The current child maintenance system looks set to undergo a radical reform, and the changes have been published for consultation. Under the new proposals, parents will face paying the government a £100 fee to separate. A press release from the Department of Work and Pensions on the 8th of January says the plans
focus on strengthening families, will encourage responsibility and support separating parents to reach their own agreement on maintenance and other issues important to the long term welfare of their children […] the Government believes that reaching a settlement independently is far more likely to produce better outcomes for the child.
In the Guardian, Maria Miller, Undersecretary of State in the Department of Work and Pensions has been quoted as saying: “We know that if effective financial arrangements are in place, those parents are much more likely to stay in contact… Staying in contact with both parents is absolutely critical to give a child the best start in life.”
However, as The Telegraph’s Patrick Hennessy predicted, “They [the changes] are likely to spark protests from groups representing women trapped in abusive relationships”
Firstly, how would women can afford the £100 fee if they have no access to finance? Miller saysthat for those on benefits, the fee will be £50, starting with an initial upfront payment of only £20.
However, women experiencing financial abuse may have no money and no legitimate access to loans in order to pay the application fee. If they struggle to pay, they will most likely be referred to the “new, more efficient statutory service [that] will ….tackle the minority of parents who refuse to pay.” – which may well result in more fees.
It’s probable that the couples needing the most help to sort out finances will be in high-conflict relationships – which are usually indicative of domestic violence, The changes do make a concession to domestic violence, stating that “In cases where people have suffered domestic violence, their case will be fast tracked directly onto the statutory service – and no payment will be required to enter the system.” However, most incidences of domestic violence leave no trace, and women tend to under report domestic abuse, or they find their concerns are ignored.
Maypole would like to see solutions for women on low incomes with no access to finance, and all those experiencing domestic abuse.
The first day of this week, January 10th, is called D-Day, or Divorce Day. It’s the busiest time of the year for solicitors as estranged couples split – and it is women who are most likely to be initiating a divorce.
That’s never a good time, but we have some positive news for all women on that journey, as Maypole has been awarded a £10,000 Awards for All lottery grant to redevelop our website. The new site will offer more information, advice and support, and will enable us to offer a membership scheme and a secure self help forum.
The present site was designed and built by Rosalind, co-founder of Maypole: ‘As my first web site it’s suited us well but as Maypole grows we need more sophisticated design and functionality, and that’s way beyond my limited web design skills!’.
Jennifer (other!) co-founder of Maypole, says ‘the new site will be easier to find in search engines, which is really exciting as it was because we couldn’t find any dedicated support for women on the net that the idea for Maypole grew’.
We have appointed a web designer in Leeds, and look forward to uploading the new site in the spring. It will be at the same web address, and you will be first to hear of the launch.
Mr Justice Coleridge, a senior division judge for England and Wales recently announced that he thinks people do not take family court decisions seriously enough.
Mr. Coleridge wants to see a return to the levity of the courts, advising we should follow Australia’s example and ‘resume wearing robes and removing the carpets and indoor plants’.
However, it seems dubious that the removal of potted plants in courts will deal with the problems that are rife in family law.
Research shows that Shared Care legislation introduced in Australia in 2006 focuses on contact rather than safety, children’s full range of needs, and the well-being of the primary carer – usually the mother – which has a direct impact on the child’s well-being. A recent Maypole study highlighted some worrying statistics about child custody in the UK. In 60% of cases, the court ordered unsupervised contact even when there were ‘serious welfare concerns’, such as the presence of domestic violence in the relationship, even though in 90% of cases in the family courts there are allegations of abuse.
Coleridge regrets the ‘lack of respect’ for family court orders. Yet what is a parent, who is ordered to hand over their child to a parent with a history of abuse, to do? Such a parent would fall foul of Coleridge’s proposed three strikes system, by which if the parent disobeys a court order three times the residence of the child would be transferred to the other parent. Adhering absolutely to whatever the court orders leaves little room for consideration of variable factors, and more importantly, shows no regard for the welfare of the child; it seems to reduce the child to little more than a prize or a reward for one parent.
Do judges really know better than protective parents who are dragged through the court system by abusive ex partners using child contact as a means of continuing control? Is it better for children that their non abusive parent adheres absolutely to court rule? Coleridge concedes that ‘better judicial training’ is needed in today’s courts, implying that the current standards of training are not high enough. Is it not understandable, and even reasonable, therefore, that parents with their child’s best interest at heart should sometimes doubt the authority of the family courts?
Admittedly, not all of what Coleridge proposed would be detrimental to the courts. He remarked that too great an emphasis was being placed on listening uncritically to the views and wishes of children, including young children. Our report echoed the same sentiments – ‘abusive tactics can cause children to appear more bonded to an abusive father, and even reject their mother. ‘
Perhaps Coleridge has arrived at the right conclusion via the wrong means: he seems largely concerned with authority, wanting the family court to ‘act as the proper and appointed authority figure both towards the parents and the children.’ The use of child contact as a continuing tool of abuse is rife in the family courts. We do need well trained professionals who truly understand the complexity of abuse and how it damages relationships. And, when women seek to end abuse by ending their relationship, we do need the state to act with authority in promoting safety before contact. It is only then that women and children will be truly free to escape domestic abuse.
Maypole Women’s Charity now has its own Twitter feed. Follow us here or look at the feed to the right of the page.
‘Valuing Motherhood, Meeting the Needs of Women and Children at Separation and Divorce’ report to forward to your MP
Last week Maypole sent a letter and Executive Summary of its report ‘Valuing Motherhood, Meeting the Needs of Women and Children at Separation and Divorce’ to every UK MP, every female member of the House of Lords and male members with a relevant interest.
The report can be read at http://www.maypole.org.uk/research.html
The report sets out the difficulties many women face at separation – issues which are currently not part of the public debate on solutions in family law. The report also explains why the Government’s Bill of Shared Care, to be discssed in 2011, together with a planned emphasis on mediation, would mainly meet the needs of fathers, increase economic gender inequality and harm children. The proposed Bill has a weak research basis whilst the research showing Shared Care can be damaging for a significant minority of women and children is very strong.
Our letter arrived on the desks of the MPs on Tuesday, 19th October. With the evidence fresh in their minds, we are urging people to contact their MPs to register their concern for the proposed Bill, and ask how the Government intends to decrease ineqality and protect vulnerable women and children.
A summary of the report is available at http://www.maypole.org.uk/index.html