Peace process in disorder

July 1, 2009

Judges’ powers are rarely being used to help prevent marital conflict causing damage to children

Few parents have attended a court-ordered programme to help reduce the harm their children suffer from family splits – more than six months after judges were given the power to make them take part.

Since December, judges have been able to order separated parents embroiled in court battles over their children to go to parent information programmes. These classes, which teach parents the long-term effects of their warfare on their children and give them tips on how to avoid conflict with their ex-partner, have proved highly successful in other countries, including the US, Canada and Australia.

In a pilot programme in Australia, 88% of parents said they found it useful, reporting that they learned communication techniques and dispute resolution skills, and gained greater understanding of their children’s experiences.

The reform in England and Wales was backed by fathers’ groups. A poll last week by charity Families Need Fathers found that nearly 95% of its members felt they were not adequately supported by the family courts and the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) in staying involved with their children after separation.

Judges’ slowness to embrace the new tool is causing huge frustration to the 55 agencies – many of them charities such as Relate, Family Action, and the National Youth Advocacy Service – that have contracted with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to provide the programmes and have trained their staff to deliver them. The dearth of cases poses a threat to their funding because they budgeted to be paid for hundreds of referrals .

Salli Ward, chief executive of Pro Contact, one of five providers in Greater Manchester, says they have had only two referrals, both so recent that nobody has yet taken the course. “The parenting programme is relevant to 90% of parents in court proceedings, so we should be getting swarms of them coming,” she says.

The four-hour course, which parents attend separately, helps them to understand that conflict can harm their children, and that putting them in front of the TV while they argue is not enough. Ward says: “What they don’t realise is how easy it is to damage children through just very subtle displays of conflict. You don’t need to be scrapping in front of them.”

A survey of providers by Cafcass, which is responsible for the programme, has revealed only 23 referrals to date, and 11 of those were in Bournemouth, where Relate is actively promoting the programme.

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