February 10, 2012

How can we make contact work?

By Peter Jones, Partner

Picture the scene: we’re seated on plastic chairs in a well-known fast food restaurant, tacitly admiring the fellow across the aisle who is treating his two children to Sunday lunch. But then, snatches of stilted conversation – and the barely concealed mutiny on the face of the elder child – reveal what we suspected all along: this is a contact visit, and an awkward one at that.

As the government presses on with its mission to enshrine yet more parents’ rights in law, it’s very easy to be caught up in the detail – should divorcing parents’ rights to equal time with the children be recognised by the courts? What about grandparents? What about the children’s vastly differing requirements and the fact that one size does not fit all?

Set all this aside and take a step back. We are so concerned with arguing about whether these rights are truly in the best interests of the children, that we are moving further and further away from the real, thorny question: how do we make it work?

Not “How do we ensure the child gets equal time with each parent?” Not “How do we hold an absent parent accountable?” And certainly not “How much maintenance should the wife/husband get?” I am referring to how we help parents to really make the part-time relationship with their children a valuable and valued experience on both sides.

It’s not unusual for one partner to move some distance away from the other, making visits inconvenient and challenging at best. It’s not that unusual for court proceedings to drag on due to conflict (ten percent of cases, according to charity Gingerbread), so that one parent is excluded whilst the children grow and change. It’s not unusual for an absent parent just to walk away, sometimes out of sheer frustration at “the system”.

Yes, we are making some efforts to address the core issue: that respect for the sanctity of marriage – monogamy for life – is dwindling. Mr Justice Coleridge has just launched the Marriage Foundation, an organisation  that champions marriage, reaffirming it as the “Gold Standard” for couples. As Sir Paul says, the consequences of doing nothing are unimaginable. But are we taking the right kind of action?

Perhaps we should be gathering together a group of eminent child psychologists, life coaches and legal experts to thrash out a new model for post-divorce contact, to really tackle the fundamental issues and revisit the ethos of the Children Act 1989 which focused on making the entire process less traumatic for children. For that, after all, is what should always be at the very centre of what we do.

Without a fresh approach to parent-child contact, those stressful visits to fast food outlets will become ever more the norm, with unthinkable consequences for the children who will become our next generation of adults. We run the very real risk of sleepwalking our way into a major problem in society as a whole.

What do you think can be done to improve the quality of contact between divorced parents and their children? Tell us below or email us here.