to focus on and ways in which they can manage their feelings about the behaviour of the other parent or to think about their own reactions to others behaviour whilst maintaining the focus on their child. Sometimes, I feel that maybe I’ve been a little too blunt with a parent, but then this straightforward, objective viewpoint is most often than not welcome, and they get to see something from a different perspective (albeit in some cases rather begrudgingly!) and are able to think about how to manage their feelings more effectively to try to come to a solution. Obviously, some are not, and these are incredibly frustrating and difficult to deal with as you feel that these are the cases that will end up in full on litigation. Whenever one of these happens, I always come away hoping that the child will be ok, in some way, in the storm of it all. It’s them I come away feeling I’ve not been able to help.
As a child of separated parents my past few weeks, has been a rather difficult one. My parents divorced over 25 years ago. They still will not speak to each other, mentioning one to other causes an awkward silence followed by continual blaming of who did what etc, and they still refuse to be in the same room as each other. I’m an adult now, yet where these two are involved, I’m still that kid caught in the middle. Both me and my younger brother are constantly having to juggle the pair of them and still have that ‘don’t want to upset either of them, want to please both of them’ feeling when having to deal with them. Having to divide time equally between them as the other feels offended if you’re seeing one but don’t go and see the other and the whole thing kicks off again. I still often feel like I did when I was little...that all I want to do is scream and scream at them to shut up about them and to try and think about how me and my brother feel. It’s quite weird as I am able to bluntly talk to parents about their situations, but I still find it hard to get this out to my own parents. I suppose as there’s more emotional investment in them than clients; there’s more to lose if you upset them. I have found that doing my job has led to a greater understanding of how they have ended up how they are and how myself and my brother ended up feeling the way we did and do. It doesn’t make it right, but I can to some degree see how it happened and spiralled into the horrid bitterness of a mess it did. Sometimes, I feel they finally get it, then other times, they show they still don’t. Personally, I’ve never cared who did what, who said what, who does what; all I care about is that my parents love me, they’re proud of me and want me in their lives. This is a basic need of any child/parent relationship, but I feel this is the one thing that gets completely lost in most cases. It was lost in my case, for many years, it was so very lost and now I’m finding myself at the centre of a delicate process of trying to involve our parents in both mine and my brothers lives in a positive way whilst trying to battle through the blame, bitterness and defence and coping mechanisms without having to SCREAM!
I still have my very own Residence Order. All nicely stamped and official. I had a CAFCASS officer. I had a wishes and feelings report. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I do know that it is something that was an important part of my life and why I still keep it. It probably played a massive role in me doing what I do today, in saying what I say to clients, in driving me forward in my role. One parent says that the Residence Order shows how they fought for me. *fought* Personally, I would have liked them to have sat down and made me feel I was the most important thing in their life and they were there to love and help me become the best possible adult I could. Instead, all I saw was the two people I loved and needed most in this life bicker and argue, and it made me feel that actually I was a nuisance, and if it wasn’t for me being around they wouldn’t be arguing. I know this is not true and their arguing over us kids was about them and their hurt and anger at the relationship breaking down - we were used as weapons in the war. But as much as educated understanding can rationalise that, my inner 7 year old can take over even now. Sometimes, my anger at them is still there, and pops up inside me when one of them triggers it. It takes a lot for me to recognise that anger and deal with it maturely.
To add to the complex mix of my own journey through the family justice system, my Residence Order battle had 3 people fighting over it. Both my natural parents and my paternal grandfather, who I had been in custody (as it was then) of since 7 due to the parental battles. I don’t necessarily feel any of them acted in my best interests to be honest. None of them thought how I felt, definitely none of them asked me. I just wanted them to all go away and leave me alone and stop arguing and all the ill feeling.
The Residence Order was awarded to my grandfather - certainly no bias made on gender by the court. Having read the various judgements on various issues (child maintenance, non payment of child maintenance, pick up and drop off contact times, residence, holidays abroad, who bloody well buys the school uniforms and other such petty trivialities...you name it, they argued it through court) about me in all the court battles between all my parental figures, I think the court came to a fair and logical decision based on my age and needs and my feelings, despite the difficulties that a teenage girl being brought up by an elderly grandfather posed. I think the courts have a very difficult decision to make, and nobody can foresee the future and how things will pan out. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been in their position to make that decision. I, like my clients, wanted somebody to make the decision for me so I didn’t have to upset anyone. I loved them all and was an impossible position of choosing. It was horrid and destroyed the family that I’m now trying to help put back together in the best possible way. In some ways, I now feel that I’m the parent, trying to do what’s best for my children in a way that’s fair to them both and myself and brother.
