Guest Post: Social media – our master or our servant?

This is a guest post written by Sarah Phillimore (@svphillimore), a barrister at St John’s Chambers. It arises from a discussion Sarah, myself and other colleagues had last weekend about the difficulty in obtaining s26 contact orders in placement proceedings and the spate of media reports of teenagers tracked down on Facebook by their biological family, not always with a happy ending.

Social media – our master or our servant?

I dimly remember being a teenager. It was not a great time. It would have been much worse if I had been adopted and on top of my hormonal struggles to come to terms with my place in the world, I then had to cope with the sudden discovery via Facebook that numerous members of my biological family wanted to get in touch and share their perspective about why I was adopted.

Binoculars courtesy of tunnelarmr on flickr

Binoculars courtesy of tunnelarmr on flickr

 

The human part of me feels compassion for the families who have had to face this; in some cases the fall out from such sudden reintroduction to the birth family has been massive and children have decided to move out of their adopted homes. But the less compassionate, lawyer part of me says ‘good’. Because perhaps now we can kick start more debate about post adoption direct contact. We can’t have a blanket assumption that such contact is either good or bad as each case involves a multiplicity of complicated facts and a variety of different people. Direct contact involves a dynamic relationship between people that changes over time. However, if there is now a serious risk of haphazard and unstructured post adoption contact being facilitated through the medium of social networking sites, we need to decide how we deal with that situation and our decisions should be based on good evidence.

 

The last 50 years have seen enormous shifts in societal attitudes towards accepting different concepts of ‘family’. Adoption is no longer a mechanism to cover up a shameful indiscretion and to encourage adopted children to vanish without trace into their ‘new’ family. There is recognition of the likely strength of our curiosity about our origins and the pull of the blood tie.

 

According to the Adoption Information Line, 70% of children adopted are between 1 -4 years. Only a very few are under 1 or over 10. The numbers of children adopted each year have decreased significantly from about 21,000 in 1975 to 5,797 in 1995; a reflection of the increased availability of abortion and the societal shift that no longer stigmatises illegitimacy. Adopted children are very unlikely to be brand new babies, given up by desperate teenage girls, but rather older children who have already suffered or were likely to suffer significant harm from their birth parents. We are thus considering a group of children who had a less than ideal start to life, may suffer difficulties with attachment and may retain memories of the harm done to them. It is likely that these children will find it difficult to cope with sudden and unsupported reintroduction to their birth family.

 

Research suggests that ‘communicative openness’ in adoptive families – how they think and talk about adoption – is positively linked to ‘structural openness’ – contact with birth family members – but that children’s emotional and behavioural development was not related to either the type of contact they were having with their birth families or the communicative openness of their adoptive parents (see Post-Adoption contact and Openness in Adoptive Parents’ Minds: Consequences for Children’s Development Elsbeth Neil Br JSoc Work (2009) 39).

 

More research is needed; as Elsbeth Neil recognises ‘finding empirical answers to questions about outcomes of contact after adoption is frustrated by significant methodological challenges …what is meant by contact after adoption? The type, frequency, duration and management of contact all need to be considered, as does the type of birth relative involved.’

 

Elsbeth Neil urged social workers to remain open minded about the issue of direct post adoption contact, resisting blanket predictions of either help or harm. However, it seems that the prevailing attitude is to assume it shouldn’t happen. Different reasons are given for this and they are compelling; birth parents may try to undermine the placement, the children may have unpleasant memories of the birth family and become upset by contact. Many social workers worry that potential adoptive parents will be ‘put off’ adopting if they also have to manage direct contact with birth parents.

 

But in practice it is rare to find social work analysis that goes beyond those familiar shibboleths, to consider the particular circumstances of children and birth family currently under scrutiny. Those of us who represent birth parents in care proceedings will be sadly familiar with the ‘party line’ around post adoption contact. It seems that the best we can get is a vague expression of a ‘hope’ that an adoptive family can be found who would be ‘open’ to direct contact but in the majority of cases the industry standard is letter box contact once or twice a year. This is so even in cases involving parents who would not actively attempt to undermine the placement and who had not subjected their children to serious abuse, such as parents with a learning disability whose children were removed on the basis of risk of significant future harm.

