Divorce and separation:What about the children?

The trauma felt by children whose parents separate is often underestimated. Anthony Douglas believes they should be regarded as children in need and as such be eligible for a full range of services

Of the 12 million children in the UK, three million are having to cope with their parents separating or divorcing. More often than not it is separation that they are having to deal with as 42 per cent of children are born outside marriage. Many parents have never lived together at all, including young parents and parents who choose to live apart as a lifestyle choice.

But children affected by separation are not recognised as children in need and so do not register as such on local political radars. However, as a traumatic separation can affect school performance, as well as a child’s mental health, new children’s departments and children’s trusts need to view them as in need and commission services for them as a group.

Many serious case reviews of children who have been killed or seriously injured conclude that agencies should have done more to help families going through a separation crisis – which often occurs after serious domestic violence. A story in The Guardian which appeared last year illustrates this: “A 35-year-old man was charged with the attempted murder of his two daughters, aged six and nine, after he allegedly jumped with them into the freezing waters of a flooded quarry. An RAF helicopter rescued the three. It is believed the girls’ mother and their father separated shortly before Christmas.”

Few of the 385,300 children in need in England in 2005 were recorded purely because of parental separation.(1) While many children of separated and divorced families grow up unscathed, either due to resilience or because they are relieved to have escaped a living hell and do better as a result, just as many suffer in silence. The latter often endure long-term emotional difficulties such as depression or anxiety.(2)

Children’s resilience, though real, is overstated. Children can experience the same emotions as a parent going through a separation – loss, grief, rejection, guilt and a sense of abandonment en route to recovery.

Social trends outstrip government policy and service provision, which nearly always lag behind. Understating the impact and risks of parental separation on children is an example of government policy restricting itself to one or two dimensions of a multi-dimensional problem. For example, the proportion of children living in one-parent households trebled from 1972 to 24 per cent in 2004.(3) Along with alcohol abuse, solo parenthood is statistically significant as far as looked-after status goes. Yet government policy on single parents tends to focus on child poverty, benefits issues, or early years provision in deprived areas rather than support for parents experiencing short-term difficulties being much more widely available. Parental separation, like child abuse, crosses classes and cultures in its impact.

Other social trends are having an impact on children. The fastest growing group of new householders are single women in their thirties, with more raising children on their own. Ethnic minority children, including those with dual heritage, are undergoing monumental transitions into hybrid cultures and family models. An impact analysis of rapidly changing social trends on the next generation of children is missing from public policy.

The impact of these changes is often positive. For example, growing up with one consistent parent can often lead to a more stable childhood than starting off with two and traumatically reducing to one.

Attachment theory is one of the pillars underpinning good social work. So how can three million disrupted attachments not be as big an issue in child care policy as the well-being of 60,000 looked-after children? The answer is that looked-after children are a direct responsibility of the state. One area in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 that marks an important change for children is the acceptance in legislation that the need for adoption support services can be life-long. Adoption is now recognised as a “developmental lifespan process”, even though few local authorities are as yet providing the range of services they should be.

This is a positive step forward for looked-after children, but the impact of disrupted attachments on children, whether as an intervention by the state, or by their parents, can be much the same. Parental separation is also a developmental lifespan process. Many children will continue to be upset for years after their parents split up, and from time to time they may benefit from help, even as adults.

Research findings are beginning to show that the emotional harm suffered by children in private law cases may be no less severe than that suffered by children in public law cases, and that how professionals focus on children, including the settings in which they work with them, are crucial to successful resolution and adaptation.(4), (5)

Private law cases are Cinderella cases. Contact services which support non-resident parents keep in touch with their children are often run on threadbare budgets by small local community organisations. By contrast, local authority and specialist voluntary sector family centres supporting children and parents to stay in touch in public law cases are better resourced. It should be the child that matters, not their legal status.

The value to children and families of the legal process itself may be far less than assumed or desired, pushing them in rigid directions which are out of sync with the speed with which their lives change after separation.(6) A constructive court order finds the best formula for promoting emotional intelligence between parents who have separated, and for a child to receive authoritative parenting.

Children affected by parental separation deserve the full range of services available to other children in need. They should be offered children in need assessments using the common assessment framework. As with adoption legislation, which is framed roughly once every 25 years, a momentum about post-separation services for children and young people needs to be developed and driven to influence the legislators of the future. If it is resourced properly, the new Children and Adoption Act 2006 is a welcome and imminent opportunity to start this for the next generation of children.

Anthony Douglas is chief executive of Cafcass and chair of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. He has written three books on social care issues, a nd a fourth on partnership working will be published in 2007. He is a visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia and has been an adviser on government programmes.

Training and Learning

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article looks at the needs of children and young people affected by separation and divorce. The author suggests the impact of family breakdown can last for years, affecting functioning and future relationships. A child’s resilience to trauma is often overstated and many children affected in this way should be defined as in need and eligible for support through children’s trusts.

(1) Children in Need in England, Office of National Statistics, 2005
(2) D Iwaniec, E Larkin, S Higgins, “Risk and resilience in case of emotional abuse”, Child and Family Social Work, Vol 11, Issue 1, pp73-82, 2006
(3) C Horton, Working with Children 2006-7, Sage Publications, 2005
(4) G Douglas, M Murch, C Miles, L Scanlan, Research into the Operation of Rule 9.5 of the Family Proceedings Rules 1991, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006
(5) L Trinder, J Connolly, J Kellet, C Notley, L Swift, Making Contact Happen or Making Contact Work?, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006
(6) J Fortin, C Ritchie, A Buchanan, “Young adults’ perceptions of court-ordered contact”, Child and Family Law Quarterly, Vol 8, No 2, pp211-229, 2006

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