The hidden half of domestic violence
How to have eternal life
It's never Father's day
The Observer [UK] Sunday October 21, 2001
It's never Father's day by Observer Reviewer
Most divorced fathers want to see their children and most kids want to see their dads. So why does society make it so difficult for this simplest of things to happen?
One Friday afternoon earlier this month, divorced father of two David Smith collected his children from school, took them home for tea and then played games with them on the computer.
An everyday story of male parenting, you might think. But for David, it was a couple of hours of heaven and he savoured every moment. David lives within a few miles of his children, aged 12 and 10. Yet this was the first time he had seen them in almost two months. He was, he admits, quite nervous about it: 'But as soon as I saw them, it was wonderful. It was as if we'd last spent time together two days before, instead of two months.'
A musician with a national orchestra, David was married to his former wife for 14 years, and in that time he considered himself an excellent dad. 'I was very close to my children. Because of the unusual hours I work, I could be very hands-on. I would give them breakfast and sit with them while they ate it. I would collect them from school and give them tea. I did the shopping, cooking, washing, cleaning. Unless I was working, there was no question of them going to a childminder.'
This full-on fatherhood came to an abrupt end in June 1997. David - not his real name: like all men whose children have been involved in court proceedings under the Children Act, he cannot be identified for fear of identifying them too - left his marital home for Jane, who is now his second wife. They had met in the school playground while they were both waiting to collect their children.
'I'd never considered having an affair because I was committed to my family. But eventually, this amazing attraction between us became too much. I agonised before leaving because I couldn't even consider what it would be like not living with my children. The situation was a nightmare. 'But then I thought: you divorce your partner, not your children.'
Like many fathers in his situation, David was about to discover that this is not entirely true. Living alone in a rented flat, he would cry all the time about what he had done to his children; his depression became so bad that he had to seek stress counselling.
His one consolation was that he still saw his children three a times a week. Whenever he could, he would collect them from school and take them back to his former marital home to give them their tea. But it wasn't long before he realised that these visits were upsetting his former wife. In the end, it proved impossible for them to agree on when David should see the children, so they had to go to court to resolve this issue of 'contact' - the legal term for visits between a child and its non-resident parent after divorce or separation.
In her report, the court welfare officer remarked on David's 'excellent bonding' with the children and said contact should be be 'quantified, to serve the children's best interests'. But because of David's irregular work schedule, successive judges felt unable to issue a contact order imposing set contact times and were unwilling to specify minimum contact levels. So David can only see them by arrangement with his ex-wife - who is, he says, often unwilling to give her consent: 'I have been to court about 13 times, mostly to try to stabilise the access to my children. I've been in front of nine different judges, none of whom has seen my problem. I feel powerless. I started off seeing my children two or three times a week. Now I see them once a week for four hours, if I'm lucky. I have no overnights, no weekends, no holidays. I'm like an uncle they see occasionally, rather than their father.
'I feel I should be able to go to court and say "This isn't working". But why would I spend more money going back to court? It's not that the kids aren't worth it. But I have no faith whatever that it would help. Everyone says things will be better when they get older - but by then I'll have missed out on their childhood.'
Divorced dads like David do not get a good press. For one thing, marriage break-ups are generally assumed to be the man's fault. Divorced and separated wives are the patron saints of our age, struggling to cope with the children on reduced incomes which condemn many of them to lives of hardship, if not poverty.
Statistics certainly seem to support the principle of automatic male culpability. Seventy per cent of men who leave their partners do so for another woman. Nine out of 10 single parents in Britain are female. Between 35 and 50 per cent of fathers - depending on which study you believe - are estimated to lose contact with their children after separation or divorce.Which means that around 750,000 children in Britain are effectively fatherless.
In the US, the terms 'Drop-Out Fathers' and 'Dead-Beat Dads' have been coined to describe men who do not seem to realise that 'parents are forever'. These fathers are blamed for turning their children into delinquents and misfits who - research shows - are more likely to become drug addicts, drop-outs and teenage mothers and to exhibit a range of psychological and emotional problems which will last them all their lives.
Like most other women whose ideas were formed by the feminist movement of the Seventies, I bought this line almost unquestioningly. Last year I produced a Channel 4 documentary, Why Men Leave, which focused entirely on the guiltiness of men in marriage break-up and the heartbreak of the women and children left behind.
But even while I was researching the film, I became uncomfortably aware that the all-men-are-bastards theory is now as leaky as a sieve. For every man who walks out of a marriage selfishly and without a backward glance, there are dozens for whom the experience brings unexpected heartache - the loss of contact with children whom they love and whom they may have nurtured as conscientiously as the mother.
