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Personally I would have put up with anything rather than be separated from my daughter. And indeed, for many years I did. The idea of not being there for her every day was unimaginable. I do wonder how often divorcing couples take that into account? Or perhaps they don’t all feel the same?

Regardless, when couples separate the reality is that both of them are going to see their children less than before, and in many instances one is going to see them a lot less. In this modern age of Facetime and social media, some of the pain of that separation can be eased a little. But these technological advances come with their own complications – for both the custodial and absent parent.

Furthermore, in situations where there is ill-will, it’s entirely possible that an absent parent can be doing more harm than good in their communications. Striking a balance between affording the necessary privacy and protecting your children can be extremely difficult.  Whilst I do not have all the answers, I found the following guidelines useful.

  1. KIDS HAVE THE RIGHT TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR EX

You may be angry and furious toward your ex – perhaps even your kid is, too – but regardless of what may have happened in the past, your child has the right to a relationship with both of their parents. You must remember, though, that it is the health and needs of the kids that are most important here, not the ex. An absent partner may want to speak to kids every day and text them all day long, but if that’s not what the child wants, then that isn’t what should be happening. By the same token, if that is what the child wants, then you have to accept it, as bad as it may make you feel.

  1. RELATIONSHIPS NEED AN ELEMENT OF PRIVACY

For your child to be able to talk freely and meaningfully with an absent parent, they have to be able to do that privately. Having you looking over their shoulder can cause all sorts of emotional complications that simply aren’t fair, in just the same way you would not want a third party listening in to your private conversations.

  1. HOWEVER, SAFETY REMAINS PARAMOUNT

The caveat, to all of this of course, is that nothing is more important than your child’s wellbeing. Personally I would recommend listening in to the first few conversations your child has with your ex. This isn’t a means of spying (indeed, it must never be that) but instead to ensure that no-one is being bad-mouthed or fishing for personal information, that your child isn’t being unfairly critiqued or pressured and that everyone is being honest and above board. If the first few calls go alright and your child is showing no obvious signs of distress, however, then you have to step away and respect the need for privacy.

At the same time, if damaging things are being said then that cannot be permitted. Should an ex continue to behave incorrectly having been warned, then you may have to either supervise communication on an ongoing basis or, if things do not improve, limit or stop communication altogether. A good solicitor will be able to advise you on what is and is not acceptable, and at what stage you are able to rightly put your foot down.

  1. THE SAME RULES APPLY TO THE EXTENDED FAMILY

Even if your ex is conducting themselves properly, there is every chance that their extended family may not. This is an issue that I faced, when a grandparent wrote some disparaging comments about me in a Christmas card to my daughter. I did not hesitate to highlight this to my ex and, while things were still very difficult at the time, I believe she understood and took steps to ensure it would not happen again. It was even something that I raised in court. Take the same precautions toward contact with your child’s extended family as you would with your ex-partner, but always be working toward the goal of showing those relationships the same respect, too.

  1. A FIXED COMMUNICATION SCHEDULE CAN HELP

Whether your ex or child wants more or less communication than they’re getting, agreeing upon a schedule can be an excellent way of calming any tensions. If all parties know that they’re going to get a text, say, every other day, and then maybe a Facetime or Skype call once or twice a week, the nervousness surrounding other communications can be significantly alleviated. Try and make sure all parties stick to it, too, as a missed appointment can cause upset for everyone.

  1. PROPER CO-PARENTING WILL ALWAYS HELP

If you’re able to find a way to properly co-parent with your ex and ensure that they feel involved and up to date, then any urge they have to unfairly infringe upon yours and your child’s time will be significantly reduced. Isolation and alienation will only ever need to increased desperation, so do all you can to avoid that.

  1. NEVER USE YOUR CHILD’S COMMUNICATION AS A TOOL

It is never OK to pressure your child to try and extract specific information from your ex in their chats with them. Their lines of communication with your ex exist solely for your child’s benefit. Any pressure put on them to be duplicitous – even if dressed up in such a way as to appear innocent – can only ever lead to harm.

  1. RESPECT YOUR EX’S TIME AND THEY WILL BE MORE LIKELY TO RESPECT YOURS

You may feel nervous about the times when your child is with your ex-partner, especially in the early days, but it’s important to try and respect it. If your uncertainties manifest in repeated calls and messages to check that everything’s OK, then it becomes harder for you to complain if that behaviour is reciprocated. While separated partners should always do everything they can to maintain a line of dialogue about co-parenting, you also have to accept that the hours they spend together with their kids are theirs alone.

  1. LET YOUR KIDS TAKE THE LEAD

Forcing your children to stick to a rigid schedule that they are not comfortable with can potentially do harm. It’s easy to become upset when you realise that your children don’t spend their every waking moment away from you craving your attention, but that’s probably a good thing. They need to start becoming comfortable with time spent away from each of their parents. Furthermore, sometimes it’s healthier to put everything out of mind. A child may only start missing their parent when they speak to them, so do consider how necessary it is to remind them of their loss when they’re not actively thinking about it.

Ultimately, let your child decide whether they want more or less communication with your ex. While some kids will require a gentle nudge to pick up the phone or respond to messages from time to time, if it’s something they’re not showing need for, that has to be respected, regardless of the need of any parents.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

When divorce is right

The importance of compromise when fighting for contact or custody

How to tell a child their parents are separating

A child must be heard during divorce or separation

Tips for co-parenting with your partner

Image (cropped) by Brad Flickinger under a creative commons licence

The post 9 tips for managing your child’s communications with your ex appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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One of the harshest realities of separating from a partner when you have a child together is the likelihood that you’re going to have to find a way to keep working as a partnership.

Regardless of whether custody is split 50/50 or if the child is only seeing one parent every other weekend, it is vital for the health and wellbeing of the children that you and your ex are able to co-parent. This may seem impossible, but remember all the times you’ve said you’ll do anything for your child? Well, this is one of those times! It doesn’t mean you have to be mates with your ex and it certainly doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, but it is completely necessary.

1. YOUR CHILDREN ARE YOUR FOCUS

Whenever it starts to feel as if communicating with and working with your ex is too much to be dealing with, remember why you’re doing it. Your children remain your absolute priority and the thing that’s going to get them through a separation is your love and your ability to discuss parenting calmly and rationally with your ex.

2. SET UP A LINE OF COMMUNICATION

How you communicate with your ex will vary depending on your circumstances. There was a period when I was forced to require my ex to communicate with me only via a specific email address I had set up for the purpose. She was told I would check it once a day. This meant I was not inundated with unpleasant messages all hours of the day and could check in when I felt up to it. It may be that something similar works for you, but anything – be it email, text, phone or face-to-face – is fine as long as the rules are clearly outlined. A schedule may also be of help so as to stop the receipt of unwanted calls or messages.

