As a psychologist and trainee psychotherapeutic counsellor, a consultant who works with many family lawyers, a divorced mum who ensured my children’s father played a major role in their lives and as a long-time supporter of the not-for-profit organisations OnlyMums and OnlyDads, I was delighted to attend my second Westminster Forum on the impact of divorce on Monday 28th October 2014. Here’s a summary of the main points discussed: 

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP 

Dr Wollaston said a few words about the one in three children in divorced families who lose contact with their fathers and the Parental Involvement Provisions  which came into force on 22 October. 

Bob Greig – Onlydads (Chair) 

Bob opened with a brief introduction to OnlyMums and OnlyDads which have received requests for support and direction from over 30,000 individuals since it started seven years ago. The Family Law Panel was launched in June 2014 to connect people to family law experts who provide free advice and signposts many other services to divorcing and single parents. He explained that the focus is very much on putting children first.

He provided some insights:

  • The Office for National Statistics says that there are 13 divorces granted every single hour and half involve children
  • Police report that they deal with a domestic violence incident every single minute
  • Young Minds says that between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 young people in the UK are self-harming
  • Many Government reports highlight divorce as one of the key factors behind families sliding into poverty
  • Mental health problems and suicide (especially male suicide) are at an all-time high

The purpose of the debate was to look at ways to provide better support for families during and after divorce.

Nigel Shepherd – Vice Chairman of Resolution and family lawyers at Mills & Reeve 

Nigel provided a brief introduction to Resolution – which was formed in 1982 and has 6,500 family law professionals. He mentioned that since Legal Aid for divorce was abolished there has been a 45% drop in publically funded mediation and 58% of all parents are now facing divorce without a lawyer. There are 67,000 child civil actions in Courts and cases are taking longer. Resolution aims to put children first in divorce.

He mentioned the innovative Department of Works and Pensions “Family Matters” pilot for child consultation within mediation

Susanna Abse – Chief Executive Office of Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships

The Centre has 65 years’ experience providing counselling services to couples and training counsellors. It undertakes research into the how children react to divorce following the attachment theory work of John Bowlby. Children with a “secure attachment” formed as a result of adaptive and responsive parenting are more resilient and find it easier to cope with the emotional impact of divorce.

She spent some time discussing the role of anger in relationship breakdown and explained the various divorce processes: social, physical, legal, family, economic and parental. She described nominal divorce (parents are still around the family home), long lease divorce (where parents may still see each other after 10 years) and shot gun divorce.

She mentioned a new therapeutic tool of “Mentalization based therapy for inter-parental conflict”  to support couples  involved in long term conflict with repeated visits to Court although the waiting list had to be closed six months early due to high demand.

Sam Challis – Information Manager for Mind the mental health charity 

Sam commented on how many divorcing dads struggle with mental health and commented on the All Party Parliament Group’s work with the Fatherhood Institute . He explained that divorcing men in early middle age were most likely to consider suicide and that loneliness and loss of contact with children were major factors. He mentioned some pilot therapies and lobbying work to reduce counselling waiting times from three years to 18 weeks for adolescents.

Norman Hartnell – Managing Director of The Family Law Company

Norman talked about a ground breaking project (the Domestic Abuse Advocacy Project) in Exeter and Plymouth working with Police and local authorities on domestic abuse.

His main argument was that “family law isn’t working” and he outlined suggestions to better protect vulnerable children and adults and provide a fair conflict resolution system for divorce. He said that the adversarial approach should be replaced with a principled, problem solving approach and that the Government’s plans for mediation had failed. He called for a coherent strategy across all Government departments and more awareness of the Legal Aid fund for emergencies.

He provided some papers describing the project and detailing the problems with the current system and a suggestion for a triage system.

Sion Humphreys – Policy Adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers 

Sion reflected back to a time when divorce carried social stigma and was a rarity. He explained that the partnerships that schools used to have with social services and other support agencies no longer existed which left them in a position where they were ill-equipped to support children suffering problems relating to divorce.

He mentioned a toolkit from the Royal College of Paediatricians to identify the early signs of mental illness in children and called for better relationships education in schools.

Duncan Fisher – Founder of Kids in the Middle

Duncan talked about the issues experienced in raising funds for this project which is a web site where teens help other teens through divorce through video talks and peer mentoring. The main messages for children are a) it’s not your fault b) it’s OK to get help and c) you are not alone. Having involved the teens themselves in raising the necessary funds, he is now planning the next stage of a social media strategy to give children in divorce a voice.

Issues raised during the debate

Single Parent Action Network asked what could be done where parents declined to maintain contact with their children. It was noted that in Germany parents who refused to see their children were fined.

The National Association of Child Contact Centres said that since the loss of Legal Aid there had been 35% less referrals to its 403 centres which meant that some were now faced with closure.

Other comments included:

  • Parental responsibility did not exist until the father signed the birth certificate
  • The birth of the first child was a critical time when support was required
  • There were more mental health issues for women over 50 who faced both divorce and an empty nest
  • A health visitor commented that there was a higher incidence of divorce for families with disabled children
  • A representative from Families Need Fathers said that there was a need for better integration of mental health services with family law
  • A psychiatrist specialising in child and adolescents said that she was shocked at the impact of divorce on children and the conflict of loyalties that they experienced

Further useful links:

Tweets for the event used #flpdebate A non-profit organisation that supports, promotes and celebrates fatherhood and the family unit. Every last Saturday of the month from 4pm to 7pm there is The Fathers Room at Oasis Academy Community Hub in EN3 7XH.

A report of the Westminster Debate for Fathers in 2010