Give the British establishment an idea which is proved to be
effective, and what does it do? Timidly imposes the least effective
part – and then expresses surprise at the unsatisfactory
In this case, it is the use of “fair play” parenting plans plus
mediation to reduce the number of protracted and bloody court
battles between couples over child contact.
The scheme has worked well in Florida’s family courts – not least
because it has triggered a cultural change. An appearance in court
is a last resort. Instead, parents are firmly and speedily steered
towards ancillary help. Unless an adult or children are at risk,
the norm is for a non-resident parent to have contacted at least
one evening a week and alternate weekends. Child support is
expected on pain of imprisonment. Mothers or fathers who refuse to
comply with the agreement face penalties that eventually may put
them in jail.
Mediation is used to help refine the agreement, not argue about
whether access should be permitted in the first place. Also, the
adults are required to go to parenting classes to encourage them to
stop behaving like children when their offspring move from one
house to the other. Dud dads and mums with addiction problems are
propelled into programmes to help them back on track. Jobs are
found for the unemployed. In short, this is a holistic approach
enforced on parents to ensure that after a couple separates, for
the sake of the child, the family continues.
After a painfully long period of consultation, what do we have
here? A pussyfooting voluntary exercise which, far from achieving
the profound psychological change that is required, will simply
widen the chasm between warring parents.
The Department for Education and Skills is overseeing three pilot
projects. It is difficult to see why the intransigent will
co-operate simply because children’s minister Margaret Hodge has
invited them to do so.
This could have been the tipping point – a scheme with teeth that
sharply reminds couples that the child comes first. Instead, yet
again, the ministerial fear of being accused of interfering in the
private lives of families means the rock of reform, so near the
brow of the hill, has rolled back, squashing the spirit of
thousands of children.
In Florida the scheme is labelled “therapeutic justice”. In its
gutless application here, it will be neither therapeutic nor just –
simply a waste of money.