3. BE HONEST

As much as there may be lots of things you’re unwilling to discuss with your ex, when it comes to co-parenting you have to be honest. If notable things happen when your child is with you (such as erratic behaviour, or perhaps them making an admission about their feelings or worries) then you have to be able to tell your ex. Parenting becomes very hard when you’re not in possession of all the facts and making that job more difficult for your ex out of spite helps absolutely no-one.

4. HAVE BOUNDARIES

At the same time, have boundaries. When it comes to your child you must accept and require honesty and transparency, but this does not give your ex license to drag up other issues or make unrelated accusations. This is especially important when one partner has a history of manipulation or abuse. Make it clear that you’ll exit the conversations if they deviate from the subject of parenting, and do just that if they do. If a fight starts brewing, just walk away and come back when you’ve both had time to calm down.

5. BE CONSISTENT

Kids are generally at their most content when they know where they stand. If they’re able to get away with certain behaviours with one parent but not the other, that’s confusing for them. You and your ex need to agree to a set of behaviour expectations and have the strength to enforce them. If your ex fails to uphold this, then they’ll have to be challenged. It’s also possibly grounds for limiting access in the eyes of the courts. On that point…

6. WRITE IT ALL DOWN

One you’ve agreed upon things like contact schedules and allotted email/phone arrangements, write them down so you both have a copy. This means that should your ex try to change anything, you have documented proof of what they had previously agreed to. This sort of thing is especially important should you end up in court.

7. THINK ABOUT HOW YOU SAY THINGS

Barking orders and getting angry at your ex is far less likely to achieve anything than calmly explaining your thoughts and requesting their cooperation. Positive behaviour is far more likely to occur if it’s reciprocated, too. As negative as your feelings may or may not be toward your ex, treat them with respect – even if it’s feigned – and you’re more likely to get the same in return.

8. DON’T INTERFERE ON YOUR EX’S TIME

Try as hard as you can not to interfere when your children are with your ex. This is something I really struggled with at first, as I had legitimate concerns about what my daughter was being exposed to. But ultimately you have to accept that your children will have a relationship with your ex and that relationship will be largely independent of you. If you’re worried about negative influences then all you can do (providing your are certain of your child’s safety) is ensure that you’re teaching them what’s right when they’re with you and giving them the strength they need to cope.

9. DO NOT BAD MOUTH YOUR EX

Regardless of what you may be feeling, do not criticise your ex to your children. They do not need to hear it. Over time your children will form their own opinions of both of you, and the parent who offered unconditional love, understanding and decency can expect fare best in that situation.

10.EXTENDED FAMILY ACCESS

One of the logistical concerns about co-parenting is the widening of the family net, especially when new partners are introduced. Children can end up with as many as eight grandparents and who knows how many aunties and uncles, and it’s only fair that everyone gets the chance to be involved in the child’s life.

11.IT’S NOT A COMPETITION AND YOU DON’T WIN BY BEING THE ‘FUN’ PARENT

The urge to ensure that the time your kids spend with you is somehow ‘better’ than the time they spend with your ex is often very powerful, but do try to resist it. Don’t be sad if your kids have a good time with your ex – be happy. It’s a good thing. And if you do feel bad about it, the best thing you can do is to make sure they also have a good time with you. No-one wins in the race to be the ‘fun’ parent, however. Fun and discipline need to be a part of both families, and no-one should be allowed to permit guilt to eradicate responsibility. Again, children need to understand boundaries and know where they stand.

12.ACCEPT THAT YOU CANNOT CHANGE YOUR EX

It may well be the case that your ex will have some sort of negative impact on your kids. But the truth is that it’s unlikely you’re perfect, either. All people are a mix of good and bad and parents are no different. A vital lesson I learned was that I could not change my ex and I couldn’t stop her doing things that I personally felt she shouldn’t be doing around my daughter. It may well be the case that her mum feels the same. But all I can control is how I behave around her, and if I do my job correctly then my girl should be well equipped to deal with whatever challenges come her way, be that from her mother or anyone else.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

When divorce is right

The importance of compromise when fighting for contact or custody

How to tell a child their parents are separating

A child must be heard during divorce or separation

Image (cropped) by Michel Filion under a creative commons licence

The post Tips for co-parenting with your ex-partner appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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There is irony in the fact that in the fight for what we think is right for our kids, what they want is often overlooked.

When separated partners fail to reach a contact agreement without going to court, the subsequent legal battle will almost inevitably become emotionally fraught. And when that happens, it veers dangerously close to becoming a contest.

Worse still, for some parties it can be about revenge.

In cases that involve adultery or some other kind of deception, it is all too common for custody or contact to be used as a weapon. Some people will argue that depriving an ex-partner of contact with their children is entirely ‘fair’. Often the argument hinges on the fact that the person in question has proven themselves untrustworthy, and therefore cannot be entrusted to take care of the kids.

It’s an argument that in the wake of a separation can feel entirely real, too. But aside from cases where there is a risk to safety, it is rarely true that a child benefits from losing contact with a parent.

Most people know this, deep down. Withholding contact as a form of punishment is, alas, never the right thing. Why? Let’s circle back to the opening statement.

A custody case should always have two things at its heart – what is best for a child and what a child wants. And there are very few kids who don’t want to have a relationship with both mum and dad.

COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR CHILD

If you’re contesting custody, there’s a reason why Cafcass will want to talk to your child alone. But really you should already be talking to your child about the subject long before it gets to this stage.

Separation is scary for kids, and in a situation where so much of what is happening will be completely beyond their control, the best thing you can do for them is to help them talk about it. The first step in kids processing what they’re feeling is being able to be honest about it.

What you need to aim for is to get to a place where your child or children know that it is not wrong to feel whatever they’re feeling, and they will never be reprimanded for telling you about it. Whether you can solve their problems or not is an entirely different issue, but if you don’t understand them you don’t have a chance.

The same rule applies to both parents, too. Ideally, it would be great for both parents and children to have these discussions together, and for the adults to be able to talk openly and constructively in a united front with their children. This of course is a step too far for some, but at the very least you need to be able to discuss whatever issues were raised with your ex-partner, even if it’s only over email or text. Openness and transparency will help everybody.

TAKING IT ON THE CHIN

While my daughter coped amazingly well throughout my separation, one of the things she did struggle with was the fear of upsetting me or her mother. I suspect this was linked to the (of course incorrect) fears she harboured about the role she may have played in the split. To upset either of us again risked losing me as well, or perhaps pushing her mother further away.