Bob Geldof, who was nearly bankrupted by his battle with Paula Yates over custody of their three daughters, Fifi, Peaches and Pixie, vividly encapsulates the pain of a father separated from his children. 'When you are with your children, it's not like: "Great, I've got three hours with my children",' he says. 'It's "There's a second gone, there's another second gone - and all the time, it's the going, it's not the being with. This is the thing that destroys people.'
As a society, Britain pays lipservice to the concept of 'post-divorce fathering'. The Children Act is built on the premise of shared parenting and states that a child has the right to have access to both parents after divorce - a message reinforced by a new Home Office pamphlet which is being distributed to all parents who use the family courts. Why, then, are so many children being severed from loving fathers by the divorce process?
According to the Newcastle Centre for Family Studies, the leading research body on family life in Britain, the 'popular wisdom' that men simply lose interest in their children and stop caring is not supported by research. Many, after all, enjoy happy, trouble-free contact within the context of an amicable divorce or separation.
The Newcastle Centre's study of 91 non-residential fathers, begun in 1991, did show a high drop-out rate - six years after divorce, only 34 men saw their children once a week and 21 didn't see them at all. But 60 per cent of the fathers who rarely saw their children were in dispute with their ex-wives about the frequency of contact. And most of the no-contact fathers had only given up in the face of serious hostility and obstructiveness from their former partners. They remained bitter and angry about what they saw as a denial of their role as parents.
The fact is that divorce, like parenthood, is for life: love may be over but hate lingers on. And whichever parent keeps the children - in more than 90 per cent of cases, the mother - holds the trump card. Even if she is partly or wholly to blame for the break-up, she is likely to be left with a residue of bitterness towards her ex. The easiest way to take revenge is by controlling his access to the children. And the courts seem unable or unwilling to do very much about it.
Julia Wise-St Leger, chief executive of the Accord Contact Centre in Kilburn - a place where non-resident parents go to meet their children when they are not allowed contact in the outside world - sees this phenomenon all the time.
'The person with the care of the children has the most power and uses that power to make their children pawns in the struggle with their ex-partner,' she says. 'We see families over and over again where the children are being used as pawns. And those children's lives are being damaged by the conflict continuing.'
Nick is a TV producer in his early fifties. Articulate and intellectual, he married eight years ago and his wife immediately became pregnant with the first of their two children. But the marriage was unhappy from the outset, and when the youngest child was three they decided to separate.
'My wife would only allow me to see the children on Saturday afternoons with her in attendance,' Nick says. 'One Saturday, about six months after I'd left, we went to a children's play centre and my son, then five, asked me to take him to the loo. As I got up, my wife said, unbelievably loudly so everyone around us could hear: "What do you do in the loo with him? Play with him?" That was when I decided to go to law.'
The case has now been in the courts continuously for three years. In that time, Nick has always maintained there was no case to answer while agreeing to submit to any expert inquiry necessary to prove the allegations false. They have now been completely dismissed, and at the last hearing the judge questioned the mother's fitness to look after her children.
'But all of this,' Nick says, 'helps me not a jot. Because the children live under her roof. It will not be easy to re-establish a normal relationship with children subjected to a continuous diet of this vile unpleasantness.'
When any allegation of abuse is made, social services must investigate it. While this was happening, Nick was only allowed contact with his children under supervision in a contact centre. Here he came across a series of cases in which violence or sexual abuse were genuinely a factor. But he was surprised to find a large number of fathers who, like him, had been subjected to false allegations by aggrieved ex-wives seemingly determined to frustrate contact between them and their children.
'One man, a deputy head of a secondary school and an inspiring father, got a hug from his child at the end of a two-hour session with her and said to me: "Do you realise, this is the first time I've hugged my child in 18 months?".'
At the contact centre, Nick's wife would set up a rival 'camp' with the children's toys and they would say, 'I want to go to mummy'. Then the social workers suggested he see his children in a private room upstairs where they could observe his interaction with them.
'Their report could not have been more supportive,' he says. 'But my wife called the police and alleged that the social workers had left me with the children unsupervised - complete nonsense, of course.'
The experienced social worker who runs the contact centre acted as a witness for Nick in court and said there was no way his children had been abused - an opinion accepted by the judge. But according to a psychiatrist's report, the idea of abuse has now been discussed so often in the family home that Nick's daughter probably just accepts that it did take place. It will, he believes, take a lot to restore his image in his children's eyes: 'In fact, I may never be able to do so. In the end, I don't think the law will be able to to provide for me to have normal, uninterrupted, healthy contact with my kids.'
Even though the courts have said his children can stay over with him, it is now nine months since he last had contact with them. When he went to collect them, they wouldn't leave their mother.
