imageWith the Conservative Party pledging much needed support for families, it is worth remembering that almost half of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce.

It is surely these fractured families, with children often torn between bitter, warring parents, who particularly need help and support. The impact of divorce on children can be devastating, as this report highlights, including self-blame, rebelliousness and even suicidal thoughts.

Any attempt to reduce the pain inflicted by divorce should be welcomed, and one idea worth trying could be the introduction of compulsory “conflict clinics”, described in The Sunday Times today.

Sandra Davis, a partner at Mishcom de Reya, is spearheading a campaign to get family lawyers and politicians to think hard about how family courts work – or rather, don’t work, – to prevent further cases such as this one quoted below which is cited in the story:

Somewhere on the south coast of England an 11-year-old boy is packing his bags this morning, preparing to move to his father’s house in the West Country. One can only imagine the tearful scenes as he and his mother fold his clothes and sort through his school books.

Last Thursday, despite admitting it would be “almost cataclysmic” for the child, a judge at the Appeal Court in London ordered that the boy be moved from his mother’s care to live with his father, with whom he lived for just a few months after his birth before his parents separated.

They have been fighting over him since. The mother claims to have given her “unconditional support” to the boy having a relationship with his father, but the father told the court he found it “impossible” to build that relationship while the boy was living with his mother.

One of his relatives said it was a very sad situation: “The mother just wouldn’t let go. She yes-ed and no-ed an awful lot and sadly broke promises. But in a horrible situation like this we recognise that it is also very difficult for the mother so it has been no good for anyone, really.”

Especially the boy: the traumatised child has said his father has “ruined his life” and that he would “punch and kick” rather than leave his mother’s home. The judge gave him three days to pack his bags. That time limit expires today.

Sandra believes the court system, with its delays, costs and adversarial nature, exacerbates the bitterness couples feel towards each other and makes it harder for them to come to rational decisions.

Most parents — some 70% — claim to make their children’s welfare their “top priority” during a break-up, but in a study by Mishcon, two-thirds admitted to using their children as “bargaining tools”. It also suggests that nearly one in three children whose parents divorce lose touch with their father. Many children said they felt used, isolated and alone after the divorce.

Sandra suggests establishing compulsory “conflict clinics” where disputes can be resolved.  Under the Mishcon proposals, nobody could make an application to court without a certificate saying they had been through resolution and, for some reason, failed. Sandra suggests that parents be given an incentive to use such conflict clinics by making it twice as expensive to apply for contact orders through the courts than to undergo family therapy. Under such a scheme only the most difficult cases would end up in court.

Another idea is being considered by Shadow Family Minister Maria Miller. She has been looking at Australian “family relationship centres” which offer mediation in divorce, with a view to replicating them here. They assist families to negotiate their way through separation or divorce and support parents to reach agreement on parenting arrangements outside the court system. Group sessions are undertaken to help separating parents focus on children’s needs and facilitate developing parenting plans. 

The worst unresolved cases of divorce and separation can lead to unspeakably cruel and devastating actions, like parental abductions, and even murder. Shockingly, it can also force offspring to take their revenge in the most unbelievable way, like this 18-year-old Chinese girl who murdered her parents and cut them into pieces after an argument with them about their divorce.

Does anyone have any other suggestions about how to reduce conflict during divorce? Does the present mediation system work which is offered by the courts? Not according to Guy Harrison, who is quoted in the Times report. He last saw his daughter eight years ago.

One of Mishcon’s clients, who is now divorcing and has a young child, remembers her own parent’s bitter divorce, particularly as she is now experiencing it herself:

“It was miserable. When they decided to split up I remember my dad crouching on his knees in front of me with tears in his eyes and him telling me that he loved me and he would come to collect me the following Saturday at two o’clock. I waited by the window from nine in the morning.

“The hours passed by, two o’clock came and went and I felt I’d never see my dad again. I was right, I never did.

“Now I have a little boy. I never wanted him to feel how I felt but that has gone out the window as his father and I are going through a divorce. I am doing to him exactly what my parents did to me.”

How many times has this heartbreaking scene been repeated with other families? How can divorce be made fairer for kids?

Pic courtesy of Sunday Times.