The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 states that children have a right to be listened to when decisions are being taken that concern them. In 2015, a working group of family mediators and lawyers commissioned by the Ministry of Justice – the Voice of the Child Working Group – said this applies to children whose parents are separating. The Ministry of Justice strongly endorsed their report.
But a survey of 500 children carried out by Resolution at the end of 2015 found that only 19% felt they had been listened to. And since the outburst of agreement on the rights of the child, nothing has been done other than for the very small proportion of children who get as far as the family courts.
This lack of action is entirely unsurprising. Putting the needs of children first in family separation is a mantra for all those working in the sector and the principle is enshrined in the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004. But at the same time, one attempt after another to provide support for children in this position has fallen by the wayside. Cafcass, Relate and Action for Children have all launched support services for these children and all have closed down through lack of funding.
The problem is that, unlike services for parents, there is no market for support for young people. Parents are potential customers and the Internet is awash with advice for them; children are not and consequently there is hardly anything for them.
The solutions to this, however, are neither particularly difficult nor expensive. All it requires is some modest collective action within family law and mediation. If collective action can be galvanised, then the problem is solved.
The charity, Kids in the Middle, has got together with a group of young people – a Youth Council – and with about 30 leading family lawyers and mediators – an Advisory Council and local partners – to campaign for change, through a “Voices in the Middle Campaign”.
The campaign is asking for the following recommendation of the Voice of the Child report, specifically endorsed by Government, to be implemented:
High quality, consistent, accessible and age-appropriate information should be made available for all children and young people experiencing parental separation . . . An authoritative website and on-line tools should be developed in collaboration with young people and supported by a range of services to provide a dedicated ‘place to go’ for all children and young people at all stages of their parental separation journey . . . Information should be cascaded through the use of social media, advice columns (including Agony Aunts), schools and community hubs.
A Voices in the Middle petition, launched this week, says:
We call on all family lawyers and mediators to work out a way of funding a permanent authoritative website for young people managed by young people and promoted on-line, through your services, in the broadcast media and through schools and communities.
And in response to the Voice of the Child working group recommendation that all children should be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard during dispute resolution processes, again endorsed by the Ministry of Justice, the petition says:
We call on the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister to increase the provision of child-inclusive mediation by extending Legal Aid Agency funding to cover the additional costs of including children and young people in family mediation, where either one or both parents have qualified for legally aided mediation.
Bearing in mind that child inclusive mediation needs to be more widely tested and known before it can become mainstream, the petition adds:
We call on funders of research to provide money to pilot and evaluate child inclusive mediation so that it can develop and spread and become more widely understood.
While the campaign unfolds, the Youth Council will get on with developing things on the front line. The VoicesintheMiddle.org.uk website is being developed by young people, for young people and with all content created by young people. The Youth Council will reach out on-line and through schools to call on young people to create content for the site. They will build collaboration with TheSite.org, which can provide peer and expert help to young people.
The website will also promote child inclusive family mediation, explaining it and providing a list of trained and active child inclusive mediators. This will be the first time child inclusive mediation is marketed systematically in the UK.
The Voice of the Child working group called on family lawyers and mediators to work together to make these changes happen, and advocated that young people should take a leading role in this. This is exactly what is now being proposed. Will the family law and mediation sector accept the invitation of the Youth Council and engage?
Please sign the petition!