By Rockyie Shielsone
Imagine a child living without a father. A little boy or girl clutching a teddy bear on the stairs waiting for their dad to walk through the front door. In a broken household a child will spend many nights missing a dad wishing things were different. A million parental couples go through the family courts every year, and of those at least 40% of fathers have little or no contact with their children after separation.
Of 12 million children in the UK, one in four will have suffered the grim reality of separation from a mother or father during their childhood. Matt O’Connor, founder of one of the most high profile and controversial campaigns of the modern era, Fathers 4 Justice, described the British family courts as “the Devil’s Labyrinth” because as he bluntly puts it, “when you get into the system it’s near impossible to escape”. His formidable struggle to see his two children, aged eleven and nine at the time of divorce from a previous marriage, was a battle through a legal system that ‘ criminalises and crushes you before suffocating you with a blanket of secrecy and censorship’, as described in his biography Fathers 4 Justice: The Inside Story, published in 2007.
In many divorce cases a father will be more likely to lose their parental rights than the mother, raising questions about equal parental rights for the child. Fathers up and down the land share similar sentiments about the courts, but unlike Matt, who has maintained a good, healthy relationship with his children after separation from his ex-wife, for many thousands of fathers it spells the trauma of limited or denied parental access. Of all divorce cases brought before the courts, 70% of divorce petitioners cite adultery or unreasonable behaviour as the reason for denying parental rights to the father.
Many fathers are accused of unreasonable behaviour by a partner. Henry, 55, from North London, married his ex-wife for two years before the couple divorced in 1996. Their battle in the courts for parental rights over their daughter Liz, aged two at the time, lasted for 11 years and was one of the longest cases highlighted in British legal family history. It ended in 2007. Henry’s attempts to stop his ex-wife’s manipulative behaviour of telling ‘stories’ to his alienated daughter became a turning point in his life when Liz wrote a letter to the judge at nine years old emphasising “she didn’t want to see me anymore and hoped I was dead. A judge said it was the most horrible letter he had ever read from a nine year old”.
Henry’s long-term alienation from his daughter by the court was “so bad” that Liz has grown up over the years believing a father’s worst nightmare, “My daughter is growing up believing her father has abused her, and the court has done nothing to stop that in any way”.
Of 12 million children in the UK, 1 in 4 will have suffered the grim reality of separation from a Mother or Father during their childhood
While the courts granted Henry an interim contact order to visit Liz every two weeks over 12 months, his visitation rights were “obstructed at every turn by the mother”. Sadly after 11 years, 25 judges, numerous costs and divorce proceedings his final court order has marked a tragic end, “I can’t see her. I’m not allowed to send her any cards or letters. All contact has been stopped by the court and I have an order stating there will be no contact until my daughter agrees otherwise. Probably she’s lost her father forever”. Henry has not seen his daughter for two years since February 2007 and is ordered by the court to stay away from Liz, now aged 14, until she has reached the age of 18 when she will be classed as independent.
Henry again voices his frustrations, “Quite frankly it’s a joke. I don’t believe the child is at the top of the agenda. The law has this idea that if they keep the mother happy it transforms into the happiness of the child, while the other parent is not so important”. Matt O’Connor is adamant that it only takes one unreasonable parent in a “nuclear legal war” to make all the difference where children are the biggest victims of all, “There’s no winning in this. Women will end up being alienated by their children when they get older, Children become resentful when they find out what’s happened, they will ask ‘why was I denied my father by you’? ”Another deprived father shares that feeling. Dave, 39, from Warrington, was married with two adopted children until his ex-wife decided to leave and then “used the children as a lever to get me out of the house”, with threats of denied access to his children. The final straw came on Boxing Day 2006 where he was allowed only two hours with the kids. After legal advice from a solicitor, as is common practice in divorce proceedings, he was optimistic but got nowhere after raking up a bill for £10,000, “The scales fell from my eyes. They said yes we can do this and do that blah blah blah but it got me nowhere”.
Amidst all the chaos of divorce proceedings a number of “mysterious things” suddenly emerged such as false accusations of physical abuse by his ex-wife during the relationship, a revelation that made its debut in court, “she said I was aggressive towards her and pulled out a baseball bat in front of my children and threatened to hit her, which was absolutely ridiculous”. However no police evidence could prove the mother’s claim.
Matt O’Connor wrote in his book that, ’they’ll stick you in a contact centre in some desolate church hall or sports centre for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon once or twice a month- if you’re lucky’.
