Written evidence submitted by Families Needs Fathers (CYP0108)
About Families Need Fathers - because both parents matter
Families Need Fathers - because both parents matter (FNF) is a registered UK charity providing information and support on shared parenting issues arising from family breakdown, and support to divorced and separated parents, irrespective of gender or marital status. FNF is NOT a fathers' rights group - we support the best interests of children - namely mature and collaborative parenting by both parents - an objective that is inadequately promoted in the family court system and associated services.
FNF receive approximately 30,000 calls a year to our Helpline (significantly more during the coronavirus pandemic). Thousands more parents rely on our local branch network and online support - our website receives approximately 600,000 visits per year. Our primary concern is the maintenance of the child’s meaningful relationship with both parents. Founded in 1974, FNF helps tens of thousands of parents every year.
FNF’s primary focus is on addressing the issues of family separation for children and their parents.
We note that 36% of children experience family separation before they reach 16 years of age. It is also estimated that 38% of separating parents rely on family courts to resolve family conflicts relating to child arrangements when they separate.
The Government do not have a coherent strategy for dealing with separated parents and people are left to rely on adversarial family courts that are often ill-equipped and incapable of meeting their or their children’s needs. Meanwhile, Government policies are unaligned between departments, adding to the dysfunction. Examples of this include the Child Maintenance Service telling people to get court orders to evidence their child arrangements, whilst the Ministry of Justice tells them they should be mediating. Or schools lacking policies to work with separated parents, leading to something as straight-forward as receiving school reports, giving rise to conflict as even those can be weaponised when the emotions of separation bubble over.
Family conflict usually spills over to impact on children. The mental health risks to children who are in single parent care is some 30% greater than in nuclear families. However, this can be almost entirely mitigated through joint care of parents after separation (see research below).
We, therefore, set out below an outline of some of the issues that a coherent Strategy for Separated Families that successive Governments have failed to address, but which are essential for the mental health of our children.
It seems odd that it should even be necessary to demonstrate the benefits of shared parenting. One of the most useful studies of this was by Linda Nilsen who carried out a review of 60 English speaking studies and concluded that children benefit from shared care, even in the presence of parental conflict.
A large scale study in Sweden by Malin Bergström also demonstrated very substantial increases in the risk to mental health of children whose parents do not significantly share care of them after separation. The risks of such difficulties are relatively marginal compared to children growing up in a nuclear family (see chart below).
Another important study by William Fabricius demonstrates how the more equal parenting time is after family separation, the greater is the emotional security of adults.
Most recently 70 academics from 23 countries said that assuming one primary attachment for children (usually the mother) is wrong and old assumptions need to be re-evaluated. Children form and need multiple attachments.
In summary, we think it is important for us to consider that the framing of this important issue in a way that does not presuppose that ‘presumption’ has to be in conflict with safety and risk of harm. There will be many situations where a lack of a presumption of parental involvement will result in a significant risk of harm or a risk of harm from the parent with day-to-day care, who may sometimes pose the greater risk.
We need to ensure that sufficient weight is given to consideration of, equally important, longer-term safety and wellbeing issues, such as pernicious forms of psychological abuse that may not manifest themselves for months or years. We also need to ensure that we consider the evidence of the known harm of removing a child from a parent, when that might be exceeded by the possible benefits of so-doing. The focus should be in seeking to achieve what is right to promote the ‘wellbeing and safety’ of children as opposed to balancing polarised positions.
We should be striving for what children naturally want, need and benefit from
Family courts operate under the so-called ‘paramountcy principle’. What this means is that the judges are obliged to make decisions that are, above all in the interest of the child, having takin into account the relevant details of the case. The sad reality is that very little about the process of going to court that makes it possible to deliver the child’s best interests.
Most applicants to family courts are by fathers as they are more likely to not be living in the family home with the child and are far more likely to be being denied parenting time with their children after separation.
The family courts then seek to encourage mediation before filing applications to court. However, legal aid for this is means tested and many applicants do not qualify, so it becomes an additional financial hurdle. Furthermore, perhaps more significantly, if the ex does not agree to mediation or makes allegations of domestic abuse, then they are exempt from this process – irrespective of the lack of evidence of such abuse or it’s relevance e.g. it could relate to a single issue years prior and since which both parents have been collaboratively parenting. In our experience, such resistance is particularly common when one or other of the parents starts a new relationship.
Once an application is made to family court the average time it takes for cases to be resolved from application to final hearing is 30 weeks. Those were pre-Covid times and September 2020 figures show this to be 34 weeks. It is important to note that these are averages which means that many cases take considerably longer to resolve.