That’s not me placing blame on my ex-partner’s shoulder, incidentally. I do worry that I maybe showed too much emotional fragility myself, and that my daughter didn’t want to add to it.

Wherever the truth lays, the lesson to be learnt from this is that children need to understand that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that being honest – even brutally so – will only result in listening and understanding. They will be loved unconditionally, and there’s no better demonstration than this of taking a bit of criticism on the chin.

WHAT CONTACT DO THEY WANT?

Central to this communication is the question of what contact arrangements your child wants. It’s entirely likely that what they want won’t be entirely possible, be that a return to how things were, 50-50 contact or perhaps something like contact every bedtime.

You might be surprised, however, with how sensible the proposed arrangements can be. My daughter always seemed comfortable with contact every other weekend, and while she would of course have liked to have seen her mum more than she did, she quickly adapted to the new routines once they had settled in.

Not all contact is equal, and kids should be comfortable to make suggestions about how it takes place. Do they want the absent parent to visit them in their home? Or would they rather go to said parent’s new home? Or perhaps it’s neither, and they’d rather go out and do something together?

Circumstances will likely dictate what is and isn’t possible in these situations, but acknowledging what a child wants and showing that you’re doing all you can to enable it will still go a long way.

UNDERSTANDING THAT YOU CAN’T FIX IT ALL

Of course there will sadly be lots of scenarios when what a child wants is not possible or not appropriate. It will likely not be possible to see an absent parent if there are legitimate safety concerns, for instance. Although in these situations it still may be possible for contact to take place in some sort of supervised setting. This won’t really be what your child wants, but if the choice is no contact or compromised contact, they will almost certainly choose the latter.

A key thing to remember, however, is that despite the importance of being able to talk to your child about these issues, it’s almost certain that you won’t be able to do it all. It’s very much a case of making the best of a bad situation.

The realities of separation mean that even when cooperative co-parenting is possible, meetings all the demands of your kids will probably not be. None of which reduces the importance of communication and listening.

Knowing what your child wants from this new situation is always a good thing. If you’re able to make it happen safely, then all the better. But even if not, just being able to talk about it all without fear will do your kids a lot of good. It will also mean you’re better able to explain why not everything is possible, and the more they understand the less scary it will be.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

When divorce is right

The importance of compromise when fighting for contact or custody

How to tell a child their parents are separating

Image (cropped) by Randen Pederson under a creative commons licence

The post A child must be heard during divorce or separation appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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I reckon every single one of us has experienced denial at some stage in our lives. I think my first and most brutal lesson in it was the 27 minutes between Ruud van Nistelrooy nodding in Man United’s second goal at St Mary’s and the whistle blowing on the 1-2 defeat that relegated Southampton from the Premier League in 2005.

Denial was probably one of the main things that characterised my relationship with my daughter’s mother. Even as we fell pregnant we both knew that things weren’t really right between us. Indeed, we even separated for a period when our girl was just one, although we were back together after six months.

I was in denial of our problems, in all honesty. Not out of love or heartbreak, do understand, but instead out of absolute terror at the idea of my daughter having to grow up with separated parents. My parents are as solid as a rock and had always been the one thing I could absolutely rely on. I think their love and support had been such a crutch for me throughout my life, that for my daughter to have any less felt like the most tantamount of failings.

And to be fair, we stayed together for another five years after that. Not that it was easy and not that I didn’t experience the worst of times, but it wasn’t all bad. Certainly for my daughter, I think it’s a period she looks back on with fondness. But even right at the end, when behaviour had reached what I could only describe as completely intolerable, I was still fighting to keep the family together, thanks to the combination of fear for what my daughter may lose and denial about the realities that had surrounded me.

Would things have been better had we never got back together the first time? Should we have parted ways before we did? There are no concrete answers to any of these questions. One could argue that my daughter’s current wellbeing (early onset teenager-itus withstanding) and success at school suggests that things turned out pretty well. But that’s not to say they couldn’t have been better.

Telling the difference between being in denial and being rightfully reluctant to give up is almost impossibly difficult. Certainly, though, there are several warning signs that should point toward the former.

  • Promising to change but actually putting more effort into changing your partner’s mind about things is a big red flag, although having the foresight and self-awareness to even realise this is happening is actually tougher then you think.
  • Also be cautious of a partner’s reluctance to engage in any suggestions of things that could help improve the situation, such as counselling or marriage guidance.
  • Postponing telling friends or family about a split, again, does not bode well.
  • Nor does continuing on as normal with your day to day life as if nothing has happened.
  • By the same token, convincing yourself – and perhaps trying to convince your partner – that the troubles are nothing more than a ‘phase’ suggests a mental unwillingness to engage with the issue.
  • Even more worrying is trying to escape the pressures of it all through alcohol, drugs, eating, gambling or spending.
  • Or indeed even actual attempts to sabotage a partner’s efforts to leave the home or file for divorce.

Children, too, may rely on similar mechanisms to avoid confronting the reality of separating parents.

  • Look out for kids hiding the news from their friends, making up excuses for a parental absence, talking about the family as if everything is the same.
  • Also be wary if the begin specifically planning events where both parents will be present.
  • Or deliberately changing the subject whenever it is raised.

(In the latter example, however, I subsequently came to believe that my daughter would at times show an element of disinterest in the subject because she was actually coping with it quite well and didn’t really need the level of emotional management I was trying to offer! Like all of these things, every child will be different.)

A desire to avoid the subject can also manifest in kids not wanting to see the absent parent in their new home setting, and as tempting as it might be for the remaining parent to use this as a potential weapon, do try and resist. The best thing for your children – provided it’s safe for them to do so – is to maintain their relationship with both parents.

There’s no credit to be found in walking away too soon either, of course. If there is genuine love and willing from, crucially, both parties, then there’s every reason to hope. Relationships, commitments and kids are hard work, and it’s folly to expect things to always be smooth. If you’re going to drop anchor and hop overboard every time you face adversity (or indeed see a potentially more appealing ship sailing alongside you), you’re probably going to end up alone.

Like many issues relating to separation, patience remains absolutely vital. You may have to be patient with your partner or ex-partner if they’re not at the same stage of dealing with things as you are. You may have to be patient with your kids as they come to terms with things. And most probably you’ll have to be patient with yourself. Changes as drastic as these cannot be tidied up and dealt with overnight. It’s a process, and often a protracted one.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

When divorce is right

The importance of compromise when fighting for contact or custody

How to tell a child their parents are separating

Image (cropped) by Always Shooting under a creative commons licence

The post Recognising and dealing with denial during separation appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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The road leading to mine and my ex-partner’s separation was a long and very complicated one. I’ve got a list as long as all of your arms of horrible memories associated with it, but if there’s one moment that hurt the most, it was telling my daughter.

