Opposition to shared parenting comes from many quarters. Hostile academics congregate in certain university departments, such as Warwick and Exeter. Probably the highest proportion of anti-father academics is found in the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy or OXFLAP, run by John Eekelaar and Mavis Maclean (best known for scuttling the Early Intervention (EI) project which would have taken many family disputes out of the courts). Its luminaries include notorious zealots against equal parenting such as Julia Brophy, Joan Hunt and Ceridwen Roberts.
One of its youngest members is Dr Robert George who popularises the Centre’s politics in his internet blog and in radio interviews. Dr George recently expressed himself willing to engage in debate with Fathers4Justice, but locked the thread after a few hostile comments, and without adding his own response. This post seeks to reignite that debate.
Populist exposure is a risky strategy, which is probably why George, and not a more senior member of the team, is being exploited in this way. Some of George’s more ill-considered statements reveal the vacuum at the heart of the OXFLAP ideology.
Consider, for example, this provocative paragraph in an article timed to coincide with Father’s Day,
Either parent can be dangerous to a child or the other parent, but more often it’s men. Levels of domestic violence are very high in family court cases – a Ministry of Justice study by Aris and Harrison in 2007 (not currently on the MoJ website) found there to be allegations of DV in 94% of family court cases, and independent evidence to support those allegations in about 70% of cases (George, 2012b).
First of all, let us briefly make clear that it is not more often men who are dangerous to children, it is women, as numerous studies show (Cawson, Wattam, Brooker, & Kelly, 2000) (Cawson, 2002). It is George’s careless use of statistics, however, and the following school-boy howler which will do most damage to his academic reputation.
The Aris and Harrison study to which he refers, now removed from the MoJ website, sought to examine the effectiveness of the newly introduced C1A, a supplemental court form which allows parents to voice welfare concerns in an application, such as instances of domestic violence or abuse or fears of abduction.
The study sought responses from parents themselves but the response rate was apparently so poor that this data was not included in the final report, which relied instead on the views of lawyers and social workers.
The authors – two Warwick University academics – looked at a small sample of 146 forms and found that in 93.8% of these parents had made allegations of DV – hence George’s figure (Aris & Harrison, 2007). Given that this was the purpose of the form the figure is hardly revelatory. The C1A form is not used in all cases, however, and the study looked at 297 applications overall, so George’s figure should have been 46%. Even this is high, because in some cases both parents would have submitted forms. Aris and Harrison note that the majority (58%) of these applications were for residence, not contact, which further undermines George’s case.
The C1A form has been widely condemned for encouraging the making of false allegations; its use is potentially inflammatory and likely to reduce the chance of reaching agreement without going to a full-blown hearing. In 2011 it was redesigned to remove the requirement for supportive evidence of allegations.
The “independent evidence” to which George refers took the form of reports from the police, CAFCASS and social services and non-molestation orders. Such material does not, however, actually represent hard evidence, and tends to be the consequence of allegations; a non-molestation order is issued to prevent behaviour which need not already have happened; they are easily obtained and substantially misused. Aris and Harrison even used the same questionable “evidence” to claim that there was serious DV in 29% of the cases in which a C1A form was not submitted. In only one of the 297 cases studied had there been a finding of fact hearing to determine the veracity of the allegations.
Dr George went on to say,
It is true… that about one in three children lose contact with one of their parents after parental separation. But this number must not be equated with the number of cases where mothers deliberately push dads out, as the Minister seemed to imply. That’s simply not the case at all. The majority of those children lose contact because their dads choose not to see them.
Estimates for the number of children losing contact with a parent following family breakdown range from 15% to 28% (Blackwell & Dawes, 2003), up to 40% within two years (Bradshaw & Millar, 1991), to as high as 60% overall (Butler-Sloss, 2003). F4J estimate that 1,000 children a week lose all or significant contact with a parent.
The claim that this tsunami of fatherlessness is the result of paternal irresponsibility is not substantiated at all and needs to be challenged. This is the sort of thing, similar to David Cameron’s Father’s Day comments a year earlier, which causes enormous anger amongst those fathers who are unable to see their children.
There isn’t a shred of evidence to uphold Dr George’s opinion; studies of non-resident fathers are rare, one study concluded,
But a much more pervasive picture that emerges from this research is that of men struggling to be the fathers of non-resident children. Non-resident fathers want close, intimate and fulfilling relationship with their children. The majority want to fulfil all their parental obligations, social, emotional and financial (Bradshaw J. , 1998).
Another study looked at the obstacles encountered by young fathers; many had not been entered on the birth certificates by mothers who often considered them to be superfluous and they felt excluded (Speak, Cameron, & Gilroy, 1997). They were surprised to find they had no legal rights: some believed, erroneously, that if they paid child support that would confer parental responsibility. Due to unemployment and lack of money they were unable to provide independent homes for their children, and felt unable to access support from the few existing fathers’ groups; they did not feel welcome at general family support groups or support groups established for young mothers, they found no professional support available to help them with child care.
The report observed that low self-esteem and negative self-image are widely recognised to be key factors contributing to other types of delinquent behaviour, but there is little acknowledgement among policy-makers that this might play a part in the absence of some fathers.
A 2006 Glasgow University study looking at existing literature found a strong link between joint legal custody and the continued involvement of both separated parents in child-rearing (Wilson, Gillies, & Mayes, 2006). They also found links with employment, greater levels of education, proximity to the mother and children and lower levels of conflict. Non-resident fathers are distressed by the loss of their children and want more contact. They attribute parental conflict to recriminations over the break-up, and perceive the resident mother as intractable, antagonistic and exerting control over contact. They tend to feel relatively powerless as parents, and may be either resigned or resentful.
Dr George’s prejudices are harmful, and by blocking effective reform make it more difficult for non-resident fathers to remain involved in the lives of their children.
(References will be provided at the end of the second part of this two-part post.)