Family Justice Narratives : No. 6

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

Familoo,

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.

Brian

Family Justice Narratives : No. 5

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

The questions:

  • 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!

 

Family Justice Narratives : No. 4

This is the fourth 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 4 : Anonymous Guardian

 

Naturally, it has taken some time to get down to writing this, despite my best intentions. It’s an excellent idea and I look forward to reading all the narratives. I rarely meet colleagues who work in the Family Justice system who are not committed and passionate about what we all try to do.

 

I’ve been working in Child Protection for 32 years and have been an employed Guardian for the last 10 years. I am filled, like all of us, with trepidation for the future of Family Justice and the impact it will have on the children who deserve the best possible protection, in every sense of the word.

 

I love the job when I am able to do it properly. It is a privilege to bear witness to people’s painful stories but also their courage, humour, warmth and resilience. It is a joy to form meaningful relationships with children and it is deeply rewarding to know that, sometimes, I really do make a difference

 

It is frustrating not to be able to do the job to the best of my ability because of the sheer volume of families. I hate the restrictions this places on me and the fears that accompany that.   I mourn the days when I could write a comprehensive Final Report that could stand alone and provide a young person with an understanding of how and why decisions were made on their behalf. I loathe cutting corners, being cursory and not being able to develop relationships which can encourage reflection and sometimes, change. I am determined not to become a ‘lazy’ Guardian, not seeing children, or agreeing with the LA because it is easier. But this all means working longer hours than I have ever done in my career and that involves collateral damage.

 

Over the years I have developed tried and tested ways of managing the job and having a family. These are; being organised at work and domestically, reading, crosswords, female friends, laughing, rubbish TV and books along with a couple of glasses of wine and the recent addition of a gym. Inevitably there are times when I have been too stressed to be fully emotionally available as a parent and all my children have at some point told me “you love those children you work with more than me”.  Despite this, as they have matured I sense they are proud of what I do and have all developed a strong sense of social justice.

 

However, there are times when this balance goes completely out of kilter. This happens either when I have a case that, in some way triggers an emotional reaction in me (often a 16.4!), when the ‘corporate demands’ become beyond human capacity or when personal demands on me become too onerous. The past couple of weeks has been affected by a seriously ill elderly parent and the duty and responsibility this involves lead to considerable tension. Concrete pours into my jaw, neck and shoulders; I cannot relax enough to read or watch TV. The anxiety manifests in dreams where I tearfully beg my manager not to give me another case. My wine glass gets refilled too often and I sneak a Gregg’s steak bake (a young person’s recommendation!) at lunchtime. I look at my diary in despair: at least 10 urgent visits need to be arranged, 3 final reports due in two weeks, 4 dreaded Duty days and an immense back log of electronic filing and other admin. As I write this, I hope that next week will be easier and that my natural resilience will magically reappear and once again I will establish equilibrium.

 

I think the future is bleak, not just for the Family Justice system but for all the infrastructures we value in a civilised society. I have many ideas for improving the system but they are out of step in this political environment. As an old fashioned social worker, I believe that I am my best tool and that relationships are the key to protecting children. Although Government lip service is paid to Munro, I do not think that the politicians actually understand what she is talking about. They have no appetite for the reality of human distress.