Are children better off living with two parents?

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August 11, 2011

New Britain’s ‘broken families’ need protection of the law


There is no excuse for rioting, looting, arson and the wanton destruction of people’s property and livelihoods It is criminal conduct and those responsible will, as the Prime Minister has promised, ultimately face the full force of the law. In court they can expect no mercy.

But what has driven entire groups of people to collective anarchy? Already we are being told that the reasons behind the riots are many and complex. Sociologists and politicians, along with the rest of us, have various views and will argue long and hard over those reasons.

For many, at least part of the blame results from what are loosely termed “broken families”. In other words: lone parent families, or families where children love with one parent, rather than two.

I have no doubt that children thrive living with two parents. Two parents (who are not at each other’s throats) can together raise a child, and act as a “back-up” when a child fails to respond to the other parent.

Fifty years ago, the only type of such a family given any social recognition or respectability was a married family.

When marital breakdown occurred, the only choices were to stick it out, arising mostly out of a lack of finances to do anything about else, or break up and be forever subjected to the social stigma that divorce brought with it.

Today’s families are constituted very differently, and statistics show that more children are now born out of wedlock than within it, and that the marriage rate is falling.

On the right of the political spectrum, eyes are shielded and hands are raised in horror at the breakdown of the traditional family and its evolution into something completely different. Even Left-wing politicians, who had the opportunity while in power to make a real difference, ducked the issue.

A “family” is only given the full force of the law if the parents are married. Such a family has the full protection of the law if the marriage breaks down.

The arrangements for the children must be approved by the court before a divorce can take place. Spouses may make claims against one another for financial support. Short-term and long-term arrangements may be made, all subject to final approval by a judge.

So society recognises and takes care of a “married family” if the marriage breaks down. It doesn’t follow that what happens thereafter will be perfect.

In many cases there isn’t the money around to ensure this and parental responsibility for many parents does seem to end with the marriage, for which I accept there are many reasons. But at least the law recognises these families, and such families do have legal, social and moral recognition and repute.

There is nothing of this, for any other type of family, many of whom are living in our inner cities. Politicians steadfastly refuse to recognise and legislate for these families.

Right-wing think tanks ignore them in favour of banging on about the wonders of marriage. There is no similar access to the law for unmarried families and, unforgivably, there is no automatic jurisdiction over the children if the family breaks down.

The children of the unmarried pass under the radar of the court. This, combined with devastating cuts to legal aid, ensures that the poorer the person, the less likely it is that the case will ever reach the ears of a concerned judge who might be able to make a difference.

We have to start somewhere with our new, changed society. It is time to stop harking back to the past. We have to recognise we cannot change what has gone for ever.

We have to lay new foundations for a new society, and I believe this should begin by giving greater legal recognition to the hundreds of thousands of “non-married families”.

Above all, we need to listen to those on the streets who keep using the word “respect”.

A word we laugh about when they use it, because we not respect what they do. Actually, I think part of this terrible problem is about respect. So I believe it is time to give due recognition in law and in society for all those families who are treated by us, not even as second class entities, but as invisible.

Of course, this won’t solve the problem of street crime, and punishment must be meted out. But legal recognition of our changed society would provide a starting-point for the future, giving many of those across the country who crave “respect” a sense of social dignity, and marking the beginning of a new society where everyone is recognised and the law is accessible to all.


Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law in Harrogate.


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