Perspectives of young adults who experienced parental separation Study published

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):
…manipulation was reported, but only extremely rarely and then usually with young children in circumstances where their mothers had good grounds for their own concerns. Our findings suggest that if and when the children resist contact visits, they do so, not as brain washed children, but for reasons of their own, often in response to the non-resident parent’s own behaviour….
…there was overwhelming agreement that there were circumstances, such as an abusive parent / child relationship, where contact should never take place. There was also a strong view that contact should not start or continue if it did not promote the child’s best interest and that no contact was better than bad contact…
…Responsibility for contact not happening at all or not being regularly maintained was very largely attributed to the non-resident parent, and typically explained in terms of that parent’s lack of commitment to the child…
…The foundations of successful contact…are laid down pre-separation…
…Being subjected to adult pursuits or being ignored were taken as indications of their own lack of importance to the no-resident parent. Equally they were quick to pick up subtle signs indicating the strength or absence of that parent’s emotional investment in their relationship together…
…In contrast our findings indicate that structural matters such as the frequency of contact and its format – when, where and how often contact occurs; the inclusion of overnight stays; whether or not there was a contact schedule – were not strongly associated with respondents’ positive experiences of contact or the closeness of their relationship with the non-resident parent…
…Overnight stays did not emerge as a significant factor in explaining respondents’ positive experiences of contact or the closeness of their relationship with the non-resident parent…
…Two key points emerged from the analysis of the structural elements of contact. First, they seemed less important than other factors, such as the continuity of contact, the pre-separation relationship between the child and the non-resident parent, and the quality of contact. Second, and crucially, there is no blueprint for contact which will work for all, or even the majority of children. Indeed one of the central messages of this study is that each child is an individual and that contact arrangements need to be tailored to their unique needs and circumstances…
…One of our clearest findings was how rarely respondents reported that the resident parent had prevented contact or tried to undermine the relationship between the child an the non-resident parent…in contrast a strong and consistent theme…was the extent to which resident parents had encouraged the relationship between their children and non-resident parents, in some cases even when they had themselves suffered from the non-resident parent’s violence and even when the children themselves opposed the contact…
…Our findings suggest that parental alienation is extremely rare in the general population and that when children resist contact with the non-resident parent they often do so for their own independently formed reasons. The courts should therefore be extremely cautious before they extend the use of transfer of residence orders as a sanction when a resident parent is refusing to comply with a contact order on the grounds that the child does not want contact. The courts should also be cautious about increasing the use of shared residence orders, and should take account of the advice of the young adults in this study – viz that such orders should not be made unless : parents live very close to each other; children can attend the same school; parents are on good terms; parents can provide their children with two sets of rooms, clothes and school equipment. Above all the children themselves should be happy with such an arrangement.
 [POSTSCRIPT – Don’t shoot the messenger please chaps]

As one door closes another opens

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.


Shared Parenting: Reciprocity and Colin

Melanie BarnesThis 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.

On Tuesday, the most recent attempt at achieving parental harmony was announced in the form of amendments to the Children Act 1989 which are assumed to relate to section 1 with a statement to be inserted that it is in a child’s best interest to have a ‘meaningful relationship’ with both parents.  To those who aren’t in the know, any challenge to the sacrosanct principle that the welfare of children is paramount is equivalent to the Catholic Church announcing that they aim to modernise the bible by renaming the son of God ‘Colin’ and support gay marriage.  Yes, it’s that astonishing.  No doubt though, the consultation itself will cause a huge storm and we will once again see a fresh attack by partisan groups who will hurl statistics and rhetoric across the muddy trenches of gender debate whilst each trying to win an inch more of philosophical support through the barren wastelands of academia.

Rather unhelpfully, the press has also paraded the usual headlines relating to domestic violence and ‘custody battles’ even though that term disbanded about the same time as Duran Duran.  Clearly it helps the media to promote the idea that either men are denied rights or that women are victims but it’s disappointing that despite all the positive focus by solicitors, mediators, collaborators and counsellors, the issue is defined as gender specific.  In my own household, as with many others, my relationship is not defined by traditional roles.  At Christmas for example, my husband gave me a Bosche Cordless 18V Hammer Drill (mmmmm hammer drill) and I spent an absolute fortune buying him a Le Creuset frying pan.  Consequently, I put on loads of weight eating nothing but fried food and we now have 218 unwanted shelves around the house…..though it does show that even people who are fundamentally different can find ways to communicate and achieve reciprocity.

Bearing in mind that society does present the traditional view, and this is encouraged by ‘influencers’ at separation, it is easy for parents to become positional, especially with the value achieved by the label of ‘main carer’.   Promoting a ‘single parent model’ in society can also leave the other parent feeling that his or her contribution to the family is no longer valid and struggling to understand why a parental relationship is now redefined as ‘having contact’.  In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to the couple who can’t even agree on how to have an argument, with one parent left outside in the cold without feeling that they are being heard.  It can also difficult for one person to feel that they are left with the financial burden simply because this represents the status quo.  Frankly, I would feel the same as if I divorced, my husband would have sole residence of our Labrador, I would need to maintain him each month and would no doubt spend the rest of my left resenting him bitterly whilst surrounded by unwashed dishes, empty bottles of wine and a life-size cardboard cut out of David Tennant (mmmm David Tennant).

It was clear from the government’s response to the Family Justice Review that they recognise parents need meaningful and holistic support upon separation and in my view, any attempt to address imbalance that may prevent negotiation and trust should be welcomed in order to reduce the risk of conflict. Whilst this may be perceived as blue-sky thinking, the starting point should surely be this: in these circumstances and within this family, what is the best emotional, practical and financial contribution that these parents can make to achieve the best possible outcome for the children?

It is not an issue of presumption and time.  It is not an issue of one parent having more rights than the other.  It is an issue of equality, a commitment to welfare and a solid foundation to enable a reciprocal relationship to continue despite the pain and upheaval of relationship breakdown.  In times of stress, where collaboration appears impossible, take a deep breath and ask yourself this.  What Would Colin Do?