Sussex Law School will today publish a report on research by Emeritus Professor Jane Fortin and Dr Lesley Scanlan, of Sussex University and Joan Hunt, University of Oxford (here). The report is an empirical study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and looks at how the contact arrangements made by separating parents for their children affect children’s long-term relationships with their parents throughout their childhood and then into adulthood. Based on a survey of just under 400 young adults, plus in-depth interviews with 50, it elucidates what features of contact arrangements work and do not work for children – both in the long and short term.
The report’s findings challenge the government’s plans in respect of shared parenting – and do so directly. One of the strongest messages from the research is the importance of tailoring contact arrangements to the needs and wishes of the individual child in the particular circumstances. “The new legislation would commit the family courts to a one-size-fits all solution when dealing with parents’ contact disputes” opines the PR material on the Sussex Law School website, rather inaccurately.
I’ve only had the summary made available to me in the preparation of this blog post, and from that it is evident that it covers an important topic and really interesting and valuable reading. However.
The report surveyed 398 individuals who had experienced parental separation as children post implementation of the Children Act 1989 and who had at least some contact with the non-resident parent thereafter. For me that’s a gap in information base when looking at the conclusions drawn from a pool of respondents who all had some contact, such as the “extreme rarity” of parental alienation.
Similarly, the conclusions drawn appear to take at face value respondents own understanding of the background to arrangements for contact and of why things worked or did not work well. It is axiomatic of course that these adults were at the time of events in question experiencing them without an adult understanding, and perhaps with only partial information. If they were manipulated by parents in one way or another would we expect this to be self evident from their self report? Adults who consider themselves to have been manipulated or let down will say so, but how do we understand whether a portion of those who say contact failed because of a lack of commitment by a non-resident parent are accurate historians? We just don’t.
It may be that the full report would give me some reassurance about these things, and it may be that I am being unfair – I’m fully open to the possibility that I might change my view when I’ve read it. It’s worth recalling that the survey is not a survey of childhood survivors of the litigating population of separated parents – but of the general population of the children of separated parents. The summary does not make clear whether data about court involvement was collected or not.
But those are the questions which scream out to me from the summary and the strength with which the reports conclusions are expressed, and the direct attack on shared parenting policy a subject known to be highly controversial – is inviting this kind of scrutiny. I will not be the only person posing these questions upon launch of this report. The question is whether the full report contains the answers – unfortunately the summary does not even appear to anticipate the question, which leaves the authors of the report open I think to accusations of having “an agenda” (dun DUN DUUUUUN!). I hope that the direct courting of controversy in this way does not lead to those valuable insights into the child’s experience being lost or drowned out in the noise that will follow.
Below are some of what I thought were the highlights of the summary (yes, a summary of a report of some research):
You might have presumed I would have done my consultation response on shared parenting ages ago. But that starting point would have been the wrong starting point. Had you taken all the circumstances into account it was not safe to assume that I would do so, because although it was likely I would have had the fullest possible involvement with the consultation throughout its life (without of course specifying the amount of time I have spent on it), in fact I have not exercised my responsibility until the eleventh hour, although I have lived with the consultation throughout its minority, nurturing it and thinking about it all the time. I have sadly been unable to prioritise this particular baby over my other needs.
Ok enough. I’ve wanted wanted wanted to get to this shared parenting consultation response for an eon, along with my response to Stephen Twist’s post on a related topic, and along with my half drafted and rather dusty epic post on shared parenting in general. I have given all of this a massive amount of thought and have been reading, ruminating and generally worrying about it for some time but have just been too busy to actually get down to it.
And in the meantime the Government have published their proposed amendments to the Children Act 1989 (H/t Family Lore), so just as I tick one thing off my list I have something else to replace it with. Plus ca change. Thankfully, Suesspicious Minds has covered the public law aspects of the draft legislation here – there are no surprises in it really. I have touched on the private law aspect of it (child arrangements orders) in my consultation response. Since I am all private lawed out after the consultation response frenzy today I have little energy for a blog post on child arrangements orders, but I have attached my consultation response. I’ve tried to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the comparative proposals but it was pretty tough to stay on the straight and narrow. I confess I had begun to warm to the idea of a presumption or some kind of legislative “we take dads seriously” flag, but the more I looked at the actual wording in Options 1 -4 the more difficulties resurfaced. I want it to be a silver bullet that makes things better but I don’t really think it will be. I tried to think of better wording but failed…I shall now probably be shot down in flames by people who say I’m defending the status quo with my gravy train politics, or who say I’m a feminazi. I’m really not. I just think the problem is a social not a legal one. I do think that one can impact on the other but I don’t think that statutory amendment in itself will fix a social problem. And statutory amendment in the absence of resource to back it up (court, legal advice / representation, CAFCASS, information or anything else) is just a recipe for more disillusionment and injustice.
The consultation is here by the way. It closes tomorrow.
My response is here.
This is a guest blog post by Melanie Barnes. Melanie is qualified as a Solicitor Advocate and is trained as a mediator. She has a specialism in child support law and currently sits on the Resolution National Committee for Child Maintenance. She has a particular interest in international child maintenance and has been actively involved in policy discussions on this issue. She has also been commissioned to write a book dealing with this area of law. You can find her at @MelCVBarnes.
Shared parenting: reciprocity and Colin
In terms of conflict, I’ve always thought that the world is divided into two categories of people; those who try and win the upper hand by a sophisticated use of silence (which may or may not annoyingly include the correction of grammar during arguments), and those who feel unable to deal with any sort of dispute indoors and instead head out onto the street to throw insults that are generally followed by what sound like very large exclamation marks. Arguments are even more difficult when couples do not fit in the same category. One woman I know was often left alone in the car-park effectively hurling abuse at nobody while her partner sat quietly in the kitchen flipping angrily through The Guardian. It was never going to last.
The point is, relationships are difficult enough to manage even where there is a degree of understanding, but when that balance is challenged upon separation, the resolution of conflict can become undeniably hard. It is therefore no surprise that various governments have tried to address the balance in order to help parents in the transition from parenting together to parenting apart without (a) costing the government money (b) costing them even more money and (c) costing lots and lots of money. Oh, and stuff about welfare.