Last month I was thrown out of Fathers4Justice, or rather, I got myself thrown out, since I took a very deliberate course of action which could have only one consequence.
I joined F4J at the start of 2004. At that time the organisation was based on a series of local groups run by coordinators. Recognising that I was probably not cut out for direct action, my local coordinator got me to make up some fact sheets for members on issues such as changing a child’s name or taking a child abroad.
In due course this work came to the attention of head office and I was sent a list of ‘FAQs’ to complete, containing the questions with which desperate fathers most often approached F4J. Before long the founder of the organisation, Matt O’Connor, was ‘phoning me on a fairly regular basis to dig up this or that piece of data which he needed for the campaign.
Over time the FAQs became the Fathers4Justice Handbook, a 700-page guide for litigants in person in the family courts, updated twice a year, entirely my own work and an achievement of which I am quite proud. I also prepared a dossier for F4J which we called Family Justice on Trial, in which I attempted to understand historically how the family justice system had come to be so corrupt: a source of child abuse rather than protection. This was followed by a complete reworking of the Fathers4Justice Blueprint, a proposal for wholesale reform. Earlier this year I prepared a Brief History of F4J, though important areas of my original draft were significantly reworked by O’Connor.
Since 2007 every piece of writing to come out of F4J has either been my work or has relied on my research, from the major documents to single page fact sheets and press releases. Until recently my single condition for doing this work has been respected: that I would not misrepresent any figures, or invent any – I believed our case was so compelling and the situation so scandalous that it could speak for itself. I would leave it to other groups like Women’s Aid to make facts up.
Until recently. Perhaps to revitalise a flagging campaign, some of my figures have been modified somewhat. Thus the statistic that 200 children every day lose all or partial contact with one or other parent in the family courts has been edited to 200 children a day losing all contact with their fathers; the figure that 3.8 million children do not have their main residence with their father has been changed to suggest that these children never see their fathers at all. And so on.
These are not minor errors, or even attempts to craft a better sound-bite; they represent a coherent agenda to represent the problems in the family courts as a gender-based rights issue. I’m afraid I don’t share that analysis. O’Connor wants to present his campaign as a grand civil rights struggle, on a par with fighting racism, or the slave trade; he wants to be seen as a latter day Martin Luther King or William Wilberforce.
It won’t wash. Racism was a clear-cut, dare one say, black and white issue: you were part of the favoured minority or you weren’t. Though gender-apartheid has a nice ring to it, the courts do not apply so simple a discrimination; though O’Connor doesn’t like it, there are mothers who get shafted as much as fathers – his wife is one of them. The majority of family judges are men – a black judge under apartheid is unthinkable. The gender warfare paradigm doesn’t work; the fathers’ rights label – originally used disparagingly by feminists – doesn’t fit.
There are many things wrong in the family justice system: essentially a state monopoly has received insufficient resources and insufficient attention from government for decades. Hidden away behind closed doors it has been allowed to go its own way and make up its own legislation for far too long – it has become corrupt, indolent and bloated and it has become prey, in its diseased state, to every passing political fad and ideology, until it has come to be the primary breeding ground for gender feminism in the body politic. Every attempt at reform – up to and including Norgrove – has been handed to the system itself to devise and implement and every attempt has failed.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that O’Connor derides everyone who doesn’t join his campaign to reform the system from the outside as a gullible fool, but the only way to really heal a diseased body is to give it the resources and tools to heal itself.
I had long been dissatisfied with the course the F4J campaign was taking. Certain features seemed to me particularly damaging. The first was O’Connor’s steadfast refusal to talk to anyone else, to work with other groups, to exchange ideas or information, or to shift from his inflated view that only his approach had the ability to change family justice for the better. This conviction became steadily worse over time and led to O’Connor – and the campaign – becoming increasingly side-lined and unaware of current thinking and developments.
The second feature was O’Connor’s paralysing failure to adopt any plan or strategy for the campaign. His leadership was characterised instead by a seemingly random selection of targets, which he would pursue until he became bored or another target wandered into his sights and which he would rarely follow through to any conclusion. F4J’s recent targets have included David Cameron, CAFCASS, Mumsnet, Marks and Spencer, Asda, the Centre for Separated Families, Families Need Fathers, the NSPCC…
There is no structure to this scatter-brained, scatter-gun approach, targets are selected because they happen to cause O’Connor momentary offence; the policy is entirely reactive, not proactive: he never leads the agenda. For a solitary researcher, trying to keep up, this has been profoundly frustrating. Weeks of work have been thrown away as the Mr. Toad of fathers’ rights changes direction in hot pursuit of another harebrained adventure.
