We need to change the culture that gives the impression that when parents separate, their difficulties and relationships are legal or formal. The system needs to always emphasise that parents should not be disengaged from the normality of parenting their children as they did before, but now just within two households, not one.
There have been some significant advances that sow the seeds of hope that we are going in the right direction. But this campaign is a long and hard one.
Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation
Several things hold us back. In the last month, in the media and amongst the parents I work with, I must have heard the phrases ‘custody’ and ‘access’ repeated over a dozen times. I have been working in family law for 30 years, and these terms were abolished before I started. Whilst a cultural shift away from such negative views of family life is never going to be easy, it is encouraging that The Family Law Language Project has recently been launched to try to tackle this.
Over a year ago, a report came out called: What About Me: Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation. It set out that the way forward for parents should be centred on meeting their needs primarily away from the court, with a multidisciplinary approach and political oversight.
The hope of the President of the Family Division, on the report’s launch night, was not to see so many parents come through the legal system. “We in the court only know parents exist when they’ve issued an application and walk through the court door and often it’s too late then. They’ve got a mindset that they want a resolution based upon court processes, judges and the rest and it’s very difficult then to manage their expectations, to divert them somewhere else.”
Addressing Potential Problems
The report made clear that steering parents away from considering their issues as being legal ones only applied where there were no safeguarding concerns. The families at risk of harm still very much need to have the court as a safety net.
For all other parents, perhaps asking a few tough questions can help address where problems may lie:
- are your children at the centre of any decisions made about their lives?
- do your children feel and are loved and cared for by both parents?
- do your children have contact with both sides of their families, including any siblings who may not live with them, as long as they are safe?
- do your children have a [proper] childhood, including freedom from the pressures of adult concerns, such as financial worries?
These questions have been adapted from the wording of The Parenting Charter. The charter itself is preceded by a reminder of why it is needed. ‘Conflict is damaging, especially conflict happening between the two people your children love best in the world. Our Parenting Charter sets out what children should be able to expect from their parents if they are separating and what separating parents need to do in the interests of their children. At times of family difficulty, it is easy for adults to forget what it is like to be a child, distracted as they may be by feelings of hurt and fear for the future.’
Mediation and Parenting
Mediation is one way of helping parents come into a space where they can talk just as parents. Even if court proceedings follow, nothing said in mediation can be used against them (unless for safeguarding reasons). That allows parents to look at their roles through the lens of their children’s wellbeing alone, and not as though their issues with one another need be viewed as a form of legal battle.
Family Mediation Week takes place from 17 January 2022 and Anthony Gold is offering free mediation information meetings (MIAMS) for the whole of January. For more information please contact either Michelle Howarth at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jordan Ridley at email@example.com or by telephone on 020 7940 4000.