She was only seven at the time. I collected her from school, sat her on the sofa and said that mummy wouldn’t be living with us anymore. The thing I remember most starkly is her face contorting. In silence, initially, before the sobbing started. She asked me why. I don’t remember how I replied. I held her, I told her that I was sad too and I explained that she had done nothing wrong. I reassured her that she would see her mum soon and I told her over and over again that she was always going to have me, that she was always going to be the most important person in the world to me and that everything was going to be fine.

It was the end of the world. For about half an hour, at which point her stomach started to rumble and attentions shifted to what we were going to have for dinner. After that, she showed little sign of upset, really, aside from some struggles when her mum would leave having come to visit. I told the school what had happened and they monitored her carefully for a few weeks. Luckily, there was no noticeable change in behaviour. I asked parents of her friends what she had said to them and those she had discussed it with seemed to suggest she’d been quite matter of fact. Which is very much my girl.

It was only years later – perhaps earlier this year, when she would have been 10 – that she eventually told me that she did sometimes lay in bed and wonder if her mum had left because she’d done something wrong. The admission shattered my heart, but she was also quick to point out that everything was OK throughout the whole thing because she had me and she still saw her mum. While I know there will be scarring and I expect whatever is buried deep down to surface in some form at some point, I actually do think she came through it all OK.

If you’re in the same situation, here’s some suggestions to help you figure out how you’re going to break the news. Obviously, this is all age and maturity dependent. A toddler will need fewer details and more simplification than a teenager, obviously, but many of the fundamental ideas remain the same.

SHOULD YOU TELL THEM?

Yes, of course. I was staggered recently to speak to a vague acquaintance who had separated from his long-term partner. They had decided not to tell their three kids. An excuse was conjured up to explain away his prolonged absence. “We’ll deal with it later,” he told me. Which is crazy. Starting this process off with a deception that will later have to be admitted to is madness. You have to be open with your kids, to a point.

The exception to this could be if you’re having a trial separation and there’s a very real possibility that you may get back together, and a willingness on both sides to try. This can be hard to ascertain in the early days and is a tricky call to make, however.

DO IT TOGETHER

If at all possible tell your children what is happening together, as a united front. This was not possible for me as my ex-partner had left when my child was at school, but we both later conceded that it shouldn’t have been done in this way. No matter how acrimonious your split, it’s vital that you continue to present a united parenting front. And breaking the news as a partnership is the first step toward that – and something you’re going to have to force yourselves to become really good at.

IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT

This a point you really can’t hammer home enough. Despite my best efforts, my daughter still wondered if she was in any way to blame for what happened, which just makes me think I should have rammed the point home even more. Of course, it’s possibly sensible to acknowledge that this thought is likely to occur to most kids affected by separation at some stage, regardless of your efforts, and your attentions will be required to address this.

TELL THEM IN THE RIGHT PLACE

Don’t break news as breakfast is being polished off before school or you head out to work. Do it at a time when you’re going to have plenty of time together afterwards, whether that be to console and answer questions or instead to do something fun together. Following the news with a family outing or activity may be gut-wrenchingly tough and emotionally demanding, but there’s likely no better way to handle it. We had booked our first foreign family holiday for just two weeks after we split, and we went. I found it horrific, but we held it together for our girl and I’m sure it was a tremendous help to her. Things had changed, but here we all were, together regardless.

SPARE THE DETAILS

With perhaps the exception of older teenagers, kids do not need to know about infidelity, lies, financial woes or any of the details about why you’re separating. Younger kids, in particular, don’t need to hear the words “we don’t love each other any more” as the realisation that their parents have fallen out of love with each other opens the door to the possibility that they could fall out of love with them.

At the same time, a level of openness is required. “You know how mummy and daddy have been arguing a lot recently? Well we’ve decided that mummy’s going to go and live somewhere else nearby so that doesn’t happen anymore.” That’s probably the kind of level you want to be aiming at.

KIDS WANT TO UNDERSTAND THE LOGISTICS

Younger kids, especially, will struggle to formulate any sort of structured emotional reasoning to contend with the news. Instead, their concerns will be more mechanical. Where will I sleep? Will we have to move? Can I still do ballet? How often will I see mum or dad?

Ideally, you should want to have planned all of this out and be ready to answer all of these questions before you tell them. Really, you want to be able to assure them that the changes will be little, and most importantly specify exactly when they’ll next see the departed parent. None of this was possible for me and it’s maybe the biggest mistake we made.

FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES

Whatever you do, there will be some change, so do the best you can to make it sound as good as possible. A new school is a chance to make new friends, time normally spent with mum can instead be extra cool time with dad. If they’re going to be staying somewhere else every other weekend then they’re getting a whole new second bedroom to decorate! It doesn’t take much to transform the intimidating into the exciting, and you’ve got to sell every bit of it with your soul. Kids should generally be taught that change is exciting and this, despite it all, is a good chance to make that point.

TRY TO LIMIT ROUTINE CHANGES

At the same time, wherever possible, try and limit the day-to-day disruption that your kids will have to undergo. It may be that housing or schooling will have to change for logistical reasons, but if you possibly can, try to make sure their day to day lives are disrupted as little as possible. If schools, clubs, friends and routines stay as they were, coping with whatever has changed will be significantly easier.

DON’T PLAY THE BLAME GAME

One of the worst things you can do is let your anger spill over. Bad-mouthing your ex, or even worse trying to turn your kids against them, is inexcusable. As is asking them to spy. Whatever led to the separation, your ex remains your child’s parent and will hopefully always be a part of their lives. Even though your relationship has ended, theirs has not. Over the course of time your children will most likely discover the details of whatever happened, but it will be up to them to decide how they feel about it. If you make sure you’ve acted with good intentions you should be OK when that time arrives.

KIDS WILL PROBABLY BE FAMILIAR WITH IT ALL ALREADY

The strong likelihood is that your children probably already have friends whose parents have divorced, or perhaps only ever had one parent to begin with. This may all be very alien to you at the moment but the chances are that there aren’t alien concepts to them. They’ll also have these friends to talk to about it all.

KIDS ARE RESILIENT

Never underestimate just how strong kids can be. It’s certainly the case that my daughter coped with everything better than I did. We all want to wrap our children up in cotton wool but the reality is that the young mind is able to cope with disruption and change far better than we are. If you handle things properly your kids will most likely get through this just fine, even though it’s the last thing you ever wanted for them.