Dave had an interim contact order to visit his children every Sunday from 11am to 5pm through the afternoons over a period of 18 months at a contact centre. He recalls that visitation was frequently obstructed by his ex-wife, even in summer 2008 when he arranged for his daughter to spend a week with him for a holiday break, but “amazingly my daughter became ‘ill’ on that day, my ex-wife never sent any text message or rang me”. When he finally summoned the police to resolve the situation outside the family home where he was awaiting his daughter, the police replied, “unfortunately we cannot remove the child from her mother, it’s a no win situation for you, you might as well go home”.
Dave feels there is no justice for fathers in a family system where “judges will always do what’s in the best interests for the children while keeping in mind that the children should always be with their mother”. Throughout his three year ordeal Dave has lost two jobs, a business, has become bankrupt, and has filed a suit for another contact order after an arranged visit at Christmas last year was abruptly cancelled by a text message from his ex-wife saying, “we have stopped contact. You have been sent a letter”.
Dave is adamant the legal system offers preferential treatment to the ‘wishes’ of the mother over a father’s agony to see his children where “the law sits there and listens to what mums say, and all they need to say is ‘he’s been violent to me in the past, the children don’t really want to see him’, and that’s it -you’ve got no chance”. At present Dave is back at square one, fighting it through the courts, a battle that will continue to be “a massive uphill struggle” to prove his entitlement for equal rights.
Every year fathers express their struggle to have their say in the the matter of their children, and mainstream awareness was brought to the importance of equal parenting for a child by Matt O’Connor’s Fathers 4 Justice campaign through high profile publicity stunts like Batman and Robin on the roof tops of the Royal Courts of Justice in 2003. Before it all began, Matt’s attempt at suicide by almost jumping off a bridge brought a “spiritual enlightenment” where he envisioned a new purpose, “It shapes you. I was in a bad place. The madness was quite good in some respects because I went off and did something I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been at a low point in my life, and Fathers 4 Justice would never have been born”.
Although his campaign prompted mixed reactions by the public and the media, the words that “Ignorance is obviously bliss for some people but not for me” are spoken by a father who felt the campaign was necessary to highlight fathers like himself, who are classed as single people in the eyes of the law. Michael, 36, from Reading, has a daughter aged six and was married for five years before he divorced three years ago. After a dispute his ex-wife absconded with their daughter while he was in town one afternoon, “I was happily in town and by the time I came back she had taken my daughter and gone. I didn’t find out for nearly a week where she had gone”.
“the law sits there and listens to what mums say, and all they need to say is ‘he’s been violent to me in the past, the children don’t really want to see him’, and that’s it -you’ve got no chance”.
After she got in contact, court proceedings followed. Michael was allowed to see his daughter twice a month for two hours at a contact centre. To this day Michael has a fun, pro-active relationship with his daughter three times a week, but even though he has played a substantial role in his child’s emotional wellbeing and lifestyle, he is not recognised by law as having any decisive influence as a parent, “I do most of her schooling and all of her activity training like diving, and even now I’m still classed as a single person and have no rights as a parent”.
As a response to family divorce cases and fathers struggling to see their children through the courts, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said, "The Children and Adoption Act came fully into force in December 08 and brought in new measures to enable courts to deal with non-compliance of a court order (contempt of court) whilst ensuring that the interests of the child are paramount”. In respect of a child’s welfare during times of separation The Department for Children, Schools and Families said, “The Government is firmly committed to improving the outcomes for children and we want every child to have the opportunity to grow up in a secure and loving family environment”.
Despite government claims that the interests of children are of primary importance, fathers like Michael are not convinced, “The biggest victims are the children. This is why our society is going down the toilet, because family values have been systematically destroyed”. Michael emphasises that shared responsibility is vital as “both parents, whether you’re living together or apart, should be equally responsible for the upbringing of their children by law”.
Fathers like Dave from Reading only hope that his children know that he fought the best he could to see them and stay a part of their lives, “At the end of it all a child will grow up and will want to know, ‘Why didn’t you try harder?’. If you can look that child in the eyes and say, ‘I did everything I could and I never gave up’, then he will never throw it in your face in years to come”.
However, Matt O’Connor believes it is important to realise that mothers and fathers are equally important for their different contributions to parenting and he explains, “Myself and my partner Nadine have completely different values, my ex-wife who I get on well with has different approaches, but what a man and a woman bring are two different qualities that is part of what makes the child a whole”.
Rockyie is freelance journalist. He has written for publications such as Black Britain, Arts London News etc. He lives in London.