Focus: How to survive divorce without damaging our children

The cartoon antics of Fathers 4 Justice may have done them no favours, but now divorced dads have a new superhero in Bob Geldof. Celia Dodd examines their grievances while Katy Guest listens to victims of marital breakdown
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The Independent Online

Bob Geldof calls it "state-sponsored child abuse". The legal system scars children by forcibly removing them from their fathers, he says. "I and my kids will never forgive what this state, through this law, did to us to ruin our family even further than our own self-inflicted damage," says Geldof, who was separated from his daughters, Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches and Pixie, when he split with his wife Paula Yates in 1995.

"What bewildered me and left me grief-stricken was not just that she had left me but my children were gone," he says in a documentary to be broadcast on Channel 4 on Tuesday. "Why couldn't I be with them like I had for all their lives?"

Other fathers have chosen to express their anger by dressing up as superheroes and scaling buildings, or throwing purple dye at the Prime Minister. Whatever you think of Fathers 4 Justice - and some believe they have actually damaged their own cause - they have at least forced everyone to take a closer look at the way the current system deals with divorce and separation.

But the real victims are not the fathers, however angry they feel. Their sons and daughters are the ones who suffer most as mum and dad tear each other apart in court, egged on by a legal structure that forces parents to confront each other like gladiators. Meanwhile, the voices of the children are rarely heard.

"It's terribly important to ensure that children's views and feelings are taken into account, and to think about how they should be involved in decisions," says Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute.

We don't need research to tell us that the less conflict the better for children, and that long-drawn-out conflicts and contact orders which aren't enforced can cause children long-term unhappiness. Yet some parents spend several years of their young children's lives in dispute, trying to thrash out an agreement.

The Government's Green Paper, "Parental separation: children's needs and parents' responsibilities", published in July, takes account of the recent seismic shifts in family life and proposes new measures which could make separation easier for all families - including the 90 per cent who manage the whole tricky business without resorting to court. The basic idea is to make it possible for even more couples to avoid court.

There is also a welcome move towards seeing divorce as a continuous process - with children and parents getting help - and a recognition of the need to offer support for post-divorce parenting. Lamorna Wooderson of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) says: "There's a need for a lot more support, information and advice, because often problems come not just at the time of the break-up, but later, when new situations arise - when a parent meets a new partner, or a new child is born, or as the children get older."

Inevitably, lawyers and campaigners disagree about flaws in the system and how it should be improved. One of the biggest bones of contention is the notion put forward by Geldof that courts should start from a presumption that children will divide their time 50-50 between the parents. It's a view qualified by Matt O'Connor of Fathers 4 Justice: "In the eyes of the law we need a level playing field to start with. Fifty-fifty contact is a good starting point, but it could be 70-30 or even 90-10 - whatever is the most workable arrangement couples can agree. We want a Bill of Rights for the family which makes it unacceptable for either parent to deny the child a relationship with the other."

But opinion is weighted against the 50-50 principle. Dorit Braun of Parentline Plus echoes the Lord Chancellor's Department when she says: "If you introduce parents' rights you're in danger of superseding children's rights, which is problematic. The Children Act says that children have a right to both their parents, and we mustn't lose sight of that. We need to look at what kind of arrangements can be made, which everybody can manage." The one thing everyone agrees about is the less time spent in court the better. At present, it can take up to 12 weeks from the time parents first apply to the court to the first hearing. But Toby Hales, a family lawyer with the London solicitors Hodge Jones and Allen, believes that blaming the system is too simplistic. "People's expectations often far outweigh what the system can deliver," he says. "My view is that certain categories of dispute, such as some contact disputes, can be almost impossible to resolve. The law doesn't provide sufficient protection for children in the sense that disputes between parents are allowed to go on for years. People try as far as possible to avoid head-on confrontation, so lawyers are always trying to cobble together negotiated outcomes that really don't satisfy anybody and lead to them coming back six months later because they're not working. There has to be a complete reshaping of the kind of professional support that's given to families."

Clearly you can never get rid of conflict in divorce, but you can stop bad feeling becoming entrenched, not least by speeding up the processes which help to resolve issues, preferably outside court: research shows that arrangements work best if couples work them out themselves.

According to Hales, hammering out a realistic agreement at the outset cuts conflict in the long term; it also helps the children as much as the parents. "The initial period, when feelings are extremely raw, is so important," he says. "That's when you need outside intervention, because if feelings get entrenched people get stuck, and x years down the line you're still dealing with their sorrow and agony that their marriage broke down."

There is no shortage of new ideas about how best to come to realistic agreements, from Family Resolution Schemes to the Legal Services Commission's Family Advice and Information Networks, as well as mediation.

Like many lawyers, Hales thinks mediation helps only parents who would agree anyway. But it is still widely viewed as one of the best ways to handle heated emotions, and is now being tentatively used to help children through divorce, a practice which Mary MacLeod believes should be extended.

