The majority of parents manage to reach agreement about how they will both continue to provide care for their children after divorce or separation. But for those who are unable to, the only means of resolving disputes is through the family courts. Whether the courts are involved or not, in too many cases one parent is left in a position where it is almost impossible to retain a strong and influential relationship with his or her child. This can result in a child losing contact completely with one parent, usually the father, often with a lasting impact on their lives.
The Coalition Government believes that parents who are able and willing to play a positive role in their child's care, after separation, should have the opportunity to do so. As a result, they are in the process of introducing a legislative amendment to the Children Act 1989 that will apply to private law disputes about the parenting patterns for children after divorce or separation.
The proposed amendment has the aim of reinforcing the expectation, both within the courts and at a societal level, that both parents are jointly responsible for their children's upbringing, even after separation.
The changes will place an explicit requirement on courts to consider the benefits of a child having a continuing relationship with both parents alongside the other factors affecting their welfare. The Government believes that this will encourage more separated parents to resolve their disputes out of court. However, the child's welfare will remain the court's paramount consideration when making decisions (s1.CA (1989). Of course, the Government is trying to introduce reform in an environment of competing demands with single parent groups arguing that there should be no change to the Act, and many fathers' groups calling for nothing less than a rebuttal presumption of 50:50 shared care.
Clearly, there are situations in which it is not possible for children to maintain a relationship with both of their parents. For example, where a parent walks away or where there may be welfare issues. However, all of the international evidence strongly suggests that, except in the most difficult circumstances, the children who adjust best to the transitions that accompany family separation are those who are able to maintain positive relationships with both of their parents and their wider kinship.
At the Centre for Separated Families, we believe that post separation parenting patterns must always be based upon a child's best interests and that these need to take account of a factors such as a child's developmental stages. As a child focussed organisation, we help parents to regularly assess and modify parenting arrangements to make sure that they are still appropriate. We do not support a presumption that children will spend equal amounts of time with each parent after separation, although this arrangement does work well for some children. But most children benefit from significant and substantial ongoing relationships with both parents after separation and this is likely to include them spending frequent and continuing time with each parent.
Probably the greatest cause of conflict between parents who find themselves in dispute about post separation parenting patterns is the division of parenting responsibilities into 'care' and 'contact'. This allotment of differential parenting status significantly reduces the potential for collaboration between parents. If children are to be helped through the difficult emotional and psychological challenges that come with separation, the input of both parents must be equally recognised, irrespective of the division of parenting time.
Currently, whether parents go through the family courts or not, one parent will be considered to be the 'primary carer' and receive all of the financial, emotional and practical support, whereas the other parent will be either effectively excluded from their child's life or their role will be reduced to that of distant financial provider whose experiences are considered only in relation to their potential to pay child maintenance. This lone parent model of support to separated families has now failed several generations of children.
Whatever changes the Government introduces, what parents need most of all are services around them that understand and can respond to the different experiences of mums and dads. So much of the service delivery in this country is based on stereotypes about what separated families look like, who has done what to who and how mums and dads behave both during and after separation. Without empathic and gender aware support from information providers, mediators, social services early years professionals and a whole host of others that they come into contact with after divorce or separation, parents will continue to find themselves in dispute and their children will continue to pay a heavy price.
Nick Woodall works on policy at the Centre for Separated Families and is a BBC Online parenting expert and author on separation issues.