Contact law may salvage marriages

    The clue to the potential revolution in “full and frequent contact”
    in the government’s green paper on parental separation comes in
    paragraph fifty-five. There, it lays out an equation – alternate
    weekend; one evening a week; a part of the holidays – which add up
    to around one hundred days, or a third of a child’s year.

    It’s not the 50:50 split the militant group Fathers4Justice demand
    so we can expect a summer of Spidermen. But as Lord Falconer the
    constitutional affairs secretary points out: “Children cannot be
    divided like the furniture or the CD collection.” Sadly, some
    adults will still have a damn good try.

    In three pilot projects which start this September, parents who
    apply for court orders – around 20,000 a year – will be directed to
    in-court conciliation, working with a reinvigorated Children and
    Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

    All professionals, including judges, will have training in six core
    competencies, to ensure that, in theory at least, the interests of
    the children really do come first. These competencies include a
    shared knowledge of child development, the relevance of listening
    properly to children and the demands of sharing information.

    What’s refreshing is the government’s acknowledgement that radical
    change requires more than pilots and paper commitment. What’s also
    essential is a common course of retraining to ensure that
    attitudes, moulded in a different era, really are challenged.

    Worries inevitably remain. How will contact work for the cohabiting
    father? New research shows that 77.4 per cent of people wrongly
    believe that a father automatically has a right to make decisions
    about his child’s future, regardless of whether or not he is
    married.

    The second concern is domestic violence. Four out of 10 contested
    cases involve allegations of physical abuse. Under the new scheme,
    the judge will decide who is telling the truth and what action to
    take. That seems inadequate. An independent investigation – not
    conducted by Cafcass which needs to hold fast to its conciliatory
    role – should ascertain the degree of violence. Where it’s present,
    contact should be ended, or limited and highly supervised.

    Research tells us that the younger children of violent parents
    often assume that parenting, marriage and violence naturally go
    together.

    Ironically, one of the spin-offs from this new attitude to contact
    may well be more strenuous attempts to salvage relationships still
    capable of healing. And that may be the best news of all for
    children.

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