Taking a longer view of contact

Taking a longer view of contact: The perspectives of young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth.

Professor Jane Fortin, Emeritus Professor (Law), University of Sussex

Most children will find their parents’ separation extremely stressful and some undoubtedly experience long-term adverse outcomes.  An important way of protecting children from this kind of harm is for parents to ensure that they have a positive relationship with each of them in future. Traditionally, one parent (typically the mother) will be the primary carer, and the other (usually the father) will become the contact parent. When our research study was first conceived, there was a considerable policy debate over whether the then Labour government should introduce legislation encouraging greater contact for the non-resident parent – perhaps up to 50%.  That move was resisted. But surprisingly little was then known at that stage about the actual impact of contact arrangements on children’s relationships with their non-resident parents.  And more to the point, very little was known about what actually made contact work or not work for children. This was a significant research gap that we thought our research could fill.

After we started our study, controversy over possible reforming legislation gained pace. Just before we published our study, in November 2012, the government declared its intention to amend the Children Act 1989 by introducing a clause in the Children and Families Bill  designed to promote Non-Resident Parent’s greater involvement in children’s lives through much more generous contact arrangements. At present, section 1 of the Children Act directs the courts when dealing with parental disputes over children to make an order on the basis that the paramount consideration is the child’s best interests – the so-called ‘paramountcy principle’.  When the Children and Families Bill is implemented, there will be a new sub-section telling the courts, when considering applications relating to children, that they are under a duty ‘as respects each parent …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.’ (S 1(2A))

The underlying message of this innocent looking clause is that far more contact means better contact – that when parents share their children’s time between them more equally, their children will inevitably benefit. But this new legislative presumption undermines the existing paramountcy principle because it directs the courts how to deal with each case using a presumption – a presumption based on ideological guess-work, certainly not one which is evidence based and not one supported by our findings.

We were pleased that our research was referred to with approval by the Justice Select Committee who opposed the new clause and in the debates surrounding the 2nd reading of the Children and Families Bill.  Our research findings suggest that each child is different and needs a different judicial approach and that therefore the courts should continue to operate on the basis that each contact order must be tailor made to suit each child who is the subject of court proceedings. Clearly very generous contact arrangements, perhaps amounting to shared parenting arrangements up to 50/50 for example, will undoubtedly benefit some children, but they will be of dubious merit for others and may well be very damaging for others.

Our research was funded by The Nuffield Foundation and aimed to find out more about how contact arrangements actually work in practice. The study produced independent empirical evidence on how a relatively large representative study of young adults aged 18-35, whose parents separated when they were under 16 viewed the contact they’d had and what they now believe made the contact experience a more or less successful one.

To find out more about the study, it’s findings and the implications for policy and practice you can listen to Professor Jane Fortin talking at a CIRCY seminar held at the University of Sussex in April 2013 followed by questions and discussions with researchers and practitioners in the audience.  Click here to watch and listen to the recording, or if this blog has enticed you to read more about the study, you can download a copy of the report summary or a copy of the full 379 page report!






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