“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
Nelson Mandela’s words were brought to life at an event in Westminster on 23 March as the Family Solutions Group – set up in 2020 to look at how family separation impacts on children – urged the British Government to help thousands of children whose mental health is put at risk when families separate, because their parents are left to “square up” rather than “sit down” and seek an amicable solution.
The Attorney General, Suella Braverman, joined Paddy O’Connell from BBC Broadcasting House, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, MPs, Judges, academics, and other family professionals last night to hear the voices of real children caught in the middle of parental conflict who have told us:
“My mum and dad spend so much time hating each other they don’t have a lot of time to love me. I don’t really talk to anyone about it. I find the teachers at school intimidating, and I don’t know who I can talk to. I cry when I go to bed.”
“I don’t want them to waste their life and say when they’re older, ‘Why did we fight over those little things?’ I don’t want them to regret spending so much time fighting. I want them to enjoy the time they have with us before we grow up.”
There has to be a better way to deal with family separation – this was recognised by the President of the Family Division, who has endorsed the Family Solutions Group’s report as a “blueprint for radical change”.
In April 2022, long over-due law reform will take blame out of the divorce process, but we need to go further now to address the way divorce and separation impacts the entire family, not just the parents.
The current system leaves too many families with nowhere to turn for help other than the family court, which is adversarial in nature, and a system already in crisis overwhelmed by backlogs and families left to represent themselves following cuts to legal aid. While the court system is vital for cases involving domestic abuse and child safety issues, it is a blunt (and often destructive) instrument for most parents, who instead need a tailored family solutions system, as proposed by the Family Solution Group.
The Family Solutions Group at the 23 March event urged everyone to write to their MP and ask which Government department is responsible for the children of separating families. The answer is shocking. The needs and rights of these children are currently falling between the cracks of thirteen different Government departments, none of whom will take responsibility.
When pushed last night, the Attorney General accepted the issue was not within her remit and that a cross-governmental and cross-party approach is needed. When further pushed, the Attorney General agreed to convene an event to encourage this coordination to support separating families. This positive commitment has to be the next step forward.
We need to build on this momentum. Helen Adam, the Chair of the Family Solutions Group, called for action saying “We can no longer ignore the needs of these children”.
Along with Government policy reform and coordination, we need early intervention for separating families so that they have information and support from the start, and can choose the right route for them.
Crucially wider society must also be persuaded to change the language used around separation – language that impacts on the children caught in the middle. “Fighting talk” of “custody battles” must end, particularly since custody does not exist under English law – we need to talk about the arrangements for children to spend time with both their parents. The focus needs to be on children’s rights, not parents’ perceived rights – parents have responsibilities for their children, not rights over them. This re-framing of family separation needs to be echoed across society, in schools, in workplaces, in the family justice system and the media.
While the way forward is clear, the obvious elephant in the room last night was funding. How can this reform be paid for?
The FSG’s blueprint is built on research that shows:-
- 280,000 children each year are caught in the middle with evidence linking parental conflict to life-changing harm, including to child brain development; and
- The current lack of government policy around family separation is costing the British tax payer an estimated £51 billion each year (up from £37 billion in just 10 years).
As yet more children grow up with parents in conflict, and more parents suffer from hostile separations, we have another public health crisis on the horizon. Research predicts poor outcomes for these children, which stretch into adulthood, including mental ill health, relationship difficulties, substance abuse, homelessness and criminality.
By taking action now to reduce parental conflict, these children will have better prospects for school, employment and future relationships; and our wider society will benefit from costs savings, including across the education system, the health and social care system and the justice system - across all of those Government departments currently not taking responsibility for this issue.
Our children deserve better and cannot be ignored any longer. We need this Government to act now and we look forward to the next event, convened by the Attorney General, to coordinate action to take the fight out of family separation.