The hidden half of domestic violence
How to have eternal life
New deal for divorced fathers
The Sunday Times
March 17, 2002
New deal for divorced fathers
by Margarette Driscoll
It took Oliver Cyriax four years to gain access to his son. Margarette
Driscoll hears how he is organising a revolution in family law.
When Oliver Cyriax became embroiled in a legal battle with his former wife
over access to his son he had two things in his favour. As a former lawyer
he could represent himself in court. His second career, as the author of
medical textbooks, reflected his facility with words and brought in royalties.
Even so, it took 26 court cases before he achieved a decent amount of time
with his son. In the first three years, by dint of perseverance, he pushed
up the level of contact from one hour a week to three. After four years
his son was allowed to stay overnight.
Now they enjoy the sort of time together that he believes they should have
had in the first place; every other weekend, an evening on alternate weeks
and part of the school holidays. There is happy evidence of the
nine-year-old's presence strewn around the house - a Harry Potter trivia
quiz, a plastic fort under the kitchen table - and, strangely, since the
arrangement was set in stone by the courts, his relationship with his former
wife has improved. "I can even remember why I married her," he says.
Cyriax's case is remarkable only because of his extraordinary tenacity.
Every year, about 110,000 such disputes reach the family courts, many of
which drag on for years. Though the Children Act of 1989 was supposed to
sweep away old notions of "custody" and "access" in favour of a new era of
shared parenting, it hasn't happened, a reality that is - belatedly -
being recognised by the legal establishment.
Last month, in the wake of a report for the lord chancellor's office,
Making Contact Work, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, president of the family
division, told The Sunday Times that since the Children Act came into being,
shared parenting had been "thought out, but not sorted out".
Thirty years ago, when she began sitting on the family bench, the mother
was automatically assumed to be the central figure in a child's life.
Now, she says: "I cannot emphasise enough how important both parents are."
The importance of the mother and father in a child's life is the guiding
that has driven Cyriax through his legal battles and in advising more than
1,000 other fathers fighting in the courts for access to their children.
But unlike Butler-Sloss, he believes the only way to properly achieve
shared parenting is for the legal establishment to set out a "norm" -
something like the time he shares with his son now - so that ultimately
only cases that have good reason to deviate from that should come before
"If it is regarded as normal for children to see their parents on
alternate weekends," he says, "normal families shouldn't have to litigate
for five years in the hope of one day attaining normal contact."
New Approaches to Contact, the organisation he founded, is holding a
conference in London next week to hammer out an agenda for change.
Judges, solicitors and mediators are flying in from America and Australia
to discuss how Britain might adapt procedures.
In Florida, clear guidelines are set down for "normal" contact, even down
to timings. Weekend visits are from 6pm Friday to 6pm Sunday. The
Christmas Day handover takes place at 4pm.
In California, a flow chart handed to separating parents tells them
exactly what is expected of them and what they will have to consider in
coming to an agreement. A mediator takes a proactive role in sorting
things out. Court is a last, not first, resort. In Britain, as family law
works on the principle that every case is different, there is no general
information, no guideline and no expected outcome.
Across America, mediation and court welfare reports are undergone before
a hearing starts. Here, courts order welfare reports, which, until recently,
were carried out by untrained probation officers whose recommendations
determined whether the non-resident parent had any access to the child.
This is the bit of the system that most angered Cyriax. In some cases, the
fact that a couple were in court would be enough to recommend almost
no contact. In the looking-glass world of the family courts, fathers can be
prevented from seeing their children for the most trivial of reasons.
A child who falls asleep in the car is over-tired. One who doesn't is
over-hyped. Cyriax knows of a man who was not allowed to have his
children because he cooked lumpy mashed potatoes.
Cyriax already had a daughter, Holly, now 17, from a previous marriage
with whom he had maintained a loving relationship and, when it came to
fighting to see his son, it was this that gave him confidence. He and
Holly's mother had remained on friendly terms and both recognised each
other's role in Holly's life.
"A lot of men give up," he says. "If it's a first child they think,
'Perhaps the officials are right, perhaps I can't look after him or he'll be
better off without me.' But because I had Holly I knew they were wrong.
I knew I could be a good father."
The level of unhappiness engendered by the family courts was evident
in the correspondence that followed this paper's recent interview with
Butler-Sloss. One man wrote to say he had seen his daughter for just
15 minutes in six years. Another, that he had given up trying to see his
children after repeated legal rebuffs. They are now in their twenties.
"I do not know if they have children of their own," he said.
A man about to return to court for the fifth time said the despair he felt
when his wife unilaterally reduced the frequency of visits to his children
from three times to once a week was profound. "I wept, and so did my
sons," he said.
Another was in the "surreal" position of being praised for his fathering
ability by one judge (because of the care he had shown his stepchildren)
while being banned from seeing his own children by another.
With one in three marriages ending in divorce, both the cost to the system
and the emotional impact on families need to be lessened.
Dr Hamish Cameron, a consultant child psychiatrist, says the present
system is very damaging. "Drawn out court cases are exhausting for the
child, exhausting for the parents and exhausting for the legal system, and
produce nothing but unhappiness. The harm it does to the child is very
deep. Often it does not show in childhood but comes out in adulthood
when they are trying to form bonds of their own."
Reform of the family courts is inevitable, says Cyriax. "The government
says 'we believe in the family, it is wrong to walk away from the family',
but the particular basket into which they put family law has a hole in the
bottom," he says. "When it comes to the crunch the courts recognise the
rights of one parent, not both."
Butler-Sloss's admission of how her thinking on shared parenting has
"evolved" means change is filtering down from the top.
"There are some bright people in the lord chancellor's department,"
says Cyriax. "They realise the family courts shouldn't stop children from
seeing their parents merely because of divorce. Behind the facade,
officials welcome the need for change."
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Sunday Times Home: http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/
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by Ed Oliver -- MassNews, 12 Mar 02
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