Linda Glees, chair of the Family Mediators' Association, says mediation can even help enforce contact orders. "That has been a real weakness in the system," she says. "Mediation could help by unpacking all the reasons which led to the court order falling down, which are often surprisingly trivial."

But should mediation be mandatory? Fathers 4 Justice says it will not work if it is not. "If couples don't agree fast-track resolutions and a parenting plan, they should have to do community service, be electronically tagged, or if they fail repeatedly, face some kind of custodial sentence."

Yet, as Dorit Braun points out, "often the reasons contact arrangements break down is that one of the parents is struggling emotionally and nobody's helping them through that."

But there is a general agreement that the law needs more teeth, particularly when it comes to contact arrangements. One plan is that in the future Cafcass will monitor these agreements closely and ensure they are implemented without delay.

There is also widespread enthusiasm for the new Family Resolution Schemes. One pilot in Sunderland has just started, while two more (in Brighton and London) follow later this month. Couples are directed to them by the courts before they embark on the actual courtroom process in the hope that they will circumvent it.

What people like about the Family Resolution Scheme is that it offers the kind of early intervention which can really help couples to put emotions aside to think about the children. It also allows children's voices to be heard much more than they are at present. Currently a Cafcass officer spends just one hour canvassing the child's opinion.

In the future, they will spend much longer establishing a relationship on the child's home ground to get a much more accurate picture of their feelings. The National Family and Parenting Institute would also like to see children signing Parenting Plans with their parents.

Meanwhile, there is a call for more services to help children and parents cope with divorce - the kind of emotional support currently offered by Relate and school counsellors.

Dorit Braun says: "We need sustained funding for services that can help families by working alongside them - it's not a question of telling them what to do. There is a lot out there to build on, but it's patchy, fragmented and poorly funded. Because where parents are struggling emotionally they're distracted - they're not able to put their children's needs centre-stage."

If girls and boys are not to go on suffering there has to be change. The Government will soon stop consulting and announce what it intends to do. Opinions vary among those who have been scarred by the system or work within it. But there is broad agreement about a number of things. Couples should get help as soon as they separate to help them work out realistic parenting plans. They should be encouraged to reach agreements out of court, wherever possible. Mediation services ought to be consistent and available to all across the nation.

So should the Family Resolution Schemes being pioneered in some courts. Where court orders are made they must be monitored more closely and not broken so often. Children should be encouraged to maintain ties with their extended family. And children's views should influence decisions about their own futures.

In the end, this is not about former rock stars or angry dads in saggy fancy-dress costumes. It's about young children - boys and girls - whose lives are being damaged. They are the ones who are counting on all the grown-up lawyers and counsellors and politicians to act.

'Geldof on Fathers' is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Tuesday

A father's tale

'No separation can be really amicable'

Andrew Caulfield, 38, a lawyer, lives near Guildford in Surrey. He was divorced three years ago. His children are aged from five to 11.

When we first separated we were quite clear on one thing: that whatever happened, being fair to the children was going to be paramount. We really believed we could stop things from becoming acrimonious, but the truth is that the adversarial court system in this country invites a divorcing couple into acrimony, and finances and the children become the main battlegrounds.

We ended up fighting through the courts, and for about two years I did not have the level of contact I, or the boys, wanted. It was very tough, very depressing, and the people who missed out most were the children because children need two parents.

No separation and divorce can ultimately be really amicable: at some point it's going to get nasty and when it does both sides use whatever weapons are their disposal, usually money and the kids.

All of this is enabled by a legal system with individuals - solicitors, barristers, judges - who come from a generation where fathers didn't have a big role to play in their children's lives.

People said to me, "You'll get to see them every weekend in McDonald's, that's going to be all right for you isn't it?" And I had to say no - that's a very long way from my idea of what being a father is all about.

It took me three years of putting my case to reach the situation I'm in now, which is that my sons spend half their time with their mother and half their time with me: that's the right solution. That's how it always should have been.

A mother's tale

'He just dipped in and out of their lives'

Ellen, 46, has two daughters, now in their twenties, whom she raised alone after separating and getting divorced 16 years ago. She lives in a city in the North where she helps one-parent families.

When a couple split up the assumption that's usually made is that the mother will carry on providing the childcare while the father carries on working. That is one of the big causes of conflict: you're left looking after the children and you think, why should I be doing everything?

I would have loved it if my ex-husband had wanted to stay involved in his children's lives, but what he wanted was to dip in and out on his terms. What all the research shows is that it's regular contact that keeps children secure after family break-up: if you get a non-resident parent who keeps letting the children down, not turning up for contact visits and so on, they start feeling rejected - and that has very long-term implications.

You get a lot of families where the father moves on, finds a new partner, has a new family, and then the first wife and the first set of children lose out - their maintenance is reduced, they're living in poverty.

