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“What about me?” Reframing support for families following parental separation

13th Nov 2020

The Family Solutions Group – a multi-disciplinary group with broad and deep expertise in working with separated families in and out of court – have released a report that brings fresh and focused attention to improving the experiences of separating families away from the Family Court, where it is safe to do so. NYAS’ legal team were involved in curating the report to highlight the issues presented by the common court-led response to separating families.

Research highlights that every year, around 280,000 children see their parents separate in the UK. How those separations are handled can affect the rest of their lives. The report details how when parents separate, the reflex action for many is to frame parenting disagreements as legal disputes. Too many parents who separate on difficult terms expect to fight over their competing ‘rights’, rather than cooperate over their shared ‘responsibilities’.

Some families need the protection of the family court, but many do not. Disagreements about children may be symptoms of unresolved emotions following relationship breakdown, and yet relational issues are not addressed in a system designed to administer justice.

As a society, we must protect children and restore their needs and rights as central in any disagreement between parents. The report focuses on changes which are child-focussed, promote a long-term understanding of child welfare and are centred around safety.

The report proposes six recommendations:

  • Fill the policy vacuum. Family breakdown affects every government department and its annual cost to the nation is estimated as tens of billions. Yet there is no overarching policy or provision for the children of families who live apart, and no government department with responsibility for separating families. We are proposing a more coordinated, joined-up approach across government departments to tackle the financial and human cost of family breakdown.
  • Change the cultural response to separation. Separating parents need to be steered away from acrimonious court proceedings. We are recommending a campaign of public information and education with the aim of achieving a permanent shift in cultural attitudes.
  • Put the rights and needs of children at the centre of any parental separation. All the evidence points to the detrimental effect of acrimonious court proceedings on children, often for many years to come. Research is clear that psychological harm caused by parental conflict impacts children’s long-term mental health and future life chances.   Children become silent victims as their voices are drowned out in the adult conflict and childhoods are lived against a backdrop of parental conflict, often continuing for years after any legal process is completed. We are calling for a reframing of the conversation so that young people’s needs and voices are centre stage when parents separate.
  • Steer some parents to the ‘safety pathway’. There is no doubt that some families need assistance from the family courts: for example where abuse is alleged or there is the potential for harm (perhaps because of addiction or severe mental health issues). We estimate that 20-24% of families fall into these categories and in such cases safety must be prioritised above all else. We are recommending that such cases are identified early and directed onto what we have called the ‘safety pathway’. This will give them accessible and affordable support, and access to representation in court where needed.
  • Steer others to the ‘cooperative parenting pathway’. For the remainder, we need to reframe the conversation so that a legal response is not the default option. In the absence of safety concerns, the goal must be to support parents to resolve issues in a child-focused way themselves. These families require a ‘cooperative parenting pathway’, which presumes that parental involvement, almost always in the form of contact with both parents, is beneficial to a child. Separation can be a distressing process, and we cannot ignore the hurt and often anger that some parents feel at this time. However, we are calling for a system which holistically assesses the needs of families and offers clear routes to integrated support and therapeutic services, funded (where financially eligible), and in which the voices of children are central. This will require better coordination of support both locally and nationally. Ultimately, parents and their children deserve a more humane response to relationship breakdown.

Judith Timms, Founder and Trustee of NYAS, said: “This is a powerful report which provides a blueprint for a comprehensive change of focus in private law proceedings. Mary Mullin, Debbie Singleton and I have been pleased to have represented NYAS on the Family Solutions Group and to have been able to draw on NYAS’s many years’ experience in order to inform its recommendations for a framework of children’s right’s based services of information, consultation and representation.”

You can read the full report here.

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