KEEP TALKING, AND BE HONEST

Telling your kids that you are separating isn’t the end of the story. You have to keep talking, and encourage them to do the same. You want them to feel comfortable enough to tell you if they’re sad or worried, and that is possibly helped by opening up a bit yourself too. While you must ensure they remain convinced that everything is and will be OK, showing them that you’re hurting a little as well will give them something to relate to. You don’t want sadness to be demonised. Also, you don’t want your kids to feel that they have to put on a brave face to protect your feelings. Being upset must be OK for them, including when it happens in front of you. At the same time, don’t force the subject on them unnecessarily. If they’re not worrying about it, don’t give them reason to.

SMOTHER THEM WITH LOVE

I still believe that the most fundamentally important thing throughout this whole process was making sure my daughter knew just how much she was loved. If there was one thing I succeeded in, it was making sure my girl truly knew how much I loved her and completely believed that I would always be there for her, and that no-one or nothing else would ever be more important to me. That really is the thing that underpinned everything else.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

When divorce is right

The importance of compromise when fighting for contact or custody

Image (cropped) by Guian Bolisay under a creative commons licence

The post How To Tell A Child Their Parents Are Separating appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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If you’re heading into a child custody dispute, then do remember this – you’re almost certainly not going to get everything you ask for.

A separation is very rarely anything other than acrimonious. Furthermore, that ill-feeling is often built on a foundation of prolonged, accumulating and escalating anger and resentment, none of which is the best starting point for what ideally should be a cooperative and compassionate process.

This means that in many cases, the parties will be going to court fuelled by anger and with a set of demands and requirements that, in their mind, is totally non-negotiable. The reality however is that far more of your time in court will be spent with your solicitor or barrister trying to broker an agreement outside of the courtroom than will be spent in front of the judge or magistrates. You’ll save yourself considerable cost and stress if you enter into proceedings with a clear understanding of what is actually most important to you, and what you might be willing to bend on to get things settled.

To give a personal example: I went into court with the resolute belief that as the primary parent I was entitled to have my daughter every Christmas. The first problem here is that what I am or am not entitled to is entirely beside the point – the court hearing was about what was best for my daughter. Whether it is in my daughter’s best interests to spend every Christmas with me or have them split between myself and her mother is a valid debate (and possibly one where I still believe the former is true), but the fact is that wasn’t how I was approaching the debate to begin with. And that was wrong.

It was made clear to me on the day that this was a fight I was almost certainly guaranteed to lose. Even in cases where one parent sees very little of their child, they will still more likely than not be granted the right to spend every other Christmas with them, my barrister informed me. Theoretically I could fight the point and theoretically I could win, she said, but was that really where I wanted to devote my energies? And was that a point I wanted to appear uncompromising on? Of course it wasn’t.

What I had to do, really, was identify the core of what it was I was fighting for. The central reason why you are fighting for custody or contact should always be at the forefront of your mind and form the basis of what you want to achieve from the agreement. If your motivation is simply getting at your ex then you’re wasting your time and you’re hurting your child. Figure out what is right for your kids and focus on the primary outcomes that will achieve this.

For instance, it may be that your ex-partner is a heavy drinker or uses drugs. Or that they have a track record of inappropriate behaviour or cannot be trusted to provide proper care. Or it might simply be that you’re not getting the contact that you are legally entitled to and that your child has the right to enjoy. Alternatively, there may be concerns about the behaviour of your ex’s new partner, or about their housing situation.

In any of these situations, you need to identify what it is that you believe will address the problem. So, running again through the examples above, the desired outcomes could be: contact with your ex needs to be supervised; the confirmation of your visiting or contact rights; drug checks or a legal undertaking to not drink when your child is present; guarantees about privacy for your child at night.

Remember that the court will by law always look to find a way for a child to have contact with both parents. Christmases and school holidays will nearly always be shared equally and, when it comes down to it, you’re likely going to have to accept some things that you’d rather not. Feelings of personal betrayal will often lead to general unease about an ex-partner’s trustworthiness and probably an overarching belief that you can’t ever really fully rely on them to do their best by your children. But the reality is that you’re going to have to. That person is your child’s parent too, and as much as you may not always approve of their conduct and question their judgement, as long as you can guarantee your child’s safety when they’re in their care, you’re just going to have to live with it.

All of this and more are part of why an agreement out of the courts is always preferable. Not only does it save on time, cost and stress, but it also allows the both of you to agree on conditions that are not decided upon by a remote third party – that being a judge or magistrates.

And no matter how acrimonious your split may have been, a custody or contact agreement should nearly always be possible as long as you’re both prepared to be reasonable and to compromise. Yes, you might have to give up more school holiday time than you’d like and yes, you may hate the idea of your child spending noisy nights in poor housing. But if that means you get something crucial in return – be that, for example, testing for substance abuse, kids only spending the nights there at weekends and not on school nights or a legally binding behaviour agreement – then it is probably worth it.

A compromise by its nature means you’re not going to get everything you want, but it’s our ability to compromise that keeps humans from a permanent state of war and conflict! The capacity to look at the bigger picture and sacrifice some of your smaller wishes in order to secure what fundamentally is most important to your child’s wellbeing will put you in a great position to get through a custody battle and gives your kid the best chance of coming through the whole thing unscathed.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

When divorce is right

Image (cropped) by Greg Knapp under a creative commons licence

The post The Importance of Compromise When Fighting for Contact or Custody appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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Overall I think that since I separated from my ex-partner I have made the right decisions and, broadly speaking, parented my daughter correctly. However, one thing I do think I got wrong was how long I fought to maintain the relationship beforehand.

I hold my hands up and admit that I was absolutely horrified by the thought of my daughter having to experience a parental break-up. Part of this, I think, is due to my own childhood. My parents are as solid as a rock and I have always been able to rely on them 100%. Their love and support has formed the absolute backbone of my life and my achievements. I can’t even imagine what life would be like without that foundation.

There are some scary statistics out there about the possible impact of parental separation on children, too. A 2014 report from Resolution  – which, please do note, is an organisation that is “committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes” – said in 2014 that 65% of children felt that their GCSE results had been affected by the separation of their parents. For A-level students the number was 44%.

Even worse was the claim that 33% of kids felt one parent was trying to turn them against another, and 25% felt unwillingly dragged into parental disputes. Which is all just too dreadful for words.

It was for these reasons that no matter how unhappy I was and how bad the behaviour of certain parties was getting, for me, separation was just not an option. I was not going to walk out on my daughter, so the question became how much I would be willing to endure to stay with her. The answer, it transpires, was a lot. Too much, really.

