Listening to the kids

Research; In the fraught area of family breakdown, Dr Brynna Kroll is one of the few attending to children's experiences. Helen Hague reports
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The Independent Online
Some pieces of research appear more relevant to the outside world than others. One issue that is increasingly pertinent and which an academic at Brunel University has been examining is the issue of divorce, and what should be done with the children afterwards. When families are on the brink of break-up, home can become an emotional war zone with children caught in the crossfire. Relationships can teeter on the edge for years before the split is formalised by the courts and custody arrangements for the children are established.

The anguish and confusion that children often experience when families fracture has been chronicled by Dr Brynna Kroll in Chasing Rainbows: Children, Divorce and Loss, published three years ago. As divorce rates continue to spiral, she is now turning the spotlight on the fraught and complex area of contact between children and the parents they no longer live with.

In keeping with her earlier work, the focus is unashamedly child-centred, looking at the direct experience of a child's contact with the absent parent, listening to the small voices that all too often get drowned amid the cacophony of insult-trading and blame-hurling that characterises an acrimonious divorce.

As with all research initiatives, securing funding is essential. Dr Kroll, a senior lecturer in social work at Brunel University College, has cleared the first hurdle in the quest for funding, securing pounds 2,000 development money from the social work department. This will free her to carry out on-the-ground research at the Thomas Coram Meeting Place in Central London, which is fully supportive of the project, Children's Experience of Contact, or When Did You Last See Your Parent? Applications are now being made to charitable foundations in the hope that the work can be completed over a two-year time-span.

The Meeting Place, set up by the Thomas Coram Foundation, has a brief to provide contact, both supervised and unsupervised, for children involved in private or public law proceedings, and to offer support and counselling to parents. It is the only such centre in the country. When break-up comes against a backdrop of domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health problems, there is a great need for a "safe place" with skilled workers on hand to defuse any potentially confrontational behaviour. On such neutral ground, there is a chance of re-establishing good relationships.

The pilot project will begin within the next couple of months. Dr Kroll will start by seeing young people who have used the centre in the past, and relating their experience of contact to the way in which the relationship with the absent parent has developed.

She will then move on to talking - and listening - to children who have been using the centre for some time and are still doing so. As a trained social worker with seven years' experience as a family court welfare officer/ guardian ad litem, working with children whose parents have been divorced or separated, she has gained insights into how contact can be used and abused, and the effect this can have on children.

She is well aware of the ethical quandaries that arise when using children as research subjects, and will not attempt to interview any of those who are in the early stages of using the centre. "You would get tangled up in the dynamics of the work the centre is doing with children and young people to bring about contact," she says. But when children are interviewed with tact and sensitivity, their contribution can be immensely valuable to both policy and practice in this vexed area.

According to Dr Kroll, most research doesn't focus on the children's immediate experience, because of the emotional dilemmas that such an approach can throw up; but she feels confident that a balance can be achieved. "It is important not to cause distress to the child, but to get close enough to the experience to get a sense of their story." In this way she hopes to build up a body of information and detail which could help shape policy and practice in the future.

Most research into contact focuses on quantitative issues - cost, take- up, number of hours spent, and so on. The hope is that her study - if she gets the funds needed to see it through - will add a qualitative dimension and suggest "whether it is possible to construct a template of best practice in this area of family intervention". There are, she says, considerable gaps in existing knowledge.

"One of the things we don't know so far is what long-term effect contact has when it is fraught with parental conflict - where one parent drops a child off at the gate, and the other whips open the door, hauls the child in and slams it again. How does it change children's ideas of what parents and children should do together, when they're provided with such a contrast to the stereotypical image of family life?"

This new research project dovetails with another child-centred study Dr Kroll is engaged in at Brunel: exploring whether the children of addicts miss key developmental stages when the parents' primary attachment is to the substance they are abusing.

The work of senior staff members at the university's social work department may prepare the ground for a research centre concerned with crime and the family. For, in addition to Dr Kroll's work, research is being carried out on the experience of foreign nationals in British prisons, and on people with mental health problems who kill children. That is the way with research. Colleagues can find themselves working on different projects that have the potential to be more than the sum of their parts. Provided, of course, that funding is tapped, and budgets allow