 

see no evil - courtesy of C. Pajunen on flickr

see no evil - courtesy of C. Pajunen on flickr

Perhaps we are still left with a residue of those earlier desires to entirely absorb the adopted child into the new family and to protect a sense of entitlement for adoptive parents. After all, it is asking a lot of someone to undertake the arduous task of raising a child (who often is neither grateful for nor welcoming of the parents’ input) without clear recognition of the status of ‘parent’.

 

Thus, the current purpose of the law appears to be to assume that adoptive families should be left in peace without any direct dealings with the birth family throughout the child’s minority. The child’s need for information can be met by Life Story books, some photographs and possibly a letter once or twice a year. An adopted child and birth families can now enter their details upon the Adoption Contact Register to apply for contact with one another. However the clearly stated purpose of the register is to permit contact only between adults if both want it.

 

Section 4 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 provides that adoptive parents, children and birth families all have the right to request an assessment of their needs for post adoption contact. A recent study investigated the levels and nature of such support (see Supporting post adoption contact in complex cases – briefing paper June 2010). It found that direct contact happens only in a minority of cases and support for such contact is likely to be organised on a case by case basis rather than via dedicated staff or formal systems. The prevailing attitude of social workers towards direct contact is to focus on controlling risk rather than pro active consideration of how to overcome problems that would affect contact.

 

The main type of support offered to both adoptive and birth parents was co-ordination and administration of contact, rather than providing emotional or therapeutic support such as work on relationship building. Unsurprisingly, for direct contact to work well it helped to have an element of emotional support together with facilitators who were organised and forward thinking, anticipating challenges and changes rather than simply responding to them. The ‘average’ family used contact support services 12 times over the course of a year and the cost was £999. Unsurprisingly, the cheapest model of support was administered contact averaging £395 per year whilst supervised and facilitated contact averaged at £1,371 per year, but these costs were probably an underestimate.

 

It would be interesting to develop the study and to have greater consideration of the existing structure of post adoption contact support together with a more rigorous cost/benefit analysis of the different types available. Considering the detailed nature of the assessment and matching process in adoptions, the disruption rate is surprisingly high at about 25%. It is certainly worth investigating whether or not greater structural and communicative openness in adoptions is a protective factor against breakdown.

 

That investigation becomes even more urgent when considering the inexorable rise of the new social media and the impact this has had on the way information now flows and is disseminated. It seems unlikely that the current rather static and limited framework to post adoption contact, with emphasis on adult control and choice, can survive the challenge posed by Facebook or other similar social networking sites.

 

Facebook was born in 2004 in Harvard. By the end of that year it had barely reached a million active users in the US and it took until 2007 to acquire a similar number in the UK. Like an extremely effective virus it then spread world wide; to date Facebook has 800 million active users, half of whom log on every day. 350 million of these users access Facebook by a mobile device. Each user has an average of 130 friends (Source: Facebook statistics). This incredible growth far outpaces the ability of the law to react to change. Users of social media have been able to act en masse to undermine legal rulings. Depending on your perspective this is either gloriously empowering or a serious threat to the rule of law.

 

Not only is it now easier than ever before to track people down due to the extent of our interconnecting networks, once you have made a Facebook friend you can access richly detailed on line information, which is immediately and constantly accessible. You can engage with people in discussing and disseminating this information and for those with vulnerable personalities it can be a dangerous playground.

 

Those 1-4 year olds adopted in 2004 before anyone outside of Harvard had heard of Facebook will now be aged between 9-12 years and likely to be already embracing social media or just about to. It seems inevitable that the numbers of adopted children involved in on line communication with birth parents can only increase and we need to start thinking about how we deal with this now.

 

It does not seem remotely realistic to respond to the Facebook issue by moving even further away from a culture of openness about adoption and our origins. Worryingly, anecdotal evidence suggests this may be the response from some Local Authorities.

