That’s Men: Where is the child in family law?
Today, some separated men are in despair because they have little or no access to their children or because they have little or no capacity to pay maintenance ordered by a judge. Other men are ignoring the access they are granted or paying far less than they could pay for their children’s upkeep.
Some mothers are in financial distress because ex-partners who could pay maintenance don’t, but these mothers insist that their children see their fathers anyway because that is the children’s entitlement. Other mothers sabotage access arrangements as a way of getting at the father.
How would you resolve this mess? It seems to me that the only viable guiding principle to help us navigate through the morass is to build the system around the interests of the children.
In such a system, judges would not be required to deal with an unhealthily large number of cases, they would be trained in all aspects of dealing with the conflicts on which they adjudicate every day and they could take the time necessary to arrive at child-friendly decisions.
To make this work you would need to have contact centres, places in which children could meet the absent parent if that is the only way it can be done. You would need to boost the resourcing of the Family Mediation Service to help people, who are angry and bitter with each other, negotiate workable support and childcare arrangements. If a mother sabotaged access arrangements, she would be required to justify her actions; if a father ignored his duty to see his children, he too would be required to justify his actions.
Parents in conflict are angry and unhappy people and it is impossible to arrive at entirely satisfactory solutions in these situations. A recent study by Róisín O’Shea for the Irish Research Council suggests that many fathers are losing out in terms of access and maintenance in the courts. Overburdened courts are making maintenance orders that push low-income fathers on welfare below workable income levels, access to the children is often unsatisfactory and access orders are often flouted by mothers.
This isn’t a child-centred system. To develop such a system would take time, effort and money. In Scotland, access cases can sometimes take months as parents are encouraged to use mediation and to act in the best interests of their children. The process is stressful but the outcomes for families are relatively satisfactory with parents getting along even better when the court process is over.
We could do that too but I am, frankly, doubtful if we care enough to do it. In Alan Shatter we have a reforming Minister for Justice who literally wrote the book on family law. Perhaps this is a glimmer of hope in a political system which has a lot to say about children after bad things have happened but which usually fails to follow words with actions.
Addendum: Earlier, I mentioned contact centres, where the non-custodial parent could meet his or her children if no other arrangement was possible. Two such centres are being run on a pilot basis in Dublin by Barnardos and One Family. They work with what they describe as “high-conflict families who were frequently in legal disputes in relation to contact arrangements for their children”.
A child contact centre, according to One Family, “is a safe, friendly and neutral place where children can spend time with the parent/s they do not live with. It is a child-centred environment which allows the child to form or develop a relationship with the parent at their own pace and in their own way, usually through play and child-centred activities.”
The centre provides assessment, preparation and mentoring services for parents as part of its work.
An evaluation report on the service will be launched in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle on Friday morning. Places are limited and if you want to attend the launch, you need to email One Family at firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 01 662 9212 by tomorrow.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.