Divorce court process fails children, says charity Restored Lives as it backs call for reform
Posted 2 weeks ago
Thursday 12th November 2020
The divorce process in this country inflames and prolongs damaging parental conflict which harms children’s long-term mental health and future life chances. Restored Lives, a charity that supports hundreds of people through divorce each year, welcomes today’s judicial report “What about me: Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation?” by the Family Solutions Group which calls for a radical change in how parents separate.
The report shows that in the UK over the last 10 years 2.8 million children see their parents separate and that the way these separations are handled affects children and their parents for the rest of their lives. Restored Lives, the UKs largest provider of relationship recovery courses, sees this damage first hand with regular feedback such as “the legal process encouraged … a straightforward separation to become a long and confrontational dispute over a period of 2 years”.* Or quotes from parents in relation to seeing their children such as “I cannot afford any more court proceedings so my options are completely exhausted” – are we now in a system where wealth may dictate whether there is fair access to your child? It is patently clear that the current system is failing children, parents and society as a whole.
There are two fundamental issues. One is a culture hardwired to treat family breakdown as a legal problem between adults. The other is a vacuum of government policy and oversight.
1. Change the approach
The Ministry of Justice and the courts are the wrong mechanisms to resolve parenting issues. Many disagreements about children are not legal disputes, but symptoms of unresolved emotions from relationship breakdown which can not be addressed in a system designed to administer justice. The adversarial nature of the justice system adds fuel to the fire, increasing stress and conflict. Parents do not need justice but an effective method of resolving disagreements constructively both now and in the future.
The heightened parental conflict created needs to stop, children need to be protected and given a real voice. Here is one of these voices from a child Restored Lives has supported and worked together with Fegans, a charity providing children’s counselling, that speaks to their pain: “seeing my parents ignoring each other makes me feel alone, it makes me feel unwanted and upset.”**
A new multi-disciplinary approach that safeguards children and enhances effective, cooperative parenting is urgently required. The current system is expensive, unwieldy and harmful because it pits parents against each other making it even harder to build successful
2. Fill the policy vacuum
Family breakdown is estimated by the Relationships Foundation to cost the government over £50bn and affects every government department. Yet there is no overarching policy or provision for children or adults in this situation and no government department coordinating the responsibility. This policy vacuum must be filled. A first step must be to establish a Family Lead at the heart of the government who will initiate child-centred policy and provide coordination and oversight.
Recommended changes to the current approach
We must stop placing parents and their advisers in an adversarial position against each other and create an approach which helps families resolve parental issues in a constructive manner. This would involve:
– A clear route to resolve all issues outside the court system for the majority of cases. Only situations with safeguarding issues should be identified and directed to the family court.
– A multi-disciplinary response covering the emotional state of the parents should be put at the heart of this process incorporating therapists, parenting specialists, mediators and legal services to support parents resolve parenting issues themselves.
– Funding and access to information and direct services for children, with mechanisms for children’s voices to be heard at the time when decisions are being made which affect them.
– Create a framework and guidance for the resolution of children issues, based on expert knowledge, that gives clear expectations of the cooperative parenting approach.
It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of this crisis in the UK where children are directly affected but institutionally ignored. If we can shift attitudes and expectations, then a massive human cost can be alleviated and a huge state burden reduced all to the substantial
benefit for our society, communities and generations to come.
“The report confirms our shared view that the court system is the wrong place to resolve parenting issues. Unresolved emotional issues and the adversarial nature of the divorce system fuel the fire of a confrontational approach which damages children, who become the innocent victims of the process. We urgently need to find a new way that puts children first and resolves parental conflict outside the court.” Erik Castenskiold, Restored Lives, CEO.
“Fegans see first-hand the harm that is being done to children on a daily basis. Family relationship difficulties and family breakdown is the most common reason for referral to us and so we whole-heartedly welcome this report from the Family Solutions Group.” Ian Soars,
*See Notes to Editors for full quotations
Notes to Editors
Restored Lives helps people recover fully from relationship breakdown. By supporting people through separation or divorce when a relationship is beyond repair we help reduce its negative effects on individuals, children and communities.
We are a charity dedicated to creating resources to support anyone going through the breakup of a significant relationship including a ready-made eight-session course, a book, workbook and how-to guides. www.restoredlives.org
Fegans is a charity which provides professional children’s counselling and parenting support
Note 1: There are many, many different perspectives from parents who have been impacted by the system. These are two experiences of parents that have found the court process difficult:
Parent 1: “Sam”
“The present process sets up families for failure. The court process is long, drawn out and shrouded in secrecy i.e I have been to court 25 times 80% of the time defending against spurious false allegations the other 20% trying to get an enforcement order to see them. Ex-partners are able to exploit the situation and can turn an “ex-husband/wife” very easily into an ex-parent. Almost a year
and £80,000 on, I’m broke and yet to see my children. The legal process needs reform urgently or there’s no hope for our children and the vicious cycle continues creating damaged people who then perpetuate failed marriages.”
Parent 2: “Leslie”
“By the time I got to court my ex had prevented me from seeing the children for over a year but the judge ruled that because of the hiatus of contact I should write to them as a “first step”. Now I have no way of knowing if the children even receive my letters. I am trying to come to terms with the painful reality that I may not see them until they are old enough to seek me out on their own. I cannot afford any more court proceedings so my options are completely exhausted.”
Parent 3: “Karen”
“I have 2 children. My experience was that the legal process encouraged what could have been a straightforward separation to become a long and confrontational dispute over a period of 2 years with lasting effects on our family relationships and our ability to co-parent well.”
Note 2: These quotes are from children that Restored Lives has helped and supported. They have been consolidated into a video created by Fegans and Wells Family Mediation Trust which we use at Restored Lives. Childrens quotes:
Video content: https://www.fegans.org.uk/campaign/co_parenting/
“When parents separate, it’s more important than ever to parent together”
Child 1 “Dad was awful to mum but he’s still my dad, and I love him even if mom doesn’t. The worst thing was not being able to please them both. I hate it when they make me choose. …. I feel happier now that they’re talking to each other again.”
Child 2 “Seeing my parents ignoring each other makes me feel alone, it makes me feel unwanted and upset… But seeing them together supporting me, even though I know it’s hard for them means everything to me.”
Child 3 “I hate seeing how mum and dad don’t like each other and just can’t be normal with each other. It’s so embarrassing having to go through parents evenings twice. … It’s so much easier now that they’re coming together and getting along.”
“We know that co-parenting can be hard but, your children will flourish because of your courage.”