It’s impossible to gauge the exact impact our split had on my daughter. Certainly she was horrified when I told her mum had left. A horror, it should be noted, that lasted around 30 minutes before the tears dried up and the pressing matter of what was for dinner became Priority No.1. Kids are amazing!

In fact, I was absolutely inspired by how she coped with everything. She certainly coped far, far better than I did! Obviously I researched the issue and learned that problems, if there were any, would most likely manifest at school. I spoke to her head mistress, who was brilliant, and luckily none of the expected warning signals (distraction, behavioural changes, dip in work quality) materialised. In fact, in the time that has followed her academic performance has significantly improved and she’s as happy now as I have ever seen her.

There were some observable changes, of course. My daughter became very clingy with me. Whereas historically she could be happily dropped off at her grandparents without barely a backwards glance, the moment of my leaving turned into a very distressing affair. She also struggled to cope if away from home for more than a night or two, and outings that previously she’d be fine to go on with friends and family were suddenly only acceptable if I accompanied her.

Interestingly, while we discussed the subject a lot at the time and every now and then in the years that have followed, she’s only ever confessed one thing to me that has broken my heart – that she sometimes wondered if she’d done something wrong that made her mum leave. The thought that my little girl would ponder this alone in the quiet of night is the most gut-wrenching thing in the world, but I always knew no matter how hard I tried some sort of impact was inevitable. However, it’s also likely that the troubled relationship of her parents was impacting on her before our separation.

There is lots and lots of research on the subject so it’s impossible to give any definitive answers about how kids are affected by divorce. An older report from The Joseph Rowntree Foundation  found that “although short-term distress at the time of separation is common, this usually fades with time and long-term adverse outcomes typically apply only to a minority of children experiencing the separation of their parents”.

It did find, however, that “these children have roughly twice the probability of experiencing specific poor outcomes in the long term compared with those in intact families” and that “support may be needed and intervention required at any stage to reduce possible detrimental effects on children”.

The poor outcomes in question include worsening school results, behavioural problems, leaving school early, becoming sexually active earlier, substance abuse and a propensity for depression. Also of significance is the fact that children in these situations are more likely to experience dire financial situations and poor housing.

This latter fact is crucial – it’s easy to assume that the act of experiencing separation itself is damaging, but in reality this is a problem that can be addressed with proper parenting. Financial hardship is less easy to overcome and the effects potentially far more devastating. In other words, the real danger is the consequences of divorce as opposed to divorce itself.

The good news is that poor outcomes are in no way inevitable and the best ways to support a child through divorce are pretty much in line with established good parenting practice. Making your child feel loved and letting them know they’re not to blame is crucial, as is the ability to maintain a relationship with the separated parent and letting them see the two of you interacting normally together.

It is, however, impossible to answer the core question of when it is right to divorce. It goes without saying that it is definitely in a child’s best interests for parents to work together to improve a struggling relationship. Making a judgement about how far this goes is incredibly difficult, and these efforts can only endure for as long as both parties remain committed. Having been in a situation where one parent has already given up and the other is still fighting, I can tell you first-hand how damaging that situation is.

There is the potential for separation and divorce to harm your children. But then, there is potential for all manner of things to harm your children. I an not sure I have ever really recovered from the death of Optimus Prime in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie! Kids can make it through separation largely unscathed providing they have the love, support and parenting that they deserve. Never drag them into the battle, never try and force them to take sides and as divided as you may be behind the scenes, always present them with a united front. A family that is staying together only for the sake of the kids is rarely going to be a happy one. Divorce should never be taken lightly, but nor should the potentially damaging effects of a fundamentally unhappy home.

Image by Victoria Dixon under a creative commons licence

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Preparing for life as a separated parent

The post When Divorce is right appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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There are hundreds of different reasons why couples end up separating and one person is left looking after the kids alone. But regardless of what road you took to reach this point, there are lots of people who know exactly how it feels when you get there.

Your life has suddenly changed. Not only do you have to singlehandedly ensure your children survive every day and do the things they need to do, but you have to accomplish this against a backdrop of tremendous emotional upheaval, and probably a colossal amount of guilt and anxiety.

Certainly for me, it hit me quite literally the moment my ex-partner walked out of the door. The unmanageable level of upset very quickly gave way to a quite pragmatic mania where I mentally itemised what I needed to do in the hours ahead to keep everything ticking over. I had three hours before I had to go and collect my girl from school. Then I had to tell her that mum wasn’t coming home (which, incidentally, was the single worst moment of my life – her face and sobs will be etched into my soul until the day I die). After that? Dinner. Bath. Bed. Tomorrow? Breakfast. And getting to school. Was her uniform ready? No. Get some uniform washed. Oh, and ironed. Urgh. How much food was in the fridge? Write a shopping list. Did she have ballet that weekend? Wash her ballet uniform. And figure out when she was next going to see mum.

The all-consuming nature of this new routine was actually a big help to me, as it limited the time I had to dwell on things. It also gave me not just a sense of purpose, but a sense of accomplishment. Yay, the girl didn’t succumb to a dreadful disease or die in a fire today! She had clean clothes! I made her laugh when she was in the bath! There were no tears from her today. The little things, but of the biggest possible importance.

Once those first tricky few weeks had passed I had just enough self-awareness to realise that while I was rightfully putting all of my energies into my daughter, I was putting none into me. And it was telling. Every moment I wasn’t absorbed in being dad I was hiding away in Netflix (Battlestar Galactica, as it happens). My iPad would go with me everywhere – the bath, the loo, when I was cooking, in bed. Any time I wasn’t actively engaged in parenting I was staring at the screen, the distraction protecting me from the horror in my head I was desperate to avoid.

Slowly but surely I began to realise that taking back control of my personal life and stamping my own mark on the day-to-day workings of my life was actually pretty satisfying. I don’t have to watch the soaps anymore! Yes, I will do the washing up once dinner is finished and not leave it until we’re out of plates. No, I shall not wash whites separately. Let’s be rid of that pre-set for Absolute Radio. And cancel the I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of here series link. I’m finally going to buy a white board and put it up in the kitchen so I can make notes of what we need from the shopping as I go along. And yes, I know I watched that episode of Star Trek just last week but I’m going to watch it again tonight anyway because no-one can stop me.

A real moment of personal triumph came that December. I was raised with an artificial Xmas tree. Unboxing, assembling and decorating it was one of my favourite things in the world. My ex had insisted on having a real tree because that’s what she was bought up with. I took great pleasure in assembling our new artificial tree that year, and have done every year since.