'She has demonised me, so it's not surprising,' he says. 'Yet they are well-balanced, lovely kids. This isn't the kids' problem, it's the parents' problem.'
The best advice for any man embarking on a divorce is to do anything to sort things out rather than set foot in a family court. Most fathers go to court in the understandable expectation that their case will be dealt with in a rational, fair and effective manner. Many - including Bob Geldof - come away enraged and bitter and convinced the system is biased against them.
Family courts are deeply secretive places. Every year in England and Wales, the parents of some 200,000 children pass through them. Judges are free to make whatever comments about these parents' behaviour or parenting they see fit and to make whatever orders they consider appropriate about the children's future.
Their powers include the right to stop a parent seeing their child for any reason. (Unmarried fathers have no rights in law to see their own children at all, unless they can get a Parental Responsibility Order which gives them the same status as a married man.) There are no guidelines for post-divorce contact with children. It is almost impossible to appeal against decisions and there is no proper system for complaints. No one knows how - or if - the system is working since there are no case studies of the first one million cases which have been dealt with.
In making their decisions, judges rely heavily on welfare reports drawn up by reporting officers. Formerly known as court welfare officers, these influential figures advise judges on where children should live and how often the non-resident parent should be allowed see them. Their recommendations are usually rubber-stamped.
Since they wield so much power, one might assume they are highly trained specialists. In fact, they are probation officers more used to dealing with criminals. Until recently they came under the probation service but they have now been hived off into the Government's new Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). Their training up to now consisted of two three-day release courses. 'It is nothing like adequate,' says Oliver Cyriax, a lawyer who campaigns for reform of the system. 'Parking wardens train for longer.' Reporting officers' reports are secret. It is a contempt of court for anyone not involved in a case to see them. Some officers are said to be doing a good and conscientious job.
'There's a very heavy emphasis on promoting contact because it's the child's right to see their parent,' says family lawyer Gillian Marks. 'Some reporting officers are very, very astute.'
Yet the reasons given in reports as to why a father's access should be restricted or denied often seem arbitrary, to put it mildly. One applicant had cancer which, said the report, 'could be upsetting' for his child. A man might be said to 'lack sensitivity' or be 'over-enthusiastic' or even 'father-centred' - for which tendency one man was denied all contact with his child. In one case, it was noted disapprovingly that a father had told his son he preferred Scrabble to Monopoly and thought hyacinths smelled sweeter than roses. This was seen as 'taking the lead in contact' - a form of emotional abuse, according to the reporting officer. One father wore a black shirt which 'could be intimidating'. Another stood accused of 'losing his temper with customs officials in a French airport in the 1990s' and was therefore said to have an 'unfortunate disposition'. One report could find no reason why a child should not see more of his father but went on to conclude: 'Nonetheless, the mother must be concerned about something.' The father's contact was limited to two hours every six weeks.
When judges do support father-child contact, it is all too easy for the mother to derail it. David Smith remembers going to collect his children for what should have been a week's stay one Easter. He found his ex-wife had taken them away and stuck keep-out notices to the doors and windows of the house saying her husband had been stealing from her.
Some women flout contact orders repeatedly - even when they are attached to penal notices, which in theory mean they could go to jail. But judges are reluctant to send mothers of small children to prison and hesitant even about fining them.
'The key,' says barrister Gillian Marks, 'is that the resident parent has to give permission for the child to have a relationship with the other parent.'
The stories that trickle out of family courts can sometimes be as bizarre and comic as they are heartbreaking. In one particularly distressing case, a man has been granted residence of his 12-year-old daughter while being banned indefinitely from seeing his eight-year-old son. The girl - who was also ordered to live with her mother but refused to go - is only allowed to see her brother for two hours a month under supervision in a contact centre, in case she influences him to her father's point of view. Her father says his daughter is determined to become a lawyer when she grows up, so that she can represent other children like herself.
Joe is just at the start of the painful process of sorting out contact arrangements for his child. Last year he left his partner of 20 years and their eight-year-old son for another woman. It did not occur to him at the time that this might result in him being cut off from his son: 'I was naïve. When I read in the paper now that a man has committed suicide over something like this, I understand it.'
Joe's ex-partner is, he says, 'very, very bitter' about what has occurred. Trouble began when he wanted to take his son, Max, on a day out to a theme park.
'His mother said, "I'm not letting him go" and I replied, "You can't stop me." She said, "Yes, I can." Then I realised that since we weren't married, I didn't have any rights over my own son.'
He consulted a solicitor who advised him to get a Parental Responsibility Order in order to establish his rights.
