In the latest extract from her book Stowe Family Law Senior Partner Marilyn Stowe considers the plight of fathers caught up in the divorce process.
Parents suffer when they lose the precious experience of living with their children on a day-to-day basis. I have lost count of the number of times a parent has come to see me in tears because they no longer see their child every day. Sadly, the inevitable consequence of living in two households is that even if there is an equal division of time, one parent is bound to miss out on something.
At one time it was almost automatic that in the event of divorce, children went to live with their mother. Judges, social workers and society at large presumed this was the “natural” way of things. There is little doubt that the position for fathers today is much better than a decade ago. Much of that is down to the changes that have taken place in society and how the roles and rights of men and women have developed. For instance, it is no longer unusual for the wife to be the breadwinner while the man stays at home to care for the children.
Even so, many of today’s men feel that they are second class citizens when it comes to residency of the children or contact arrangements with them. In too many divorces, children become weapons: the means by which emotional blows can be landed. A few years ago it was estimated that up to 50 per cent of all fathers lost touch with their children within a couple of years of a divorce. That is a shocking statistic.
In my experience, if a man puts together a cogent and reasoned argument about why he should have residency of his children, the courts are prepared to look at his argument in an even-handed way. However groups campaigning for fathers’ rights say that they have experienced markedly different fates at the judges’ hands. These angry men feel wronged by the courts, and cruelly torn from their children.
I have dealt with every type of relationship breakdown. I represent equal numbers of men and women and because I work to achieve for my clients the satisfactory conclusion that they seek, I have been sheltered from the kind of resentment and sense of injustice that the men who join these organisations clearly feel.
However, I have much sympathy for their cause. After speaking to a number of these men and being moved by their stories, I could only conclude that many fathers are unfairly treated by the law in this country. Many of the men to whom I spoke told me that that they had taken active, sharing roles as parents, only to find themselves suddenly expunged from the daily lives of their children.
My advice to men who find themselves in this situation, or who fear that they will end up in this situation, is as follows:
Stay calm. Focus on what your children are telling you that 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 will be harmed if you disregard the children’s wishes and feelings.
Acquaint yourself with CAFCASS: the court-appointed welfare officers (www.cafcass.gov.uk). Somebody from CAFCASS will meet all the family members and determine how everybody feels about the situation. They will take into account the children’s wishes and feelings, and will report back to the court with their recommendations.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a term used to describe a 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 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 because you won’t improve their opinion of you if you come across as unreasonable or aggressive.
Don’t wage war against “The Man”. 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. Yes, they can be intimidating or 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.