 

Human constructs such as social media should be our servants, not our masters. They should exist to make our lives easier and better and to provide us all with opportunities to attain as much self actualisation as is within our capabilities. But this will only work if we understand the nature of what it is we have created, both its possibilities and its limitations. The law is a slow and lumbering beast, out of necessity. It takes time to legislate and to see how legislation works in practice. The new social media by comparison has grown from nothing to world domination in a remarkably short space of time and most people have only a hazy understanding of how it operates.

 

What we need to do urgently is to review and examine our approach to the whole issue. We need more research about the benefits or otherwise of direct post adoption contact. Where such contact is considered potentially beneficial, we then need to think more about what organisation and support is both affordable and feasible.

 

I appreciate that many parents may not be able to cope with direct contact, or at least not in the immediate aftermath of the proceedings and may, consciously or not, undermine the adoptive placement. But it is a rare set of care proceedings that involves only a mother or father in isolation from wider family and there needs to be fuller consideration of the role played by other relatives.

 

Adoptive families must not be undermined or disrespected. Adoptive parents take on a very difficult task and have jumped many hurdles to do so. But we have to do as much as we can to protect children from sudden and potentially harmful exposure to a birth family who may be understandably desperate to make contact and provide their version of history, regardless of the pain this can cause. Those adoptive parents who have welcomed post adoptive contact and found it worked well reported a benefit to the relationship with their child; ‘confirming them in their status as the psychological parent and creating an atmosphere of openness and trust within the family’ (see Supporting post adoption contact in complex cases).

 

As Carl Rogers put it ‘the facts are always friendly. Every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one much closer to what is true. And being closer to the truth can never be harmful or dangerous or unsatisfying thing’.

 

Young children should not have to cope with a deluge of facts about every horrible detail of the circumstances of their adoption. But they need to understand their general situation and why they couldn’t grow up with their families of origin. We need to find the best way for them. We need to master this situation, not just dance to Facebook’s tune.

 

What Kind of Debate Should We Be Having About Domestic Violence?

This post is a guest blog post written by Sarah Phillimore. Sarah is a family barrister with over 15 years of experience. She tweets as @SVPhillimore and this is her first foray into blogging. This post arose from a tweet from @change4victims calling for support for an e-petition entitled “review of access laws for domestic abusers”, subsequently retweeted by @womensaid.

The petition reads:

70% of cases in the family courts cite domestic abuse as a major concern yet only 1% are refused access. a review is required. Supervised access is the minimum that must be considered when an abuser scores low to moderate on the DASSH risk assessment. Supervision must be on a 1:1 basis. No access should be given where an abuser scores high risk on the DASSH, where a MARAC hearing is held or planned, Where target hardening is carried out on a victims property or where the abused has had to move to refuge, out of their hometown away from their support network. government should consult Women’s Aid, The Police and the Domestic Abuse helpline in reviewing this. Family law must consider children’s safety and not simply chase social ideals. A happy child with a lone parent will always make a more positive impact than an unhappy child brought up with abuse. Also where drug use is cited as a problem rehabilitation must take place before access can be considered.

 It has to date achieved 35 signatures.

Over to Sarah…

What Kind of Debate Should We Be Having About Domestic Violence?

Disclaimer:
I do not believe that it is ok for people to abuse each other, with fists or with words. We all need to take responsibility for our own behaviour and not complain that we were ‘provoked’ by another person or situation into acting badly. I agree that men who expose their children or children’s mothers to violence should expect State intervention in their family life, which could mean they are prevented from having a relationship with their children as they grow.

Why do I even need to say this? Because sadly my experience of attempting to discuss violence in relationships has shown me that it is difficult to engage in useful debate. At times it seems that only one response is permitted – men are the perpetrators and women are the victims. Any deviation from that norm is met with accusations that I must be a supporter of violence against women and anything I say should be dismissed.

