An absence of justice for heartbreak fathers
Maureen Freely meets a group of parents whose struggles to see their children are a shocking indictment of our Kafkaesque family laws
Sunday February 20, 2000
Are you married or in a permanent relationship? Do you have children?
If you know for sure that your children will remain central to your life, even and especially if you get separated or divorced, then you are just the sort of parent the Government says it wants to champion.
That is what it says, anyway. But now listen to a few stories about what happens to parents post-divorce in real life.
These are not about custody battles. All are about that slippery concept known as 'reasonable contact'. And most parents mentioned below have gone to court because the other parent is not letting them see their children.
Their stories are so outrageous that you will think I've made them up.
You may wonder why there's been so little fuss about the Kafkaesque legal machinery that produced them. But one answer is that cases that involve disputes concerning contact are heard in family courts, and the family courts are closed to the public.
CASE NO 1: PETER
First, a short story that illustrates the role of the key player in these proceedings, the Court Welfare Officer.
The divorced parents have gone to court because the mother has qualms about letting Peter have their toddler son for overnight stays.
But when they arrive at their first conciliation session, she has already agreed that she is ready to relent.The Court Welfare Officer has other views. He tells the couple that:
1. It is best for the children to think of visits with dad as 'infrequent treats'.
2. Children always care more for their mothers than for their fathers, even though fathers rarely like to hear this.
3. Mothers are the source of all nourishment, and always the most important members of their families, unless they die.
4. No child under five should have to see his father unless the mother wanted him to, because if she were anxious about contact the child could develop a condition called 'splitting'. After hearing all this, the mother panics and backs out of her agreement.
Court Welfare Officers write 35,000 reports a year: these affect the lives of 70,000 children.
By training, they are criminal probation officers. When they take on this specialised job, they receive no extra training in child development, and no guidelines about how to interpret such concepts as 'reasonable contact'. Most of the reports they write are based, therefore, on personal conjecture.
What effect have their recommendations had on the families concerned?
It is hard to say. In the 20 years since the Family Court Welfare Service was founded, there has not been a single follow-up study. The service has never checked its officers' reports for anything except spelling. Because court records are closed to the public, nobody else can check them either. This is why the Family Court Experience comes as such a shock to so many users.
CASE NO 2: JOHN
Certainly, it was a shock to a man we will call John.
His daughter was six months old when he left the marital home at his wife's request. She did not want him to see the child, but he persisted. One day, after John took the girl to a swimming pool, the mother complained to social services staff, alleging that he had forced the girl to put her head under water. Although they decided that the allegation was not true, this did not stop the Court Welfare Officer from alluding to the episode at hearing after hearing.
At one point in the proceedings, the judge even went so far as to ask the father to promise never to take his daughter swimming again. After two years of legal battles, John won the right to have his daughter for overnight visits. Since that time, he has had no trouble with contact. Relations with the child's mother, Jan, could not be more cordial.
'All the issues have gone. I won because I'm strong emotionally,' he says. But many parents in his position cannot call on these resources, and the legal battle can break them.
CASE NO 3: RICHARD
This is what happened to a man we will call Richard, a major in the Army and the father of two very young children.
He was devoted to their mother, despite the fact that she was violent, often with the help of a knife. He never reported the incidents, but one day Marion attacked him in the street and a bystander called the police.
Divorce proceedings began soon afterwards. Marion works full-time. Although Richard also works full-time, his hours are shorter and he was always the primary carer. But once he had left the marital home, Marion was obstructive about contact, as he had feared.
And the violence continued, too. One day, when he saw her with their children in the street and waved, she tried to run him over with her car. By now, Richard had found out that Marion had a 16-year record of violence and psychiatric problems.
She had files with both the police and social services. In spite of this, and even after Richard found bruises all over one child's body, the courts let her keep the children. One judge justified this by saying that, all things being equal, children under five were much better off with their mothers.
What Richard would like to know is, how unequal do things have to be before a judge will override that prejudice? Richard has not seen his children for two and a half years. He has, he thinks, recovered from the mental breakdown he had two years ago, although he says: 'I'm still not the man I was.'
