Having just watched the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Sharing Mum and Dad”, I must admit to feeling slightly disappointed in its coverage. Whilst it was heart-warming to see an example of co-operative shared parenting at its best, the programme totally failed to capture the heart-ache and devastation of those children and parents who have no contact. Tim Lovejoy stated that in the worst case situation, contact takes places in a contact centre, a lifeline for some parents. This is not the worst case situation. For some parents and children there is no lifeline: there is no contact.
According to Ministry of Justice figures, more than 122,000 children were involved in new private law family court applications in 2010. The majority of these were for contact or residence orders where separating parents were in conflict and unable to agree on arrangements for their children. Such highly conflicted separations are rarely progressed without hostility and the emotional toll on all involved can have devastating effects and repercussions for many years. The hostility exercised, combined with the disruption of contact during extended litigation, can promote Parental Alienation – the unwarranted loathing and rejection of a loving parent.
According to Baroness Butler-Sloss, the court seeks to maintain the status quo when making a court order. Which status quo would this be? The status quo immediately prior to separation, where despite their differences, both parents somehow manage to share care for their child – take them to school, bathe them, prepare and share meals with them, read them a bedtime story, take them to after-school activities, help with their homework, visit family, set and maintain guidance and rules, share special occasions and events. Or the status quo immediately after separation, when one parent prevents their child having any contact or meaningful relationship with the other parent: their child cannot talk about their parent, have their picture, send or receive birthday cards, talk on the telephone, visit grandparents. Or the status quo after 2 years of litigation, separation and broken court orders when a child no longer knows the other parent and memories of their loving relationship have been dimmed from consciousness?
The fact remains, irrespective of whether a presumption of shared parenting becomes enshrined in law, we already have legislation which stipulates that the welfare of the child is paramount. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the best outcome for children is achieved by the active involvement of both parents in their everyday lives. It is the current application of this paramouncy principle which fails these children. Of course there are situations when proven abuse and violence should lead to caution over contact. However, in highly conflicted cases, 67% of allegations of domestic violence and abuse are unfounded. What other reason can there be for a child not continuing to have contact with both parents in light of evidence of the benefits?
Perhaps it is time to shake up our family law system – now, today, whether a change in the law is planned or not. If one parent refuses or denies contact why can a judge not immediately enforce contact, upholding a child’s right to a relationship with both parents? Why is contact not enforced until after a lengthy, embittered legal battle – and even then, when court orders are broken, why is there an almost universal failure to enforce? Whilst I admit I am no family law specialist, I am unaware of any legal reason why this is not possible (please advise me if this is not the case). I suspect the truth is that the judiciary and CAFCASS are simply too set in their ways and incapable of examining the legislation through a fresh lens. Whilst I acknowledge the resource implications of immediate safe enforcement of contact, I suggest that this would be a temporary issue. Once the family courts grasp the nettle and begin immediate enforcement, there would be a reduction in prolonged litigation, and associated costs.
I appreciate my ponderings may seem naïve and simplistic – but what is more simple than the love that a child and his mother and father share. Sometimes we need simple solutions that will truly allow a child to share mum and dad.