Bringing up children is one of the toughest challenges anyone can face. Throw a divorce or separation into the mix, and it all becomes much more difficult, especially for the children.
In Scotland today, around one third of children lose contact with one of their parents following divorce or separation. Most commonly they lose touch with their dad, but in some cases with their mum. As a result, many thousands of children spend their childhoods and beyond without a relationship with one of the most important people in their lives.
In the majority of cases, there are no fundamental reasons why this should happen. Most parents are not a danger to either their children or ex-partners, and so it seems quite tragic for them and their children that they should spend their lives without knowing one another. Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states, “Children whose parents have separated have the right to stay in contact with both parents unless this could cause them harm”.
Research highlights the benefits of children staying in touch with both parents. Growing Up in Scotland’s (GUS, 2017) longitudinal study, which looked at 2,593 families with a child aged 10 years old, found that father-child relationships were as important to the wellbeing of children as mother-child relationships. Additionally, eight out of 10 children said that their fathers played a supportive role in their lives. Positive relationships with both mothers and fathers were indicative of better social and emotional wellbeing, higher life satisfaction and a better experience of school.
Family mediation and child contact centres are services that support families through separation and divorce and help children stay in touch with both parents.
Family mediation helps separating parents agree plans for the future care of their children, such as where they will live and how often they will see the other parent. Mediation can help avoid the need for court, with separating parents who make their own arrangements often happier about the outcome than those who go through the court process.
Child contact centres have operated in Scotland for over 30 years and provide safe and secure environments where children can spend time with the non resident parent. Around 2,000 children each year keep in contact with their non-resident parent through Relationships Scotland’s 46 child contact centres.
In the past year, 69% of clients who completed evaluation forms said that the child contact centre had helped improve their family situation and 99% of clients said they would recommend the service to others. One mum who brought her children to a contact centre summed up her experience this way: “Understanding what my children were feeling helped me realise how important it was not to stop their dad from seeing them.”
Of course, there are times when contact after separation is not appropriate, such as where there has domestic abuse, or neglect or abuse involving the children. Where abuse has been reported, the courts are often tasked with deciding whether to allow contact.
The introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 is a very important milestone on the understanding of abuse in Scotland. While recognising that abuse can be perpetrated by either gender, the vast majority of domestic abuse is against women, and women and children must be kept safe following separation and divorce.
Wherever such concerns exist, Relationships Scotland would like to see the introduction of Domestic Abuse Child Safety Reports (specialist risk assessments) undertaken prior to courts making an order for contact. This would help ensure that contact is only granted when it is safe and appropriate.
The Family Justice Modernisation Strategy and the review of Part 1 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, both currently being progressed by the Scottish Government, offer opportunities to do things better. As well as new risk assessments, Relationships Scotland supports the greater use of family mediation and other forms of dispute resolution to empower parents to make their own decisions and avoid the need to go to court.
For Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up, children must be protected from harm. And should also be supported to have positive relationships with both of their parents whenever it is safe and possible to do so.
Being a parent is one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding experiences anyone can have. In most cases this shouldn’t end after divorce or separation. If we as a country can help navigate a path through these many difficult challenges, our children will thank us in the years to come.
Info-Line on 0345 119 2020
Relationships Scotland’s network provide relationship counselling, family mediation, child contact centres and other family support services across all of mainland and island Scotland. Its work supports individuals, couples and families experiencing relationship difficulties.
Other articles published in our December 2018 newsletter