This is of course all very personal but if you’re finding yourself in this situation (as in, suddenly becoming a lone parent – not debating Christmas tree options) I would hope you can relate. The point of this all is that the whole situation got better once I started taking care of myself. A burnt out and exhausted parent is not a great parent. Yes, you want to give everything you have to your kids, but you can’t do that properly if you’re falling apart.

Ultimately you’re preparing yourself for an emotionally draining marathon, but it’s a race you can definitely finish as long as you get the preparation right. Here’s a few tips to help you along:

  1. Ask for help

There are lots of people who do single parenting alone and there is nothing I respect more. It’s the toughest job in the world. But if you have people to ask for help then please do so. Family and friends who care about you will be desperate to do what they can, and even the slightest easing of the pressure will make all the difference.

  1. Take Breaks

The 24/7 nature of parenting, especially when your kids are young, is about as gruelling as it gets. Hopefully your child is spending some time with your ex-partner, but if not, see if you can have her spend the odd weekend with grandparents, and perhaps visit a friend’s house after school every now and then. That extra breathing space and time for yourself can be the difference between sanity and the loss of it.

  1. Get Your Kids Comfortable With Separation

One problem that quickly raised itself in the months and even years that followed my ex-partner’s departure was my daughter’s growingly evident discomfort with being away from me. I can only presume that this stemmed from coping with the loss of one of her parents. Whereas previously she would barely give me a second glance when deposited with grandparents, these moments quickly became highly fraught affairs full of tears and sobbing. But I knew the only way to combat it was plenty of reassurance coupled with conditioning. I did leave her, and I did come back. And I kept coming back. Over time this seemed to help and while even now there’s still a sometimes a level of unease whenever she has to say bye to me, I think we’re nearly there.

  1. Hobbies

Be interested in something that isn’t being a mum or dad. Whether it’s football or jogging or poetry or playing the harp or knitting or cheese rolling (or, in my case, video games, Doctor Who and Transformers because who on earth wants to grow up?), a hobby gives you a vital outlet for your energies and concentrations. A good hobby may also envelop you in a community of likeminded people, and surrounding yourself with people can be a very important coping mechanism.

  1. Talk to People

The impulse can be to lock yourself away during tough times but being able to talk to people about how you feel is tremendously important. Often it’s family or friends who can offer this support, but don’t shy away from online socialising either. While there’s perhaps no substitute for a shared bottle of wine or game of FIFA with pals, there’s certainly great worth in getting involved in online communities. The internet is amazing tool to let you connect with other people who share your interests or your struggles. Search them out and introduce yourself.

  1. Don’t Shy Away From Professional Help

It is perfectly valid to go to your GP and admit that you’re not coping. There are lots of support services in place for people in your position, and your GP is an excellent first point of call. Counselling can be a real-life changer for some people. Bottling everything up forever will do you no good at all.

  1. Remember Things Will Get Better

The early days of a relationship breakdown can very genuinely feel like the end of the world. But as impossible to believe as it sometimes be, things will get better. Time is the best healer. Look after yourself and don’t hide away and you might be surprised just how quickly things start to look brighter.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During a Custody Battle 

Image (cropped) by Les Chatfield under a creative commons licence

The post Preparing for life as a separated parent appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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Anyone who has been through a custody case will tell you that the notion that people will always speak only the truth is sadly not always the case.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that people will tell outright lies – although yes, of course, that definitely happens. But stretching the truth can come in the form of withholding information, illegitimately denying knowledge or not volunteering information for the fear it may harm a case.

The undoing of much of this, however, comes in the form of social media. The consequence of living in an age where so many people choose to document every moment of their lives is that there’s a record. And not just of what people do, either – what they spend money on, what they think, where they go, how they feel. Prolific users can share their every move and every thought. This can often leave anyone who is being less than truthful in court in a tricky position.

Text messages, tweets and status updates are used in courts across the world every single day now. Just recently the BBC reported that  a court in Taiwan granted a woman the divorce she was seeking after the blue ticks featured in Asian messaging app Line were accepted as evidence that her husband had been receiving and not responding to her messages. Indeed, one ‘blue ticking’ incident occurred after the wife had been injured and admitted to hospital. The husband did not then enquire about her condition.

This was ultimately sufficient proof, the court ruled, that their marriage was broken beyond repair.

One of the first pieces of advice I got from my lawyer was to record everything. Text messages, WhatsApp chats, written records of phone conversations – everything. Every swear word and rude name spat out in anger and every threat was, despite being hugely unpleasant, a vital record of behaviour and character.

It was also an excellent double check for me, as knowing I was likely being documented in the same detail is added motivation to make sure I was acting in my child’s best interests.

Anyone who has had any legal advice should have the common sense to at least keep their direct interactions with the ex-partner calm and considered, but often this same advice will not be heeded on social media. At times where emotions are running high, it’s all too easy to vent that online. Even perfectly calm posts about the general day-to-day can reveal revealing details that could be detrimental to your case.

For instance, posts about luxuries or expenditure will not help a person who is trying to increase payments received due to alleged hardship, or indeed someone who is trying to avoid making payments. Pictures of nights out on the town and drunken shenanigans may also cast doubts on a character, especially if they occur at a time when a child is in their care.

More commonly, threats of reprimands or revenge will bring into question the motivations of someone arguing that they’re acting in a child’s best interests. Even something as innocuous as saying you’re too tired to cook and are buying a take-out could be presented as evidence of neglect, as could pictures of you smoking or drinking, even if you’re without your kids. Similarly, talk of dating could be used in arguments about you exposing your kids to strangers or persons of uncertain suitability.

It should go without saying that confessing to anything illegal online is the absolute strongest of no-nos. You might want to think twice about retweeting that extremist political group, calling for the legalisation of drugs or persecuting a female celebrity for her choice of dress. Your social media paints a picture of you, and it’s very hard for a bad person over time to present anything other than a bad picture. Don’t put much stock in your privacy settings, either. Even a Facebook profile with strict settings or a locked Twitter account might be viewed by a long-forgotten friend who could share that information with your ex.

Posts about the legal process itself, and especially the conduct of the court, are equally as dangerous. Just don’t do it. Your friends and followers will likely still survive to see another day even if they miss out on a few details about your every conscious thought.

If you do post something angrily online, think twice about deleting it, too. In some circumstances this can be interpreted as the deliberate destruction of evidence, so if there’s any chance your message has already been seen, you’re possibly best off letting it live and dealing with the consequences.

