This Sunday will be Father’s Day. Look the day up on Wikipedia and you will find that it postdates Mother’s Day by several years and that it only really took off in the 1930s, when the manufacturers of pipes, ties and menswear got behind the idea! But no matter. It is still a relatively rare celebration of fatherhood. The role of the Dad is so often taken for granted. Or simply ignored.
There is no shortage of research into the effects of fathers on family life. Children who grow up without fathers in their lives are more likely to do badly at school, go to prison, abuse drugs and alcohol, become homeless….the list goes on. Fathers matter.
Of course, nobody would deny that neglectful and abusive fathers exist and their unfortunate families are better off without them. But decent fathers make a huge difference to the lives of their children, and as a society we are starting to wake up to this fact. About time too.
Of course, just as few women set out to become single mothers, relatively non-resident fathers separated from their families choose their situations. Life moves on, priorities change, relationships break down. But Dads remain Dads and their children have a relationship with them.
Just as a joyful family time like Christmas can turn very sour for those who have experienced loss, Father’s Day too can be a stark reminder of separation, for fathers who are struggling to see their kids. Sometimes relationships break down to such an extent that mothers actively try to exclude the father from any contact with their children – in some extreme cases, becoming ‘implacably hostile’.
However, absent fathers might take comfort in a certain planned inclusion in the Children and Families Act 2014. Section 11 states that the involvement of both parents in the lives of their children furthers their welfare and is in their best interests, unless such involvement would present a risk. Sadly however, this ‘presumption of parental involvement’ has not yet been brought into force but at least it represents official recognition of a kind that , as a starting point, a father should be involved in his children’s lives.
Are you one of those men still struggling for such involvement? If so, I’d like offer some advice and suggestions, based on my many years’ experience as a family lawyer:
Stay calm. Focus on what your children are telling you they want. You may not agree with their views, but you need to recognise that the court will look at your family situation from the children’s perspective. Your case may be harmed if you disregard the children’s wishes and feelings.
Acquaint yourself with and visit Cafcass: these are the court-appointed welfare officers (see www.cafcass.gov.uk for more information). Somebody from Cafcass will meet all the family members and determine how everybody, including the children, feels about the situation. The court will give serious weight to their recommendations.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a term used to describe one parent’s poisoning of a child’s mind against the other parent. It is a controversial concept, and not all courts in the UK accept that the syndrome exists. However the court will recognise when a child shows a disproportionate reaction to one parent, and will seek to get to the bottom of the situation and find out why this is the case.
Family courts have received a drubbing over the years because, until recently, they made their decisions behind closed doors. If you are required to attend a family court, remember they are not out to get you. Whatever you do, do not rant or rail against them. You won’t be doing yourself any favours if you come across as unreasonable or aggressive.
Don’t wage war against officialdom. It is possible that at some point, somebody in authority will say something with which you do not agree. However this does not mean that you should complain about them or try to get them removed from the case. As difficult as it is, recognise that there may be a reason behind a recommendation. For example, if you have not seen your children for a long time, the court may recommend that contact is supervised until the children’s trust in you has been rebuilt.
Brave the contact centres. They can be intimidating and unpleasant places. However if your contact with your children is reduced to a few hours at one of these centres, with or without supervision, grit your teeth and look towards the future. Remember: you are there for your children and the contact centre is merely a stepping stone towards a full and renewed role in your children’s lives.
Have you considered mediation? Emotions run high in family disputes and a face-to-face meeting, with the help of a trained lawyer-mediator, may just break some ice. Everyone heading to court for a family dispute is now obliged to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting (‘MIAM’) to discuss the suitability of this particular alternative to court proceedings.
I hope every father out there has the happiest day they can!