UK Family Law Reform

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Listen to the children, Mrs Hodge

Young lives will suffer from Britain's scandalous refusal to force mediation on parents

A girl of 10, severely depressed, has become mute - her only defence against parents who have fought over her for the past four years, ever since their marriage failed. She sits in a room with a mediator, aware that her mother and father are watching behind a one-way mirror. For the first time she is given the opportunity to say how she would like her parents to behave.

She breaks her silence to say she would like her father to stop hurting her and her mum, and that he should talk to someone about his anger. She also says her mother should stop calling her dad an evil pig and talk to someone about her sadness. The mediator tells the parents they can take heed of their daughter or continue in the destruction of her life.

Over several sessions their behaviour changes and they seek counselling to deal with what their daughter has laid bare. A year later the child, who has found her voice again, writes a letter saying that her parents are doing well, and thanking the mediator for listening to her point of view.

In the war between mothers and fathers, the figure often erased from the picture is that of the child. Many adults are too shackled to their own hurt to place the needs of their offspring first. Professionals also often overlook the young. In recent research, children repeatedly said they had not been heard either by the family justice system or their parents.

In Australia in 2000 the attorney general's department investigated its mediation and counselling services. It, too, discovered that children's views had been disregarded and professionals were resistant to change. A six-month pilot project radically overhauled the system. Children, such as the 10-year-old, were invited to testify to the impact of perpetual hostility. Parenting programmes to make adults more aware of the child's perspective were established and there was improved contact for non-resident parents. The pilot proved a spectacular success and is being rolled out across Australia. In the UK, Vicky Leach, from the children's charity the NCH, has tried for many months to raise government funding for a similar pilot here - to no avail.

Research underscores common sense. Children do better when a couple handle a separation as harmoniously as possible. In practice, a high proportion of children cease to see their fathers within two years. Some dads may be irresponsible and a danger. A high proportion, however, are thwarted by mothers. In the 1980s, in Florida, a system of 'therapeutic justice' was established based on the twin premise that the children's interests genuinely come first and the law should do no harm.

As a result, a parent knows that, unless there is abuse, the courts will grant a non-resident parent access at least every other weekend and one evening a week. In addition, adults have to attend mediation and parenting classes. As with the Australian model, these remind them that exorcising matrimonial demons in their offsprings' presence and inventing reasons why daddy (or mummy) can't be seen this Sunday is wounding the child. Mothers who refuse to comply with a contact order are jailed. Penalties have been imposed rarely.

The point of the Florida endeavour is that, no matter who has done what to whom, the weapon of using the children is simply not available. Hence, in a changed climate, more parents try to resolve their problems. In this country, last year, the organisation New Approaches to Contact - composed of fathers, academics and lawyers, and with the backing of Mrs Justice Bracewell, an esteemed senior family court judge - drew up a pilot 'Early Inter ventions' project, which adopted much of the Florida template, including the compulsory compliance of parents. 'It would be incomprehensible if the pilot project did not receive official sanction,' Mrs Justice Bracewell wrote. 'It should produce much better outcomes for parents and children.'

Now the inconceivable has occurred. Last week the project was officially dumped. Instead, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), under the children's Minister, Margaret Hodge, has its own - very different - pilot, in which the involvement of parents will be voluntary - a fatal flaw. The team designing the detail of the DfES pilot, to be launched in September, has next to no voices representing children's interests. Althea Efunshile is chair of the DfES design team. She writes: 'It is a key aim ... to encourage parents to step back from the adult conflict and focus exclusively on the needs of their children. Both parents will be expected to work together draw up their own plan for co-operative parenting.'

If it is that easy for a divorced couple to 'work together', why the need for the pilot? Hostile parents won't co-operate simply because she and Ms Hodge have invited them to. Nor will this scheme achieve the necessary and vital cultural shift. In short, it's a waste of time.

It's not too late. The Early Interventions pilot should be tried out - even if it requires a change in the law to permit the compulsion of parents. A pilot based on the Australian findings also deserves to be funded, to gauge if we truly operate in the best interests of the child. 'It is time to go back to basics,' Vicky Leach says. 'The child's experience of events must be at the centre of any process, while adults have to be stopped progressing down an increasingly conflicted road.'