Sixty Second Interview with Duncan Fisher
More than 40 heads of charities and leading academics specialising in family care published a joint statement calling on the government to change the policies and services for separated families. Amy Taylor talks to Duncan Fisher at Fathers Direct, one of the charities involved, about the proposals.
Your organisation a long with a large number of other family sector leaders, including the National Council for One Parent Families and Women’s Aid, has called on the government to transform policy and support for separated families. Why do you personally think this is needed?
After separation, children want and need one thing more than anything else – stable, positive and safe relationships with both parents. They need both parents to be able to provide both care and finance.
Very differentiated roles between mothers and fathers can work before separation. However, after separation, role differentiation risks leaving the ‘caring parent’ overburdened with caring responsibilities and without sufficient income. Conversely, the ‘earning parent’ is often denied caring opportunities to such a degree that a “real” relationship with their child becomes impossible.
The current system completely fails to deal with this situation. There are two key problems.
First, there is hardly any pastoral support to parents at the horrendous time around separation, despite overwhelming evidence that the smallest amount of support can make a huge difference to the capacity of parents to rise above the turbulence and attach themselves to the needs of their children – which is what most want to do. For example, it has been shown that providing 6 to 8 hours of support to parents approaching family courts would enable 75% of cases not to go to court at all – and these are generally already comparatively high conflict cases. This represents an enormous saving to the public purse, since the time required for a court case is measured in days, not hours. Research at the Department for Work & Pensions has also recommended that a key to enabling parents to agree their own financial arrangements without recourse to the expensive organs of state is pastoral care. The courts and the CSA have to exist, of course, but both are currently overwhelmed with cases that could have been dealt with much better and much more cheaply elsewhere, and this radically undermines their efficiency.
Second, while we have in place a wide range of policies and services to enable lone mothers to acquire the ability to work, we fail to do the same for fathers’ caring roles. This is part of the way we undervalue caring roles generally, something that impacts on women too. There is practically nothing available to help fathers construct a viable caring role post-separation. And if a father has problems, these are seen as reasons to separate him further from his paternal role rather than as a reason for providing support to ensure that the paternal role meets the need of the child: services treat mothers and fathers with problems quite differently, but that is not the child’s perspective.
What new kinds of support would you like to see?
The 42 individuals and organisations that signed the joint statement made the following recommendations: (i) services must support both parents in both caring and providing roles and recognise the substantial increase in the sharing of roles that is happening in families before separation, (ii) services should recognise and understand the severe difficulties being faced by separating parents, be skilled in knowing how to respond and support the role of grandparents and extended families, (iii) three particular types of support need to be expanded – relationship support of various kinds, support to parents in ‘non-traditional’ roles (fathers in caring roles, mothers in earning roles) and domestic violence support for both victims and perpetrators. The statement proposes that these services are promoted to parents through the plethora of existing agencies that have contact with parents, for example benefits, child support and employment agencies and Children’s Centres.
The group has also called for the UK’s four children’s commissioners responsible for monitoring reforms in practice and policy in this field. Why have you made this call?
It is too easy to justify any policy on the basis of the best interest of the child, if children’s actual views are not represented independently. Now that we have a mechanism formally to represent the rights of children – the Children’s Commissioners – the signatories of the statement believe that they should have a formal role in accessing the views of children in separating families and to update and keep this perspective in focus over time. The excellent research by Professor Judy Dunn at the Institute of Psychiatry on children’s experiences of parental separation provides the perfect starting point. It shows that the child’s perspective is not properly reflected in the way that services are structured – so we already know we need to listen to children more.
It also aims to move the debate around separated families from concentrating on legal rights and the enforcement of payments. Do you think this focus is misplaced?
This is not quite correct. The statement does actually call for stronger enforcement. The “shadow of the law” is a key factor in setting the boundaries for negotiation between parents – boundaries are actually helpful in times of distress, provided they are perceived to be fair and provided that sufficient support is available to help people keep within them. Enforcement works badly in UK and one of the reasons is that non-compliance often arises out of an accumulation of unresolved problems such as poor relationships, poverty, debt, ill-health, poor housing, etc. Enforcement is needed for the minority of the truly recalcitrant, not as a stick to beat those who are not coping; the solution for the latter is to help them to cope.
An overhaul of the child support agency has also been put forward by the organisations. They want to make it the channel for support services to help families to work out their own arrangements for sharing care and earning. Given the poor performance of the agency in the past do you think that with the right framework in place it could be up to this?
The proposal is not that the CSA becomes a national provider of support to parents, but that – along with other key agencies like benefits and employment services – it can act as a portal to support services. But being a portal means training staff to understand problems and refer on appropriately. Referring on can involve giving another phone number, but better is the ability to forward the call on there and then. At present, CSA staff carry an enormous burden of not being able to refer problems on to those who actually have the skills and knowledge to deal with them.
The group also draws attention to other countries that the group thinks have better support systems for separated parents. Are there any countries in particular you have in mind?
The Australian experience was presented at the meeting of signatories last week, and has some important lessons for the UK. The Australians have realised that a cultural change is needed around family separation: where separating parents reach not just for lawyers but for a range of appropriate services when they need help – just as when they are ill they access a range of health services, or when they are victims of crime they call for the police. Australia, like many other countries but not the UK, has realized that supporting separating parents actually is the most cost-effective way for the state to bring the intended benefits to children. Another key realisation in Australia is that if there are services they need to be very visible, rather like Citizens’ Advice centres are visible in UK. (Indeed, it has been suggested that Citizens’ Advice centres might be developed and promoted as a neutral first point of call for separating families, as they are well respected, accessed comfortably by both men and women, and are not over-identified as an instrument of the state.)
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