We have to find ways in which the voice, opinion and viewpoint of children is heard loudly when parents are separating or already separated. The court process is too adult-focussed and parents once they have decided on the court pathway are very often in conflict over a range of issues, which will of course include time spent between parents. The family solutions sub group of the Private Law Working Group made recommendations for parents to be much better supported outside of the court pathway and, importantly, for age-appropriate children to be offered a process for their voice to be heard by a suitably trained professional.
In families who are together, separating or separated, we know that parental conflict that is frequent, intense and poorly resolved harms children. We need to understand the impact that a separation has on children as it happens, and, once separated, help parents understand the impact that continued conflict and antagonism has on their children’s mental health and wellbeing.
The range of processes available to separating and divorcing couples seeking to reach agreement all have the potential to provide the opportunity to capture the voice of the child in the process, even if parents are adopting a ‘do it yourself model’. We must find ways to share with parents who are undertaking their own negotiations ways to make sure the child’s preferences are accommodated where it is possible and safe.
In the Family Solutions Webinar my colleague, Dr Jan Ewing emphasised the right of the child under Article 12 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to express those views freely in matters affecting them, with their views given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity. She argued that there should be a presumption that all children and young people aged 10 and above be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard directly in all processes for resolving issues between parents (whether mediation solicitor negotiation, collaborative law or arbitration).
The DWP Reducing Parental Conflict Programme funded a project called Mediation in Mind and the evaluation summary has indicated that ‘a young person capable of forming his or her own views has the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting them, and for the views of the child to be given due weight in accordance with the child’s age and maturity. This includes in decisions made in the mediation process. However, the number of children consulted in mediation, in the initiative and more generally, is low’. This has to change. We need more child-inclusive practices across all the options that parents have when separating, whether managing this themselves, in mediation or in a solicitor-led process.
There are ways in which this can happen and there are calls for a campaign aimed at the promotion of awareness in society of the harm to children from parental conflict, and the benefit to children of parents behaving respectfully and cooperatively towards each other. The DWP programme in its national aspiration wants this to happen through embedding the understanding of the impact of parental conflict across local areas. It is important that, as the Supporting Separating Families Alliances begin to generate messages locally and bringing services together, to realise the role that they can play in making the experiences of children of separating parents the best that it could be.
The Dorset Supporting Separating Families Alliance has developed the following core principles which I think are worthy of reflection:
- Paramountcy of the welfare of the child
- Raising professional awareness (of resources, their availability and potential suitability) – No Wrong Doors to access of support
- Listening to parents about their needs and strengths and triaging to right type of support
- Signposting without losing ownership/responsibility (mindful referrals)
- Making the voice of the child effective
I want to finish with a quote from Brain Cantwell which I think sums up the reason why we all need to locate the impact on children at the heart of our practice wherever we work across the spectrum from DIY to lawyer negotiation through court.
In my view, a child’s fundamental right is to witness their separating parents behaving collaboratively and on the basis of a shared definition of their best interest. When parents are in unresolved emotional conflict they are unable to offer their child this reassuring consistency. Their different narratives may leave the child with conflicting life stories. This can lead to serious consequences for the child in terms of a confused self-image and resultant lack of security, in contrast to the child with a consistent sense of their history and themselves as a loved child. The adage that it is not the fact of parental divorce that disturbs children but the way that divorce is handled remains true.
I could not agree more
Senior Ambassador, Reducing Parental Conflict Programme