I have been a specialist family lawyer since 1999, acting for both mothers and fathers. Many parents who are separating make allegations about each other’s behaviour. Violence is often an issue. I do not use the term ‘domestic violence’ because that is a ludicrous term. ‘Domestic’ makes it all sound so lovely and cosy. I find the term ‘relationship violence’ more helpful as I think  the context of the relationship in which such violence occurs is relevant – to how we blame, how we punish and how we move on.


I was prompted to write by the e petition ‘review of access laws for domestic abusers’. It says: ‘70% of cases in the family courts cite domestic abuse as a major concern yet only 1% are refused access. A review is required.’

I do not know where this statistic comes from or what is meant by ‘cases in the family courts’. I assume it must refer to applications for contact in private law proceedings as the word ‘access’ is used. I assume that means ‘direct contact’ and thus does not cover birthday cards etc.

I don’t know what is meant by ‘domestic abuse’ but I assume it must follow the definition in The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 as:

‘ any act of violence, even if only verbal, perpetrated by a household member upon another household member and includes any omission which causes physical or moral harm to the other.

That ‘violence’ goes beyond phsyical harm or threats of physical harm was confirmed by the the Supreme Court in Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow [2011] UKSC 3 where in the context of section 177(1) of the Housing Act 1996, a husband shouting at his wife would be sufficient conduct to fall within that Act’s definition of ‘violence.

I don’t know what is meant by a ‘major concern’ as the petition seems to advocate two different kinds of approach to two different kinds of violence.  Men who score ‘low to moderate’ on the DASSH (sic?) risk assessment should only be allowed to have direct contact with their children if subject to one on one supervision. Those who score highly on the risk assessment or where a MARAC hearing is held or planned get no direct contact at all.

The internet informs me that

the new Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Based Violence (DASH 2009) Risk Identification, Assessment and Management Model means that for the first time all police services and a large number of partner agencies across the UK will be using a common checklist for identifying and assessing risk, which will save lives. ACPO Council accredited the DASH (2009) Model to be implemented across all police services in the UK from March 2009.’

A MARAC hearing is a multi agency risk assessment for the highest risk cases of abuse in order to create a safety plan for the victim.

I would think it highly unlikely that any individual who was subject to either a DASH assessment or a MARAC hearing would be out and about in the community freely making applications for contact orders. I would be very interested to know what the statistics are about this. All I can say is that in 13 years of practice I have only had a handful of cases where a father was making an application from prison or had come out of prison after serving more than six months for an offence of violence against a partner or others. Most fathers in those positions appear to drop out of their children’s lives. Those who did make applications from prison or after sentence were subject to pretty intensive risk assessments before even indirect contact commenced.

Therefore, the vast majority of cases I have dealt with are presumably ones where the father would score ‘low to moderate’ on the DASH assessment;  violence is in issue, involving drunken arguments, mobile phones being thrown or smashed, threats made, doors kicked, police call outs which involve ‘advice given’ rather than arrest, and children present in the home throughout.

There was not a risk of serious physical injury to the mother or the children, but this of course does not make the behaviour trivial. Those at the receiving end of it cannot be expected to rationally assess their risk at the time; they are likely to be very frightened and may reasonably fear that the violence will escalate.

The court is then faced with parents who have split up in such circumstances, sometimes after complicated, messy and toxic relationships, often spanning many years and involving more than one child. The parents cannot agree post separation on how they manage contact, particularly if the non resident parent is continuing with a pattern of aggressive and unpleasant behaviour.

In order to determine the nature and extent of the risk posed by the non resident parent, the court is likely to need a fact finding. Once facts have been established on the balance of probabilities, the risk posed by the perpetrator can be assessed and consideration given to how to manage contact.

Again, the statistic that only 1% of violent parents are then refused ‘access’ simply reflects  my experience of such cases and is proportionate to the facts of those cases. The  most serious issues of violence are not going to be before a family court in the context of an application for contact.  Rather, those cases go through the criminal courts or public law care proceedings where issues of risk of significant harm are debated. I would expect the percentage of men refused direct contact with their children in those circumstances to be considerably higher than 1%.