The level of poverty among some lone mothers is terrible: a few weeks ago I heard of a mother who had to walk six miles home from hospital with four children after one was taken to casualty with a playground injury - simply because she didn't have the fare to get them all home. That's how tight things can be.

The truth is that the non-resident parents' lobby has got a great big voice but the resident parents are struggling in silence. Largely they're just too over-burdened, too up against it, to have the time or the energy or the resources to mount campaigns at Buckingham Palace.

Bringing up children on your own as a lone parent without the support of the other parent is really, really tough: I did a university degree before I started working, and studying and then working was so difficult. I did it, but only because of the support of my friends; they helped out with childcare and they were there to support me.

But when it's 3am and your child is ill and you're completely on your own and you don't know whether she'll be OK and the doctor just gives you a terse reply on the phone, that's when you feel it.

That's when you know the loneliness and feel the total responsibility of what you're doing.

A child's tale

'Everything seems so complicated'

Charlotte, 12, lives in London with her mother and eight-year-old brother. Her parents split up a year ago.

Mum and Dad were arguing for ages before they split up: they used to throw things at each other and that made my brother and me frightened and we used to cry. But it was still a big shock when they told us Dad was moving out: we didn't think it would get that bad. It was really horrible when he left - our house isn't the same now he's gone. He lives in a flat but it's a Tube ride away and I can't go on my own.

I think it would have helped if we could have all sat down together and talked about how life was going to be once Dad had moved out, but he and Mum either fought or didn't talk at all.

Mum works more days now than she used to do, so she is out a lot and busy during the week. She likes to do things with us at weekends but then there's Dad to see as well, and it makes it really hard for me to go out with my friends and go swimming and to the cinema.

I really wish we could go back to how it used to be. Everything seemed so easy then, and it all seems so complicated now.

The identities of the last three interviewees on these pages have been changed

A daughter's tale

'I don't trust men. I'm harsh to them'

Andrea, 21, was brought up by her mother from an early age, after her parents divorced. She lives with her mother in the North of England andworks in a shop. Andrea has a four-year-old son.

Growing up without a dad has affected my whole life: what I am now and what I'll ever be. Dad only turned up when he wanted, didn't support my mum properly. My sister and I had a lot of difficult times, had to get through a lot on our own.

Mum was always tired and skint. We'd come home from school and she'd be out at college or at work - I remember us being on our own such a lot. And then when she came home we'd have problems at school or with our work but we never wanted to bother her with them: she seemed so stressed-out already. So my sister and I bottled everything up inside, and that's not been good for us.

What happened to us has affected how I feel about men: I tend to be quite harsh towards them and I don't trust them. I'm always expecting to be let down. My sister and I both had babies when we were young: I was only 16 when I had Jamie. I wanted to create the happy family I'd missed out on. But I was so young, and of course it was unrealistic: Jamie's dad and I have split up and I'm back with my mum. But I'm determined to make it different for Jamie: he goes to his dad every Saturday. We take him out together, too, so he knows he's got us both: I want him to know that, because it didn't happen for me.

I haven't done as well as I might. I'm always afraid of being let down, so if something is difficult I don't try, I give up too easily. I've been let down too often. I prefer not to open myself to more disappointments.

What they say

Matt O'Connor, Fathers4Justice

To prove who is the best parent you have to prove who is the worst. A large number of problems are because the courts operate under a cloak of secrecy, allegedly to protect the child's best interest. It should be unacceptable for one parent to denigrate the other in front of the children. It is incredibly damaging.

Theresa May, Shadow Secretary of State for the Family

Too many parents and grandparents are not able to have access. The resident parent should know that the court's presumption is that the other parent should have equal contact. We'd aim for early intervention - mediation, a parenting plan and access arrangements.

Jack O'Sullivan, co-founder, Fathers Direct

The current system is slow, adversarial, divisive and expensive. Children do best after break-up, typically, if they see lots of both parents. I don't believe in fathers' rights; it's about children. We should stop thinking about fathers' rights and start thinking in terms of how to exploit fathers as a resource.

Cheryl Turner, head of policy, Relate

What people need is support, advice and help to come to terms with their emotional difficulties. Do you remember the Learn Direct campaign with the gremlins? We need something like that, to make people come together and bring about a cultural change. There's so much more people could do to learn the skills for a committed relationship.

Carole Easton, chief executive, Childline

We hear from thousands of children every year for whom divorce or separation is one of their concerns. Children don't always expect to be agreed with but they want to feel they've had a say. We're also concerned about the provision of information for children. Does a child know where to access information? I really think they need to look at that.

Angela Lake-Carroll, director of Children and Family Services, the Legal Services Commission

Ours remains an adversarial court system. The Solicitors Family Law Association knows that getting families into court battles is entirely the wrong thing to do. We need to get people to understand that the thing to do when a relationship breaks down is not to get into a fight.