Such delays are not child-appropriate and are the antithesis of the best ‘interests of the child’. Whatever the outcome of court proceedings, the harm caused by such delays has a very substantial impact on children’s mental health.
In fact, the situation is considerably worse than the 34 weeks stated above as 30% of applications are returning cases. Most of those were applications for enforcement of court orders or variation because of difficulties with compliance. Unfortunately, the courts are reluctant to take enforcement action in these case for a range of reasons – a key one being the time it has taken for them to make the orders in the first place or to take a firm line early on. When a child has not seen a parent for six months or over a year, their current set-up is considered the ‘new normal’ for the child. Neither is there any help to assist children in dealing with the loss of previously close parental and family attachments, irrespective of whether that loss was necessary e.g. because a parent was abusive or when it was for other reasons such as excessive obstruction by their day-to-day parent or carer, who often expects children to take sides.
FNF strongly support an Early Intervention Pathway to address the delays. It has several key components, that can be relatively easily scaled-up to meet the needs of some 35,000 unique private law cases a year. It is likely that it would both significantly reduce the number of cases requiring adjudication and the 15,000 cases that return to court. Above all, it would bring many children out of the ‘conflict zone’ completely and shorten the time that others spend in it, reducing the impact to children’s mental wellbeing.
The key features are:
The suggestion here, based on the article in Family Law in June 2020, is that a hearing date would be set when an application is made, 12 weeks in the future. That would trigger a mandatory early education programme similar to a SPIP. If the parents in the meanwhile come to an agreement this court date would be vacated.
An affordable option would be an online, interactive training course, similar to driver Speeding Awareness courses that would be mandatory for all separating parents. Once completed, parents could still take part in mediation ahead of their court hearing. Even if this fails, the parents will then be better informed as to how to put their children first when at court.
Where there are allegations of abuse by one or both parents, it is important to keep alleged victims safe from abuse AND protect children’s parental relationships where the allegation is unfounded or an example of situational conflict that can be easily managed. The EI Pathway would require family courts to have set days when urgent hearings would take place. These hearings would triage the case and decide whether parents can continue down the same route as above or whether further court hearings and/or specialist support are needed. In some cases, safe interim arrangements might be made e.g. with supervision and/or with other family members to protect the child-parent relationship whilst further investigations are carried out or support provided.
In some situations the nature of the risk may make such interventions impossible, however, it will have been decided early by a judge having heard the evidence.
The experience of other jurisdictions is that the single biggest thing that could be done to improve joint care of children by parents, whether together or apart, is to address the statutory parental leave gap - 52 weeks for mums and 2 weeks for dads - the biggest differential in the world by a country mile.
For a couple on average income, state maternity support is approximately £7,500 whereas for paternity it is £320.40 – a gender support gap of 96%.
From 1st January 2021 Spain equalised funded non-transferable parental leave at 16 weeks. The UK seems more determined than anywhere else in the developed world to cling onto a model of family life - mother carer; father provider - that does not reflect the life and attitudes of parents today.
Many Scandinavian nations found that it was only by offering generous, non-transferable paternity leave, that dads became equally participative in childcare whether together or apart with associated benefits to children’s mental health.
In summary, we hope that this call for evidence will precipitate a focus on the major problem of the effect of parental separation on children’s mental health and how this can be mitigated.
Our work has led us to the conclusion that there is a need for a coherent Government Strategy for Separated Families that addresses the various issues identified above to incentivise good and disincentivise poor parenting behaviour.
Such a strategy must support out-of-court solutions, by
Families Need Fathers – because both parents matter
26th February 2021
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 Linda Nielsen (2018): Joint versus sole physical custody: Outcomes for children independent of family income or parental conflict, Journal of Child Custody, DOI: 10.1080/15379418.2017.1422414
 Source: Malin Bergström - Living in Two Homes – shared parenting in Sweden - Karolinska Instituet 2016
 William V Fabricius 2019 - Equal Parenting Time The Case for a Legal Presumption – Arizona State University – March 2018
 Tommie Forslund Department of Psychology, Stockholm University- Attachment goes to court: child protection and custody issues – January 2021
 Ministry of Justice - Family Court Statistics Quarterly: July to September 2020
 Private law cases that return to court: a Cafcass study- November 2017
 Based on EI Pathway - Dr Hamish Cameron, Caroline Willbourne, Glynis Wright - June 2020 Family Law
 Something to celebrate for new fathers in Spain, as paternity leave extended to 16 weeks – El País 6th January 2021