The fact that low level abusers are still allowed to see their children is in recognition of the clear principles of both domestic and international law of the child’s and parent’s right to have a relationship with one another.

Children generally love their parents, no matter how unworthy they might appear to an outsider. They are very likely to suffer harm if they are exposed to abuse within their parents’ relationship but the answer to this harm is unlikely to be to cut out of their lives one half of their genetic identity, particularly if the children are old enough and had spent enough time with their parents to form close attachments to both.

The authors of the petition assert that low scorers on the DASH risk assessment must nevertheless only be permitted 1:1 supervised contact.

Several things worry me about this. The first is practical. I doubt we are going to trip over any enormous pots of money any time soon to fund supervised 1:1 contact for all those assessed as a low risk. So the reality would be, if supervised contact is the automatic minimum, this will equate to no direct contact at all.

But I can’t let the financial tail wag the dog of principle. If the money were available, is it the right response to demand that people assessed as ‘low’ risk should only see their children in an environment of 1:1 supervision? I don’t agree.  Children who grow up in abusive families are already damaged by constant exposure to a poor template of good parenting. I don’t see how that damage is undone by then demanding they can only see their non resident parent in the stressful and artificial environment of 1:1 supervision.

I agree that when parents separate, if the non resident parent has been abusive, a regime of free and easy contact is inappropriate; it creates further tension and makes arguments and unpleasant behaviour more likely.  But when complaints of abuse do not attract charges under the criminal law or the abuser is assessed as ‘low risk’,  a draconian demand for only 1:1 supervised contact is not proportionate to the harm caused or feared. Rather, there is a need to consider less invasive and expensive options, such as referral to counselling, anger management or parenting courses, supported contact at a centre, help from family or friends to arrange picking up and bringing back children and contact only as visits during the day, rather than longer periods and overnight.

However, there is another part to my objections to the petition. We are not only concerned about the need for a proportionate response to a low risk offender. What about the dynamic within the relationship itself and the role both parents play in creating a family life which can be unpleasant and unhappy for all concerned? Attempts to acknowledge and discuss this dynamic are often rejected in very aggressive terms, hence my disclaimer above.

To permit a women in a violent relationship only the role of ‘victim’ stifles any consideration or debate about how she got there and why she stays or what her own behaviour has been in the relationship.

When Erin Pizzey wrote Prone to Violence she reported that she had been the subject of death threats because she concluded that most domestic violence is reciprocal, and that women also have a capacity to be violent.

I agree with her conclusions, albeit to a more limited extent. I do not agree that most women have the physical or emotional capacity to be as violent as some men. However, with regard to the reciprocity of violence in relationship, at the lower end of the scale where neither the criminal courts or the Local Authority is involved, it is my experience that in many cases both parents are making allegations against each other about behaviour which falls clearly within a definition of either physical or emotional abuse. If we really do want to keep children safe we can’t ignore this reality or attempt to aggressively censor anyone who wants to discuss it.

Of course, most men are likely to be stronger than most women. If they react aggressively they are likely to do more immediate physical damage than a woman. Reported incidents of women being physically violent towards men in relationships are rare. This either reflects that it doesn’t happen often, or that it is under reported due to the shame and embarrassment felt by male victims – they can’t be a proper man if they let a woman hit them. These factors probably explain why the division between ‘female victim’ and ‘male perpetrator’ has become in certain circles such a self evident truth.

I am concerned that this clear cut division between men as the violent perpetrators and women as victims, promotes a simplistic clarity at the expense of proper analysis of what is really going on in these relationships. Relationship violence occurs within the dynamic of that relationship. I do not seek to blame women or demonise men when I say that what both people bring to the relationship can be relevant to understanding it.

Demonising violent men isn’t going to help our understanding about what we can do or should do as a society to intervene in obviously unhealthy relationships. If just from a cold hearted capitalist view we have to do something as even low levels of violence in relationships damages children. Damaged children may grow up to be damaged and unproductive adults who inflict harm on their own children in turn.

