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Left out of the family circle

Patricia Redlich met a support group for separated men who feel shut out from their childrenTHE support group Parental Equality held a protest meeting outside the District Family Court in Dublin last Thursday night. The issue they highlighted was the painful one of proper access to their children for separated fathers, their call to light a candle for the children an almost pathetic attempt to portray the terrible pain suffered.

Non-custodial fathers live in an emotional wilderness. Their children suffer a very great loss. The problems of access are endless. Part of the difficulty is that nobody is allowed to know.

Separation and divorce cases are held ``in camera''. That means that no-one, save the warring parties, their legal representatives and the presiding judge, may be present in the court. No record or transcript of the proceedings is made. And while the couple may quietly rage about the details to their friends, no-one is allowed speak about the outcome in public.

Perhaps that is defensible, indeed desirable, when only two adults are involved. After all, they lived their marriage out of the public eye, so why not allow them bury it in privacy too?

When it's simply two adults fighting over financial security perhaps it doesn't matter whether men (on balance) get away with murder, or whether women are favoured by patriarchal prejudice. And perhaps that's something that neither the public nor the law-makers need to ponder, keep track of, or seriously tackle.

However, when children are involved it's very different. Then it matters hugely what happens in our Family Courts. And, given the case made by Parental Equality, it seems high time we started washing some of our dirty linen in public. No, names should not be named. But with regard to parenting, legislators and citizens need to know precisely what happens when marriages break down in Ireland. The public debate is long overdue.

Statistics are available from other countries where records are kept. Parental Equality tell us that these statistics show that as many as four out of 10 separated mothers admitted impeding contact between the children and their father, with two out of 10 admitting to actively sabotaging such contacts. The stories are familiar; we all know them. We know them from family, friends and neighbours and from our own experience.

Mothers emotionally bully their children, effectively asking them to choose between their parents, creating a mindset which makes it almost impossible for the children to have any ease with their fathers. In other words, they act as though the children were mere extensions of themselves, tied tight with a psychological umbilical cord and given no right to any independence of feeling, let alone acknowledged love for their dads.

Practical bullying regularly takes place too. Access can be made effectively impossible simply by making constant scenes, arriving late for the hand-over, refusing to leave fathers and children on their own, simply creating organisational havoc.

Parental Equality, it must be pointed out, don't talk about mothers. They emphasise that they are a ``shared parenting joint custody support group''. For reasons best known to themselves, they choose to by-pass the reality that the vast majority of children from broken marriages live with their mothers.

A Gordian knot of ideology about motherhood perceptions of biological propriety, concerns about protecting women, realisation of the reality of men as wage-earners involved in full-time employment leads to children almost invariably remaining with their mother and in the family home when couples part.

Irrespective of who seeks the separation or on what grounds, it is the men who walk the gangplank, the fathers who must leave home, forced to content themselves with access, the terms of which are laid down in court (often in the form of formal access orders).

The resident parent clearly has great power in such situations. Sadly, however, little is done in our court system to effectively create any counter-balance to such power. While joint custody is now provided for under the 1997 Children's Act, and is increasingly becoming the norm, the reality is that when access is blocked or seriously hindered, the mother de facto makes all the serious decisions. Fathers, at best, find out afterwards.

The protest last Thursday night was about the problems encountered by fathers (or, as Parental Equality would have it, by parents) when the clearly laid-down terms of an access order are flouted. Which they regularly are.

Spokesman Seán Mac Suibhne points out that while it is not possible to find out exactly how many breaches of access orders occur (since no public records are kept), the support group know the problem is widespread from the numbers who call on their services. And despite the secrecy, they are confident that no sanctions are imposed on custodial parents who flout such orders.

And this despite the fact that flouting such orders is a crime, carrying a penalty of a £200 fine and/or six months in jail. ``There is effectively no enforcement for what we see as abuse of children, because denying children access to their parents is abuse. But there's a greater chance of doing time for failing to pay your TV licence then for breaking the conditions of an access order.''

Mr Mac Suibhne believes the answer to the problem lies in abolishing the notion of ``in camera'' while protecting the identity of individuals. Such openness, he suggests, is essential in order to create a climate where sanctions will be imposed on erring parents. An absence of secrecy is essential to ensure that children are no longer abused in the battleground of marital separation.

It's time the legal system stopped marginalising men and faced the fact that children desperately need their dads. The grief is not confined to fathers. Sons and daughters feel it too.