He hopes to get his children back one day. And because they are still young, it is not too late to reverse any alienation they may have suf fered. He is referring here to 'parent alienation syndrome' or hate campaigns waged on children by one of their parents against the other.
It is a term you hear a lot in courts in the United States. It is not a problem that worries our own Family Court Welfare Service. But that is not to say it does not happen. Here's a classic case.
CASE NO 4: STEVEN
Steven and Jessica have been separated for two years when the story begins. Both are in new relationships. The son lives with Jessica.
But one day he asks Steven if he can come and live with him. His father jots a note to Jessica, asking her what she thinks. Jessica takes offence and begins to make difficulties about contact.
After one disputed visit, Steven is told that the boy returned home unhappy. Then he is told that there is to be a cessation of contact. Then he discovers that Jessica has contacted social services staff alleging that Steven forced the boy to have a bath with him while he had an erection.
Some allegations of abuse must be true, and so all must be taken seriously. But you have to wonder when you hear about cases in which mothers suddenly allege abuse at a time when it will give them an edge in a dispute over contact.
When he heard about Jessica's allegation, Steven went straight to the Family Protection Unit. It decided after investigation that the allegations had no merit. But this was not enough to clear his name during the years of litigation that followed.
At the same time, the mother could do no wrong in the eyes of the court. No one was concerned, for example, when she said: 'Ian would rather be dead than reconnect with his father'. Nobody asked if she might be putting psychological pressure on the boy to turn against his father. 'As an adult one can cope. But what about the little lad?', Steven says. In his view, he has lost his son because the court welfare service is heavily biased in favour of women.
It is not, however, a bias that works in the favour of women who are non-resident parents, or women who are foreigners.
CASE NO 5: ROSA
Certainly it did not work in the favour of a Swiss woman we'll call Rosa. Her marriage ended seven years ago, when her husband, an Englishman, beat her up and left home in the middle of the night, taking with him their older child, then aged six. Rosa tried and failed to get her daughter back. Eventually she settled for reasonable contact.
Six weeks after the divorce was final, Rosa's daughter found her father dead in the shower. By the time Rosa found out about it, the girl was in the care of her paternal grandmother, who had already applied for residency. The application seems to have been supported by vague allegations of abuse. Rosa has not been able to see her daughter again.
For a while, the grandmother did allow Rosa's younger child to visit his sister in her new home. During these visits, the grandmother told him that his mother was a criminal, and like a chocolate onion - sweet on the outside, but if you bite into it, watch out.
Rosa insists that she does not blame her for these, or any, of her vicious lies. 'She is just following her nature,' she says. Like all of the other parents I spoke to, she blames the professionals and the system within which they work.
Contrary to popular opinion, custody disputes do not lead inexorably to out-and-out war. Divorced couples who manage to stay well away from the courts are often able to come to civilised agreements.
Most of the conflicts they cannot sort out on their own, they can resolve, and resolve rapidly, if they take advantage of the new, still very small, but very effective, Family Mediation Service.
If they cannot deal with them amicably here, then of course the law has a part to play.
But even when divorced parents go to court, the first aim should still be to keep children connected with both parents wherever and whenever possible.
The Family Welfare Service, however, resolves conflicts by choosing sides. And until very recently, the losing parties suffered mostly in silence.
When the nation wondered why it was that so many fathers left home and lost touch with their children within the year, and why it was that about 900 other fathers were driven to kidnap their children every year, they rarely asked how many of those absent and kidnapping parents had been barred by the Family Welfare Service from seeing their children.
But now things are changing. Late last year, a group of parents filed a class action suit against Jack Straw, charging that he has failed to train court welfare officers properly for their work with children after divorce.
They belong to an organisation called Inpoww (Information on Probation Officers in Welfare Work), which would like to see a radical overhaul of the service. For the past two years, its founder, Oliver Cyriax, has been lobbying the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Family Policy Unit, to this end.
What he and his fellow campaigners want is what most people think we already have - properly trained and routinely evaluated welfare officers, and:
• Clear guidelines that work from the assumption that parenting is best shared;
• Courts open and accountable, and prepared to back up their own contact orders;
• Clear procedures for the assessment of allegations made by one parent against the other;
• A complaints procedure;
• Regular follow-up studies.
Justice, in other words. Is that too much to ask?
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000