The increased understanding of the interplay between genes and environment has  potential implications for cases of relationship violence and deciding issues of fault and blame.  In the USA, Bradley Waldroup escaped the death penalty in 2009 for trying to murder his wife and successfully murdering her friend. It was argued during the trial that Waldroup was not responsible for first degree murder due to his possession of the (inaptly named) ‘warrior gene’ combined with a deprived and abusive childhood which triggered his propensity for extreme adult violence. The jury agreed and found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.  It appears that this was the first case of its kind where the impact of genes and environment was argued during the trial itself, rather than being put forward as mitigation in sentencing.

There is a legitimate argument that behaviour shown by Waldroup is so serious that we should put our need to be protected from him much higher than any consideration of how to help him. But the petition is not exclusively directed against these high risk men, It demands also that low risk offenders face significant disruption to their relationship with their children.

The real problem for society at large, is that toxic adult relationships often produce children. These relationships are likely to break down in great acrimony. The parents can’t negotiate how to parent now they are separated. The only agency they can reliably turn to is the family court which can only ever intervene by setting out a legal framework for the future, leaving the issues of past and present emotional dysfunction entirely untouched.

Children will generally love their parents and need to know them however unworthy the parents are by any objective standards. For a court to endorse refusal of all contact between a parent or child is deliberately a very rare step because we have been told so clearly and for so long by psychiatrists and psychologists that this risks causing significant emotional damage to children.

‘Family law must consider children’s safety and not simply chase social ideals’ complains the petition. The problem with this is that promoting a child’s relationship with both parents is not some woolly ‘social’ ideal; it is a legal obligation upon our courts, imposed by domestic and international law. The move away from this principle will require as a first step that we refuse to be subject to Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Further, if the aims of the petition are accepted by the Government, it is not just from international law that we will have to resile. Every decision any Judge makes about a child’s contact with his parents is made according to the central principle of the Children Act 1989 – the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration. The problem with the petition is the attempt to impose blanket rules which over ride any fact specific analysis of what is best for this particular child in these particular circumstances. If this petition succeeds, the Children Act will have to be re-written and we say good bye to the welfare principle.

The petition concludes ‘a happy child with a lone parent will always make more positive impact than un unhappy child brought up with abuse’. I don’t argue much against that conclusion. But it is based on a false premise, that men are perpetrators and women are victims and once the men are removed all will be well. I hope I have made it clear why I don’t think this is a helpful assumption.

Men who present a moderate to high risk of killing or seriously injuring their partners are a danger to us all. I hope that most of them are in prison. I agree wholeheartedly that once they are out of prison they should not be having unsupervised contact with children unless they have shown insight into their behaviour and have completed treatment or therapy to successfully change their mindsets.

But men who score ‘low’ on a DASH assessment? Children born into relationships where both parents display abusive behaviour? What are the consequences for these children of then denying them any real relationship with their father?

If there is money to spend on supervised contact for low risk men, I hope there is money available to ensure early help and support offered to all who need it, to try to break the pattern of repeated dysfunctional behaviour in relationships.

We can’t usefully debate issues of violence in relationships and its impact on society if we are not prepared to consider the wider issues beyond the  simple perpetrator/victim dichotomy. People and their lives can be messy and complicated. The Judges can’t help them with that, they can only apply the law. And before we petition to change the law to deal with a social problem, we have to be as sure and as honest as we can be about all the facts of the problem before us.

Guest blog Post: Hunger 4 Justice

The post that follows is a guest blog post by Nick Langford. Nick is a regular commenter on this blog. He and I have disagreed about many things in the comments threads, but always (I think) in respectful if robust language. I am happy to extend the opportunity to Nick to write a one off post – as per usual I don’t agree with all of it. Nick has asked for a debate, and so to kick it off my comments, are at the end of the post.

Hunger 4 Justice – Nick Langford

I am extremely grateful to Lucy for allowing me to write a guest post on her blog; I hope it will provoke some interesting debate.  We need a debate.