Matters came to a head in November. O’Connor sent me a draft copy of a leaflet he was proposing to distribute at the National Conference for Men and Boys where he was due to speak (in the event he didn’t turn up). The draft was, in my view, potentially offensive; it seemed to revert to an earlier, unsophisticated era of family campaigning, and claimed differences between women’s and men’s legal rights which simply don’t exist. Some of the leaflet’s claims were simply false, a circumstance he attempted to blame on me.
Knowing the likely response, I gave my honest opinion; I was probably quite angry: I felt that the efforts I had been making for years to give the campaign intellectual credibility and to understand a complex issue more clearly had gone to waste. I deplored the return to windbag rhetoric about ‘fathers’ rights’ and the abandonment of a focus on what was best for children. F4J would again be associated with the mindless misogynism of which it had been accused in the past.
O’Connor’s reaction was to tell me I had abandoned my principles and compared me with the despised leader of Families Need Fathers, Ken Sanderson. Later, in calmer mood, he telephoned me; he said that anyone who promoted children’s rights over those of fathers was playing the standard government card denying fathers their rights and falling into their trap (this was a misrepresentation of an analysis I had done of the welfare principle). He said I had abandoned F4J’s fundamental principles; I countered that it was he who had shifted his position; the F4J Blueprint had put children’s rights foremost; the first 3 Articles of the F4J Bill of Rights emphasised the rights of children; it was feminists who characterised our campaign as one centred on the rights of fathers. He was confusing their propaganda with his own campaign.
A week later O’Connor’s attention had turned to the Centre for Separated Families, a superb charity run by Nick and Karen Woodall which not only helps families successfully navigate the transitions from wholeness to separation but also sets the intellectual standard for debate and is the only organisation presenting a shared parenting position to government committees. It should have received the whole-hearted support of F4J.
O’Connor emailed me demanding I dig up the dirt on the CSF; I refused and was thrown out.
O’Connor followed up with a bizarre Facebook campaign demanding that F4J be invited by the House of Commons Justice Committee to give oral evidence on the draft family justice legislation. This was notwithstanding the fact that he had refused to file a response to the consultation on cooperative parenting and had poured odium on all organisations which had accepted invitations to give evidence, such as FNF and the CSF.
His sole argument was that with a claimed membership of 36,000, F4J was the largest shared parenting group in the country and the only one which could plausibly represent fathers and their families. There were huge flaws in this argument, though. Although FNF has a membership of only 3,000, the CSF is not a membership-based organization at all. If size alone guaranteed an invitation, then Wikivorce with a membership of over 107,000 would be first on the list. Quite where the 36,000 figure came from is a mystery; F4J has 13,230 Facebook ‘likes’ and only 181 paid-up members on its Yahoo forum. And that’s it. Even in its heyday membership only reached about 400. The Committee dismissed O’Connor’s attempt to bully them.
At the time of writing it is hard to characterize F4J as anything more than a small husband-and-wife team – rather like the Centre for Separated Families, but with greater pretensions. Its glory days, which O’Connor’s return to 2003 rhetoric seems intended to recapture, are far behind it.
In many ways that is a disaster. The family justice system is set to reach new levels of chaos next year as an estimated 623,000 litigants across the justice system are denied access to legal aid.
For too long, however, F4J has been allowed a strangle-hold on the parenting agenda, with its simplistic representation of family law injustice as a civil rights issue, driven by gender discrimination.
What will happen now remains to be seen. Even with a researcher on board F4J was falling behind. It had failed to respond to a succession of government consultations on shared parenting, domestic violence and child support; its refusal to talk to or work with any other group, at a time when all other groups are communicating well, will cost it dear.
Real support has fallen away: the organiser of the last Father’s Day demonstration has departed the group; the organisers of the hunger strike outside David Cameron’s constituency home have left; the children who made up Children4Justice are no longer involved. The O’Connors need to start a big recruitment drive if they are to stand any chance of achieving the goals they have set for 2013, including a new political project with which I wish them well.
At its peak F4J was an astonishing phenomenon bringing much needed publicity with colour and humour to a shamefully forgotten area of public life. Now the colour has gone – all its recent publicity has been monochromatic – and so has the humour – there’s nothing funny about a hunger strike (It was Bob Geldof who said, ‘so long as they stay funny and legal, I’m supporting them’). Elsewhere in family politics, however, there are signs of optimism, renewed cooperation, new ideas and new growth. Perhaps one just has to accept that every dog has his day.