A new BBC series explores the reasons why fathers lose touch with their children post-separation. Cassandra Jardine investigates.
By Cassandra Jardine
Published: 7:00AM GMT 27 Mar 2010
Watching a preview of next week’s BBC series Who Needs Fathers?, I felt ashamed to be a woman. The men on the programme appeared to be loving, attentive fathers – not extremists in Batman costumes. All they wanted was to play their part in the upbringing of their children. But, at every turn, it seemed, vengeful, short-sighted women were selfishly trying to thwart them.
These mothers cancelled contact arrangements, scuppered telephone calls, made false allegations of abuse, and prevented the men taking their children on holiday. “Honestly, I feel like throwing in the towel,” said one tearful father, who sat in his car outside his ex’s front door, waiting in vain for the children to come out. Only an emergency court order won him the day.
Not only did these women want total control of the children – believing their love was enough – they also expected their exes to keep them in the style to which they had become accustomed, while the men lived in cramped bedsits. When one man finally manages to remortgage his own home to keep a working mother in hers, her response is: “OK, so I can book a holiday.”
The programmes not only seek to explain why 40 per cent of fathers lose touch with their children within two years of divorce – the figure is likely to be even higher when unmarried parents separate – but also why this matters. Looking at the confused faces of children being fought over by parents like favourite toys, it was not difficult to imagine what might happen when they grew into teenagers, unsure about their loyalties and identities. Indeed, in the third programme, we see fatherless teenagers behaving appallingly.
The prospects for children who don’t see their fathers are bleak, according to a Unicef report in 2007. Educationally, they do less well. They are more likely to get in trouble with the police, and to abuse drugs and alcohol. They also find it more difficult to form relationships. If Broken Britain – that over-used moral call to arms – has roots, they lie in broken homes.
A third of children are now growing up without parents living under the same roof. Each of the 150,000 to 200,000 separations per year is a source of sadness for the children involved, children who yearn – however unrealistically – for mummy and daddy to live together happily ever after. But those partings can be handled more or less well. “The emotionally healthy 18 year-olds,” says Judge Nicholas Crichton, who works in the family courts, “are those who can say, 'Whatever happened between my parents, I knew I was loved and that I was free to love both parents without feeling guilty.’?”
Too few children are growing up with that balance. Ninety three per cent of children live with their mother after a separation, and half then lose touch with the non-resident parent. That’s a tragedy not only for the fathers, but for the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who would otherwise provide a support network for those children.
Acrimony is unavoidable when relationships end, but some couples, such as Chris and Angela in the first programme, succeed in suppressing their irritation with one another for the sake of their children. Why then do so many children lose a parent to this game of bitterness and revenge?
“Henry” (not his real name), who is seen in the second programme, tells me he blames a court system that is biased against fathers, as well as being expensive, slow and ineffectual. When his daughter was born, Henry wanted to be involved, even though he had subsequently married. In return for maintenance, he saw his daughter alternate weekends and took her on holiday. “She was a massive part of my life,” he says. “Then her mother decided to live abroad.”
He fought the move but, as in 99 per cent of cases, the mother won in court. “All a woman has to say is that refusal will psychologically damage her. There’s a view that whatever is in the mother’s interests is also in the child’s interests, even though nine out of 10 non-resident parents then lose touch.”
Henry did not wish to be one of them, but despite a “mirror order” giving him visiting rights and regular contact, he has had to fight for every glimpse and chat, at a cost of £70,000, putting considerable strain on his marriage. “When we meet it’s wonderful, but it’s hard to slot into a role if you haven’t seen a child regularly.”
During the whole court process he felt “like the puppet in the hands of a puppeteer”. He says: “I can understand why mothers use whatever power is at their disposal, but there was an imbalance.” Many fathers feel the same. “In order to be considered equal, you have to be twice as good,” says Simon Ramet, who has fought for half his child’s time. “The courts are still stuck in a 1950s paradigm of mothers doing the caring, and fathers doing the earning,” says John Davies, chief executive of Families Need Fathers.
Women are also more likely to get legal aid than fathers, who have to weigh up the cost of pursuing a case against the fear that the longer they go without seeing a child, the weaker their case for maintaining contact becomes. “As few parents with young children can afford it, access to the law often depends on having wealthy parents. It tends to be a middle-class privilege,” says Sara Feilden, producer for Films of Record, who made the BBC series.
Despite fears that speaking out will harm participants’ contact arrangements, Fielden is glad to have found the brief window of opportunity in which to tell their stories. Last year, it became legal to report on the family courts, but a Bill is going through Parliament that would make it impossible, once again, to film people who have been involved in family legal disputes. “It’s unlikely that we would ever again be able to make a programme about this important issue,” she says.
The men filmed are eager to highlight the shortcomings of an overburdened legal system. Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), which appoints guardians to represent the child’s interests, is so stretched that it can take nine months to produce a report. When allegations of misconduct are made, contact is rightly refused until they have been investigated. But sometimes they are purely vexatious.
Families Need Fathers is fighting for a number of changes on behalf of all non-resident parents, mothers as well as fathers. These include publication of judgments so parents know what to expect (and may therefore avoid court), sanctions for those who make false allegations, and financial recognition that non-resident parents also have to maintain a home suitable for their children to visit.
The current system finds favour with few, least of all those whose lives are dominated by endless hearings and court orders. “You should be reasonable when splitting up,” says Juliette Thomas, who was brave enough to defend on air her reluctance to allow Alex, her ex, his share of their four sons’ time: she claimed lack of clarity in his plans. Unable to agree, the court process has made the gulf between them wider and Alex resentful.
Family breakdown is not unique to the UK, but some countries seem to handle it better. In Australia, an assumption of shared parenting was introduced four years ago, backed up by family centres where separating couples could be given information and counselling on sharing their children. More children are now staying in contact with both parents as a result.
Dr Mandy Bryon, chief psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, tells parents: “Whether you like it or not, you will remain in a relationship with one another as parents of your children.” To prepare for that, she believes couples need to acknowledge the errors in thinking that occur when people are angry and upset, and to anticipate the problems that cause flare- ups – late delivery back, changes of plans, and so on. “If parents are living together and a child comes back from a visit to the park with the father in tears, the mother will try to reassure both parties. If they are separated she will say, 'Never again.’ The father might ask the child not to tell Mummy. Then, when the child blurts out what Daddy said, the mother thinks something sinister is going on.”
Judge Crichton already sends many parents on courses to learn about sharing. If we adopted a system similar to the Australian one, that would be compulsory before a couple go to court. “A good thing too,” he says, “as the courts are not the best place to sort these matters out.”
Both the Labour and Conservative parties have reviewed the family-law system. Henry Bellingham, shadow justice minister, talks of introducing automatic shared contact, if the Conservatives are elected, and using Sue Start centres for counselling. Looking at the worried eyes of children caught up in disputes that they don’t understand, change can’t come too soon.
'Who Needs Fathers’ starts on BBC Two at 9pm next Wednesday