 

On Sunday 10th July Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, commenced a hunger strike outside the house of the Prime Minister, David Cameron.  Such an action is clearly a dramatic departure from the style of campaigning normally associated with F4J, featuring middle-aged men in lycra.  This is campaigning of a more serious, sombre character, and O’Connor’s supporters wore dark suits and black ties.

 

The action was prompted by two factors; the first was Cameron’s failure to honour the commitments made by the Conservatives prior to the Election regarding the family justice system.  The second was Cameron’s Sunday Telegraph article on Father’s Day.

 

The Conservatives’ pledges – not widely reported but presented to F4J in a meeting with Henry Bellingham, Shadow Minister for the DCA – conformed closely to what F4J had been campaigning for.  They began with moving parental disputes out of the courts and promoting early intervention and mediation through “Australian-style” family hubs, a proposal also made by Sandra Davies of Mischcon de Reya and by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

 

There would be a legal presumption in favour of automatic shared parenting within a context of equal parental responsibility and a new definition of cooperative parenting to ensure parents knew clearly what was expected of them before they entered the courts, denying them the option of prolonged litigation.

 

Contact orders would be made enforceable and there would be zero-tolerance of excuses, delay and false allegations, including (controversially) the withdrawal of benefits from parents who unreasonably withheld access.

 

Above all the Conservatives committed themselves to reducing the intolerable cost to the economy caused by family breakdown and prolonged litigation at taxpayers’ expense and to ending the ruinous destruction of children’s aspirations and potential.

 

What impressed F4J was the clear grasp of the issues Bellingham demonstrated, and the work and research which had manifestly gone on behind the scenes.  He promised an urgent and thorough review of family justice with an interim report in the Autumn of 2010.  In an email to F4J on 3rd May Nick Clegg gave his backing to this review.

What the Coalition delivered, however, was a continuation of the very restricted review already set in motion by Labour.  As MP John Hemming expressed in an EDM, the panel was “dominated by the family justice establishment” and failed to “challenge the status quo”.  Sir Paul Coleridge told the charity Care it was concerned only with procedure and not with principle; “The law in this field is in desperate need of comprehensive, root and branch overhaul after prospective – i.e. forward looking – review of family policy by a non political grouping.”

 

The family hubs were reduced to a website and helpline, the promise to remove the requirement for grandparents to apply for leave to make a Section 8 application was dismissed, and the commitment to introduce the presumption that parenting should be shared was rejected.

 

Though the Report met with approval from lawyers’ groups and social workers, it was universally condemned by parents.  Perhaps its worst failing was its refusal to countenance views – plainly submitted to the panel – with which it did not agree, or to grapple seriously with the arguments presented.  The case against a presumption of shared parenting, for example, was provided in Annex P, presented as the Panel’s conclusion, and set against a background of similar conclusions by other writers.  No argument was advanced for the position taken, and the evidence cited was ruthlessly selected to support a position opposed to shared parenting.

 

In a meta-analysis of the available evidence Robert Bauserman (2002) found court-ordered joint custody promoted better child adjustment than sole mother custody. He found no evidence that having to adjust to two households harmed any aspect of a child’s wellbeing, and evidence that joint custody could reduce levels of parental conflict over time.  In a survey of over 100 studies Linda Nielson (2010) concluded “the research is abundantly clear on this: only allowing fathers and children to live together 15 or 20 percent of the time is not in most children’s best interests.  Our society and our legal system can – and must – do better than this”. These surveys, and the studies they are based on, were omitted from the Interim Report.

 

On Father’s Day Cameron wrote, “We need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL.  It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them.  They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale.”

 

Cameron believes the epidemic of family breakdown and fatherlessness – which no one denies – is driven by irresponsible fathers abandoning their families.  Fathers 4 Justice believe it has been driven by decades of anti-family legislative change and by the family courts themselves.

 

Following the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks introduced unilateral divorce, the separation of sex and child-bearing from marriage, the legalisation of abortion, the legal equivalence of marriage and cohabitation and the approval of formerly outlawed sexual behaviour such as adultery, homosexuality and even polygamy.  Family life almost ceased to exist, 7 million homeless children, the besprizorniki, roamed the streets, joined gangs and sold themselves for sex.  Society lost its capacity to sustain itself: when crises struck there was no family to turn to for support.