Despite the best of me trying, my experience of family breakdown has had deep lasting impact on me personally. To anyone who doesn’t really know me, then I can appear as confident, successful etc. And I am overall. I have amazing friends, I went to university and studied politics, I have a good job, I have a varied interest in many subjects, am culturally aware, I often see the funny side in most things, and am generally a happy positive person. The reality is my logic is so warped (not bad, dark or evil, just, the best way to explain it is reversed, in terms of how I view myself or my achievements or opinions, self-esteem and self-belief I suppose) that it has taken a hell of a lot of hard work by me to un-warp it. It takes a lot to re wire the scared 7 year old who is being shoved from pillar to post and hasn’t a clue what’s going on or why there is so much shouting or arguing over them and what will happen to them. I worked hard at trying to undo the damage that happened from the age of 7. I was a child and a child can only rationalise events as a child. And these events and rationale stay with you forever, unless the logic of adults is explained to you. They weren’t to me and even as an adult who can now see how it spiralled into the mess it became, my inner 7 year old kicks in in certain situations. I call it my fear. It took many years of being brutally honest with myself to realise that it stems from one incident on a ferry at aged 8 and my thought process on that ferry that led all my thought processes about things since. But like I say, as hard as I try, the inner child can take over the logic rationale. I can’t speak in public, something that even if I try, I sometimes, just cannot get the words out of my throat and even if they do, my brain falls apart and I feel overwhelmed. I do not like receiving any form of attention and any form of praise for anything I do is completely illogical to me. I simply can’t believe it as that child was never given anything to believe in or given any foundation to have any belief in.
I don’t necessarily think that these traits are confined to being a result of the family breakdown; however, I do feel that the level of conflict witnessed and felt has made these traits more entrenched in me and more difficult to shift. For many years, I simply refused to think that my childhood had affected me and refused to be categorised as a ‘victim of childhood’. The reality was I was pushing and blanking it all out rather than actually acknowledging it and keeping all the anger and hurt I felt in a box and never dared lift the lid. I think now I’m able to look at myself, admit my flaws and weaknesses and see where they root from and learn from them. It’s only by doing that that I feel that I’ve conquered my childhood.
I think the family justice system therefore has possibly one of the most difficult jobs to do, in trying to balance the needs of the child with the best possible outcome. Some will be easier than others, some will be so difficult and no matter what decision had been reached, it will be met with anger and resentment, by the ‘losing’ side. I often hear that term, along with others, ‘but then they’ll win’ or some other variant. I feel that it needs to be pointed out that this is not about a parent winning, or scoring a point over the other this is about their child and them winning in that they can have both parents in their lives. In many ways I feel that the role of parents involved in family disputes is not necessarily stop the possible damage to their children, but to try and limit the impact negative behaviour or comments could have on them. A parent cannot protect a child from negativity and experience some negativity in life is part of the growing process, but I feel a parents’ role is to help the child understand that negativity and lessen the personal impact they feel.
I think the system is too adversarial and a lot more emphasis should be made on the above issues rather than using a court to make a decision on one single aspect (contact, residence or PR or all 3) as invariably, these decisions push the conflict elsewhere, so it’s not necessarily a solution to the whole picture. I often turn the question of what is the answer to my clients to get them thinking about the whole picture and the consequences, pros, cons, possible pitfalls of any answer. It does make them look at it from a different perspective. There will never be a legal solution that fits everyone: it’s impossible. I agree with the principles that the rights should firmly rest in the child and that any assumption that gives a parent a right over a child in any form is wrong. In an ideal world, parents would be educated and understand the impacts on their children their behaviour could have. But alas, we don’t live in an ideal world, so trying to get this message across through whatever avenue available is an important driver for me.
The woefully misinformed press coverage on family breakdown and the perpetuation of myths such as ‘parents’ rights’ and such like drove me to write this. It comes as a shock to the parents I speak to when I tell them that in law, they have no rights over their child, but responsibility to make sure their child’s needs are met. Within my friends and family, I think at first they did not know the nature of what I do. Many friends have no experience of the system so it really is an alien subject for them. But I can see that they do try and understand why I feel so passionately about it. I find my job now is sometimes a useful tool in approaching issues with my own parents. I think that some think I’m possibly a do-gooder. I wouldn’t describe myself as such, I’d say I do it for me in a way, to try and stop (or realistically, lessen the chances of) any child out there feeling the way I did, it’s worth it. I can’t give them a magic solution, but I can try and make the parents not lose their child and remain focussed on it. Only one client has ever actually asked me the question of why I do my job. After an emotionally challenging contact discussion, they simply went silent, and said to me ‘were you the child of separated parents?’ I said ‘yes’ ‘how old were you’ ‘the same age as your son’ and the client simply started crying and said ‘thank you’. She got it, she got why I was talking to her the way I was: I was trying to speak to her from her child. That’s what makes my job worth it.
I’d hope that in my next life, I would just have a normal childhood and that may mean I don’t end up doing this job, and possibly be an accountant or something. But, as me right now, I would not choose to do anything other than what I do now. I really wouldn’t. I’m proud of what I do and believe in what I do. In 10 years time? I can’t cope with what I may be up to next week, let alone 10 years! But I think I’ve found my drive and passion in this area and I’m not looking to leave it anytime soon!