Records of conversations that aren’t heated or unpleasant can potentially be of benefit, too. For instance, if your ex-partner argues in court that certain recommendations are not feasible because you cannot talk calmly and work together, then this argument is weakened if there is documented evidence of exactly that.

None of this should be interpreted as a reason to stay off social media altogether, although of course ultimately that is the safest approach. No number of likes or retweets are worth jeopardising your time with your kids.

Some lawyers will advise social media abstinence, but really as long as you don’t act in the heat of the moment and take the necessary time to think thoughts through before sharing them online, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to keep using social media. Indeed, a long history of good social media use that reflects well on your character may actually be of benefit, although perhaps do get some second opinions on whether you’re coming across in the way in which you believe.

This article is by Ben Parfitt, a former client of BLB Solicitors. He writes from personal experience. For legal advice on all issues to do with divorce or separation, please contact the family team at BLB Solicitors.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women

Image (cropped) by r.g-s under a creative commons licence

The post Be Mindful Of Your Use of Social Media During A Custody Battle appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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I will quite readily admit that throughout my period as a single dad, I wore the badge with pride.

When my ex-partner left the family home I was determined that my daughter would in no way go without anything she was already accustomed to. While I’d always done a lot around the house I was suddenly in the position of having to do it all, and I quickly drew up a mental roster of everything I’d need to do to keep the ball rolling – cleaning, laundry, school uniform ironing, packed lunches, sewing ballet shoes, shopping. There was no way I wasn’t going to handle it all, and I did. Although it left me exhausted!

I also quickly became used to the look I’d get when people learned I was a single dad. A slightly raised eyebrow, perhaps a small smile. Certainly while being a single mum is considered to be entirely ‘normal’, single dads are a rarer breed. ONS data from 2012 shows that of the UK’s 400,000 single parent families, only 13.5% of these (54,000) are single dads. A BBC report suggested that in 2011 men accounted for just 8% of the UK’s single parents. My wife has confessed that when she first learned I was a single dad she automatically presumed that mum had died!

And when you are a single dad, there are plenty of times you face being a little marginalised. Whether it’s the ballet teacher talking about asking the “mums” for help at the summer show, school newsletters mentioning “mums” in the playground or Brownies asking “mums” for help sewing, barely a day passed when my apparent abnormality was not thrust upon me.

Luckily I wasn’t especially offended by any of it. I’m a contrarian by nature so took no small satisfaction in proving that I could be every bit the mum my daughter needed. I get the impression my daughter quite enjoyed it, too.

The one time such stereotypes were arguably harmful, however, was during my custody case.

My case was not heard by a judge but instead by three magistrates. Three elderly female magistrates. The decision we got on the day basically dismissed all of my concerns and gave my ex-partner all of the contact she had requested, with none of the safeguards I had argued for. My barrister was fuming, and voiced her belief that the magistrates had found in favour of mum because of her gender very loudly down the phone when the trio passed her on the way to the Tube after the trial.

I’ll never know whether my gender factored against me in court. Nor will I know if a judge very speedily granted me an appeal because they believed that might have been the case. It’s hard not to suspect, however.

The law itself does not include any legal bias toward the mother over the father. By law, custody decisions are made purely based on what is best for the child. But any legal process is conducted by people, and people are biased – even sometimes those who professionally obliged not to be so.

It’s worth noting, however, that any potential bias toward the mother is in many cases perfectly justified. In traditional family units it is, whether you like it or not, often the mother who spends more time with the child and who does more of the parenting. This will be a particular norm among older members of the judiciary, of course.

But in these modern times it’s no longer reasonable to assume this is always the case. Certainly, both myself and my ex-partner worked, and I was the one who did the nursery drop offs. I was also the one who stayed at home when my ex-partner went out with work friends. I wholeheartedly believe that it’s absolutely true that in my case, I was the primary parent, and had been since the end of maternity leave. Communicating that to the court, where time is precious and the chance to talk is limited, is not easy – especially when the other side is presenting a different picture.

There are certainly plenty of people out there who very firmly believe that gender bias is a very real thing in UK courts. Pressure group Separated Dads states simply that: “The important fact to remember is that, in the majority of cases, the father will not be granted custody of the child by the courts. Individuals and groups have complained about this bias of the courts for several years, but it’s simply a fact that unless the circumstances are exceptional, the child or children will stay with their mother under a residence order.”

More famously, Fathers 4 Justice was founded on the experience of Matt O’Connor who was denied access to his two sons leaving him, in his words “shocked by the cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of dads in Britain’s secret courts”.

There is contrasting evidence, however. A 2015 study by the University of Warwick concluded that family courts do not discriminate against the father.

“Whilst it’s true that mothers were usually the primary care giver in contact applications, this was simply a reflection of the social reality that women are more likely to take on the role after a relationship breakdown,” author Dr Maebh Harding said.

“But there was actually no indication of any bias towards mothers over fathers by the courts; in fact we established there was a similar success rate for mothers and fathers applying for orders to have their children live with them.

“And although the overall number of residence orders made for mothers was higher than those made for fathers, this was because a large number of such orders were made for mothers as respondents in cases where the father sought contact.

“Transfers of sole residence were rare as the courts sought to preserve the status quo and where they were ordered they were disproportionately likely to be transfers from mum to dad and to feature welfare concerns and children’s services involvement.”

Indeed, in 2014 the Government pressed through The Children and Families Act 2014, Section 11 which enshrined in law the desire for “parental involvement”, which ordered courts “to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare”. In other words, parental contact should not be blocked unless absolutely necessary.

Specifically, Section 11 required that courts regarded the presumption of shared parental involvement when considering an unmarried father’s application for parental responsibility. Note however that these provisions are primarily designed to ensure that dads retain access in situations where mum has custody.

In conclusion: Legally speaking there is no institutional bias toward either gender. However, sociological norms mean that it is or has been more common for mothers to do the majority of the parenting, and the result of this is that there is a presumption that mum will get custody. If you’re a dad and in a situation where your claim for custody is a rightful one, there’s no legal reason why that shouldn’t be the case. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests things may not quite be as straightforward as they should be.

This article is by Ben Parfitt, a former client of BLB Solicitors. He writes from personal experience. For legal advice on all issues to do with divorce or separation, please contact the family team at BLB Solicitors.

You may also be interested in the following articles by Ben Parfitt:

Fighting for Custody: My story

Fighting for custody and your child’s best interests

What to expect when your custody case goes to court

9 Tips on Introducing a New Partner to your Child

Image (cropped) by Ruth Hartnup under a creative commons licence

The post Are the Family Courts Really Biased Towards Women? appeared first on BLB Family Law.

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