 

Ideologues are trying the experiment again.  We have the highest rate of youth crime in Europe, the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, an epidemic of abortion.  Unlike Russia we have a welfare state which we expect to pay for it all, but already our welfare bill has exceeded income tax receipts.  The situation is not sustainable.

 

Cameron’s evasion is criminally irresponsible.  There is no evidence to support his position.  A study of non-resident fathers by Jonathan Bradshaw of York University concluded, “There is no need to enforce parental obligations – they exist and are accepted already.”  They just need to be enabled.  “Financial obligations cannot be imposed.  They have to be negotiated in the context of other issues – contact, property, capital.”  The capacity of fathers to pay more child support is over-estimated; Cameron’s policies are unlikely to extract more money, but they will cause hardship and erode contact.

 

Fathers 4 Justice spent 3 years doing what people asked.  We did the political dialogue.  We did the talking.  But it is now time to hold David Cameron to account over his comments, and over the promises made last year to reform family law.  We are no longer prepared to live in a country that treats fathers as drink drivers, as cashpoints, that thinks it tolerable to allow children to be separated from a parent.  This demonisation of fathers is as wicked as racism or sexism, and it is more dangerous because it has become acceptable.  And David Cameron is its cheerleader.

 

O’Connor says, “Perhaps the only way he is going to understand the pain, the misery and the suffering being inflicted on parents separated from their children… is for us to bring the campaign home to him, to his home: from my home to his home, father to father.”

 

Lucy’s Comments (Familoo)

Ok, let’s get this debate started. Shall I play devil’s advocate?

This is the first I’ve heard of the Bellingham pledges, and I must say I’m surprised that such apparently concrete pledges would be made (and given credence) in the context of the Family Justice Review that by then had already been announced and was creaking into action. Personally, I’d have taken such pledges with a spoonful of salt myself, but then I’m not predisposed to trusting the Tories.

In any event, once in office they endorsed the FJR. It has now reported – on an interim basis – but I am slightly mystified by cries of “Betrayal!” at this juncture. There will be a final report in the autumn. It may reach different conclusions. It’s conclusions may be accepted by the coalition. They may not. Legislation may follow. It may not. But my gut reaction is that it might be a little premature to put the padlock on the O’Connor’s cookie jar: they’ll need all their energy for the several hurdles ahead. I would have focussed on a response to the interim FJR report and a response to whatever final recommendations come out of it. If at that stage the pledges are not honoured then they should complain.

I doubt that the FJR interim report was universally condemned by parents. I am sure that it will have been roundly condemned by some groups of parents, or by some campaigning groups.

I doubt also that the Bolshevik analogy is of much assistance to anyone. I’m no social historian, but the parallels seem limited to me.

I agree that the tendency to demonise fathers is to be decried (and I wrote about that after the unfortunate Father’s Day remarks by the PM). I wonder though at the wisdom of an approach that says in effect – “We’ve behaved like grown-ups for three years and you’ve still not given in to our demands. So now we’re going to play up again.” Engagement in dialogue is only likely to be fruitful if it is entered into wholeheartedly and in good faith – just like mediation between ex partners, it will either fail or produce unfair results unless all parties respect the fact that there is more than one perspective. You’ve got to take part in the process to come out with an agreement (one weakness of mediation though, is that sometimes the bully does gets what s/he wants, and the vulnerable party gives in for a quiet life – is that a paradigm that is either desirable or applicable here?).

I struggle with the idea that the kind of theatrical actions that F4J is now engaging in (albeit more serious on one level, particularly for the O’Connor family) are really evidence of a matured organisation – the lounge suits are a means of dressing up what remains in essence a petulant act of foot stamping. It might now be a law abiding stunt, but I wonder if it will enhance the ability of fathers’ rights groups to achieve political and legal change or drag it backwards. The danger is that it will damage the legitimate political capital that F4J have worked over recent years to acquire.