The folly of a law that puts children last;

It is wholly in the child's interest to maintain regular contact with any estranged but fit parent  -

by Deborah Orr, 29 June 2004


What is "quality time" with your child? Is it when you are both completely focused on doing some activity that each of you loves? Is it when you are combing lice out of her hair? Is it when you are cutting up the vegetables, and half-listening as he talks about the things he often talks about, and you fill in the gaps with "really?" and "uh-huh", without knowing what he said?

Is it going swimming with her, or to the park, or to the zoo? Is it sitting cajoling him into doing his homework? Or is it cooking her favorite meal? Is it going to the supermarket, and telling him to behave as you load up the trolley? Is it engaging in a long lecture about how certain behaviour is unacceptable, because the needs and feelings of others have to be taken into account? Is it taking him to see granny? Or playing with her? Or cuddling him when he's ill? Or reading the paper while she amuses herself?

The truth is that nothing defines "quality time" for parents. It is as important for your child to find something off her own bat to while away an hour, knowing that if things go wrong, you're there, as it is to be at the centre of your attention. It is as important to drop her off at the home of a friend she loves to play with, as it is to make sure you do things together. It is important, sometimes, to pick him up from school. But it's just as important to ensure that she isn't so clingy that only you can do this.

In short, all time that a parent spends with a child is "quality time", because the relationship depends on intimacy, and on shared experience of all aspects of family life, rather than just on some. Even an hour spent in silence with an angry, sulky teenager, as she listens to music on her headphones and glowers, is quality time. It all is, unless the child is actually being abused.

This idea that being brought up, and bringing up, is a holistic sort of experience, seems totally obvious. Which makes it all the more strange that the Department for Education and Skills, in all its infinite wisdom, has decided that "quality" rather than "time" should be the defining factor when discussing how much "contact" a child should have with a "non-resident" parent.

At the moment, when the relationship between a child's parents breaks down, the child has no right to maintain a relationship with both parents. Instead, the non-resident parent's relationship with his or her child relies entirely on the goodwill of the resident parent. Yes, fathers - for it is usually fathers who find themselves estranged - can take their former partners to court, to petition for more "contact" with their children. But the bottom line is that even if "contact" is awarded, this is a privilege, not a right. And it is a privilege that, without the
co-operation of the partner who was reluctant enough for the whole matter to
end up in court in the first place, remains meaningless.

It is for this reason that many of the various professional bodies and parenting groups, that concern themselves with these matters, have found themselves over the years more and more impressed with what is referred to as "the Florida Model". This is a legal rule of thumb that enshrines the idea that a non-resident parent can legally expect to see his children every other weekend, for a midweek visit and during half of the school holidays.

In a direct lift from this model, this very proposal was put to the test last October, as part of the New Approaches To Contact - Early Interventions project, a set of proposals that had been put together over a period of nine years. The Early Interventions Project is designed to resolve contact disputes
before they reach court. The parents start with a definition of what reasonable contact is, and if they cannot agree to this or some other arrangement acceptable to father, mother and offspring, they go into compulsory mediation. If the latter sounds harsh, then the alternative is usually either a breakdown in the father-child relationship, or a protracted, embittering, expensive and often pointless procession through the courts (often followed by a breakdown in the father-child relationship). This, the present system, is much harsher, especially since it addresses none of the issues which scar the lives of the children involved in what we grotesquely call "tug of love" disputes. The Early Interventions plan does two things that are essential if shared parenting disputes are to be resolved in a manner which does what the Children's Act 1989 demands, and makes the child's welfare the paramount consideration.

First, it has been shown, again and again, that it is wholly in the child's interest to maintain regular, meaningful contact with any estranged but fit parent. Second, and pretty obviously. This cannot be achieved until the parents have got it through their stubborn skulls that their relationship has not ended, but has simply changed. They may no longer be lovers, or partners, but they, together, are still the immediate family of their children. If they are unable to solve disputes over parenting responsibilities, it is safe to assume they have not recognized this fact. Only mediation can help them to achieve the realization that they are not, by waging war through the agency of their children, putting them first.

Which makes it all the more shocking that the Early Interventions blueprint has been completely rejected by the Dfes, even though it is supported by the high court judiciary, the Family Law Bar Association and the Coalition for Equal Parenting. Instead, the Dfes wants to implement its own project. This model rejects the idea that children should have the right to spend time with a non-resident parent and instead suggests that "it is the quality of contact between a child and his/her non-resident parent rather than the simple quantum of contact that is the more important issue". As for mediation, that will be voluntary. In other words, those implacably opposed to nurturing their child's relationship with a non-resident parent can go straight to court and attempt , quite legally, to make sure their child never sees their father.

Why is the Dfes? Does Margaret Hodge, who heads the division putting
together the pilot project, really believe that anyone can judge the "quality" of "contact", and decide it to be right. Does she not realize that more "contact" may lead to higher "quality" contact, just as less "contact" will almost inevitably lead to a lower "quality" of contact. And does she not realize that the disputes that end up in court are the very ones which are crying out for mediation most of all and the ones least likely to attend it voluntarily. Does she not realize, too, that by enshrining the right of a non-resident parent to see his child regularly, she would be sending the message that this was the state of affairs always to aspire to?

When I ask myself why it is that the government is so reluctant to concede that children should have the right to an ongoing relationship with a non-resident parent, and that a parent who resists such a right should undergo mediation, I can only conclude that the answer is sexism. The assumption must be that criticisms women make of their ex-partners are always justified, and those male ex-partners make are never justified. The assumption, in short, is that men are likely to abuse their children, and that it is not in the interest of any child to have a right to a relationship with their father that is not sanctioned by their mother. This sort of discrimination should be against the law. Instead, it is the law.