Then I told her I'd like to have custody of Max. That was the word I used - though I understand they call it residence. She said, "I must advise you the likelihood of that is not good".'
Joe went to see the court reporting officer who was drawing up the welfare report. 'She was a middle-aged woman and seemed OK. She asked me who I thought my son would like to live with and I said I imagined he'd choose his mother. She said, "You will be pleasantly surprised to hear he wouldn't choose either of you. He said he wants you both." She led me to believe I'd be looking at shared residence of Max with my ex-partner. I went away feeling quite cheerful.'
But the finished report was damning, full of what Joe describes as 'hearsay and unsubstantiated allegations by my ex'. It recommended that because of 'conflict' between the parents, Joe's former partner should have residence, and that Joe should only get contact with his son.
'My life fell apart then,' he says. 'This boy who gets up early every morning to see me before I go to work and who rings me five times a day, how do I tell him he'll only be seeing me every other weekend and on a few holidays?'
Joe was so incensed about the allegations in the report - and the fact that the reporting officer appeared to have taken no steps to check them out - that he decided to complain. He wrote to his MP and to every single member of the board of Cafcass. But he was told by Cafcass to take it up with the reporting officer concerned.
'I wrote her a letter which said I realised she had a difficult task but she had been misled and I'd like her to see my son and myself together - as she had seen him and his mother - to show what a strong relationship we had. She just wrote back rejecting my claims out of hand.'
Joe is due to go into court shortly but does not hold out much hope for shared residence.
'The judge opens the report and the first thing he sees is Mr X did this, that and the other. What else matters after that? Not only am I fighting my ex but I'm fighting a system that doesn't work. Why should it be assumed that women are necessarily the best people to look after their children? Children need both parents. Max and I are closer than ever at the moment. Why should he lose that?'
Is help for the Joes of this world anywhere on the horizon? The issue of father-child contact after divorce or separation has become a hot topic in both Europe and the US, where concern over the growing social problems caused by fatherlessness has spawned the publishing of entire libraries of books with names like Fatherneed and Life Without Father. In Britain, a new pressure group, Families After Marriage, has been set up by journalists Maureen Freely and Julie Wheelwright to press for an overhaul of the family courts. FAM also wants to see the introduction of a system which would encourage the use of mediation instead of the courts in 'ordinary' contact disputes, in an attempt to promote greater continuity, consensus and stability.
It could be pushing at a half-open door. The Lord Chancellor's department is aware enough that the current arrangements are not working to have asked the Children Act sub-committee of its Family Law Advisory Board to look at them and recommend how contact could be made to work better. Its report on the 'facilitation of arrangements between children and non-residential parents and enforcement of court orders for contact' is expected to be published early in the New Year. It will then be considered by the Government. Hopefully, the committee will have picked up that there are different ways of doing things.
In Alberta, Canada, divorcing couples with children under 16 are required by the rules of the court to attend a six-hour post-separation seminar dealing with all the issues affecting their children. The intention is to educate people about the effects of divorce on children and the importance of maintaining contact with both parents, with the aim is of reducing conflict. It seems to have been highly successful.
'At first people were perturbed at having to do it because it was compulsory, but satisfaction is very, very high,' says Joe Hornick, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and Family which was responsible for evaluating the scheme. 'We did a six month follow-up and found most people had resolved most issues and that conflict was lower. Now a number of other jurisidictions in Canada are requiring it too.'
In Sweden, the starting point for post-divorce childcare is shared parenting - meaning exactly that. A child will divide its time equally between its parents and court officers will actually turn up to fetch him if he doesn't materialise at the other parent's home.
Businessman David Hickman experienced the Swedish system when, after a bruising Court of Appeal battle, his Swedish ex-wife left Britain with their three-year-old son to return to her homeland.
'The Swedes do various things to reduce the temperature,' he says. 'First you have to have mediation. Then there's no concept of alimony - you just sell the house and divide everything. My wife said she wanted to start a new life and the mediator said, "It's not as easy as that. You have a child".'
Although 90 per cent of men whose children go abroad do lose contact with them, Hickman and his ex-wife have made their arrangements work. Hickman spends one week in five in Sweden - often staying in his ex-wife's flat - and shares his son's holidays. The boy, now 11, may even come back to a British boarding school.
'It works because we've both leaned over backwards to make it do so,' Hickman says.' The scary thing is that the judges and barristers and welfare officers in England were quite willing to sanction a situation where I would wither away almost completely from my son's life. Basically, the British just don't think Daddy is very important.'
The names of fathers and their children in this article have been changed. For more information about Families After Marriage, email FAM@aol.com
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JUNE is Domestic Violence Against Men Awareness Month