Before the shouting starts (The Guardian, 8 October 2003)

11 May 2005

By Jack O’Sullivan, Fathers Direct

Divorced fathers say family law is biased, but the real victims are children and only mediation can help them….

In the next few weeks, expect a frenzied debate on the issue of separated fathers losing contact with their children. A week of protests is promised at the family courts plus a march in London behind a tank and a 20ft effigy of Tony Blair. Meanwhile, Bob Geldof wants family law scrapped and rewritten to rid it of anti-father bias.

The protests reflect high levels of distress among many fathers. However, there is a danger that all the heat generated may shed too little light. Ministers claim that the courts rarely refuse contact to fathers. (True.) Campaigners retort that, following court orders, thousands of children rarely or never see their fathers. (Also true.) Many people are left confused. Some women may feel threatened. And the whole debate is written off as gender war, men versus women with children as the battleground. Little is achieved to improve life for families in difficulty.

So before the shouting starts, we should consider the evidence. First, we are currently short-changing the children of families that break up. In 67% of cases, kids see their fathers less than once a fortnight. Yet after break-up, a child’s well-being is directly associated with seeing dad often. So we should generally be aiming for more time with dads, organised in a way that minimises parental conflict.

This need not involve time-consuming legislation. We just have to try out a system, already in long-standing operation in other countries, that reduces the acrimony in caring for children after divorce.

The principles are simple. First, the family courts deter poisonous, divisive litigation by ensuring that cases are settled before they encounter a judge. When couples reach for the law, they are told that they are expected to agree a solution ensuring the children see plenty of both parents. They must then meet experts who explain what children need after separation and who help warring couples focus on the kids rather than their own anger. With help from mediators, they must agree a parenting plan. So, normal cases are rarely litigated but, when they are, the judge makes it plain that a partner failing to work with the process may lose parenting time.

This system has operated in Florida for over a decade and a fraction of such cases are now contested. Similar schemes work in Sweden and Norway. Proceedings are speedy. Children typically see plenty of both parents. Now, the inner London family proceedings court, one of Britain’s busiest, wants to pilot the Florida scheme. Mrs Justice Bracewell, a senior family court judge, thinks it could save money, time and grief, and considers it "incomprehensible" that ministers could refuse to back the pilot. The proposal now awaits the lord chancellor’s nod.

These changes will not resolve the hardest cases. A sizeable minority, for example, involve allegations of domestic violence. Currently these can take years to sort out, putting children at risk. We need faster justice that rigorously identifies the guilty, quickly vindicates the falsely accused and offers victims and their children proper protection. A model fast-track system already operates in the Australian state of Victoria.

With such reforms we could refocus on the broader issue: how to support the 2 million children separated from their fathers. We should not under-estimate the central role that these men have in their children’s lives, even when father and child are strangers. "Dear Father," writes one 11-year-old boy. "I don’t say dear Dad, because you have not been a dad to me, have you? I haven’t introduced myself yet. My name is Daniel. You might not remember my mother, but I think about you all the time."

Clearly, the courts are not the only thing coming between separated fathers and their kids, given that most families settle residence arrangements without recourse to law. Poverty and inadequate housing also get in the way. So does knowledge; some newly separated men lack experience of caring for children alone. Then there are the health and family services that too easily write the separated dad out of the picture. Innovators such as York One Parent Families now regard these men as "forgotten lone parents" who need backing if their children are to thrive.

The number of fathers losing all touch with their children is often exaggerated, but remains large. Probably 10% of children whose parents have parted (or never lived together) have no contact with their dad. Infrequent contact is the norm for the rest. How can we tolerate this attrition?

The missing fathers include young men, often unemployed, and sometimes seen as a lost cause by their child’s mother, her parents and family services. There are runaway dads, often unconfident in their parenting role, and excluded fathers, desperate to see their children but prevented from doing so because the acrimony of the split makes any court order unenforcable.

These men must share responsibility for the breach – but we could help prevent it. Decades later, when children seek out missing fathers (as, increasingly, they do), they typically encounter men delighted at reconnecting, full of grief and regret. That should make us wonder whether a precious relationship is really being given a chance.