In the context of Government placing ever greater emphasis on the importance of children having meaningful relationship with both their parents, we aimed to explore ways in which mainstream services support this in the face of family separation. We particularly focused on low-income families and how services support non-resident parents to maintain regular and meaningful contact with their children.
Spanning the period 2006 -2009 and covering numerous locations in England and Wales our researchers conducted an in-depth qualitative research project aimed at uncovering the experience of parents, children and service providers around the question of how state services do or do not enable both parents to continue meaningful contact with their children after separation.
Services supporting children have been developed around the idea of the nuclear family, with the caring role assigned to one parent (normally the mother) and the earning role assigned to the other (normally the father). When parents separate, benefits and allowances to support such families attach wholly to one parent or the other. The two-parent family thus becomes a ‘one-parent family’ and the non-resident parent often becomes invisible, other than as a source of income. About a third of all children lose contact with their non-resident parent, yet there is an increasing body of evidence which suggests that a good relationship and regular contact with a non-resident father is associated with better social, cognitive and behavioural outcomes for children, including improved school attainment, reduced delinquency and lower levels of emotional distress. For non-resident fathers, too, maintaining contact with children is associated with reduced distress and fewer psychological difficulties.
The overall aim of the research was to develop an understanding of how the needs of children in low-income separated families might best be met, and in particular to shed light on how services could facilitate the role of non-resident parents in meeting those needs.
The study had the following objectives:
- To describe the needs of children aged between seven and 16 in different types of separated families, as seen by children, parents and service providers;
- To describe the needs of non-resident parents and resident parents in separated families, as seen by parents themselves and by service providers;
- To provide a picture of the services available to non-resident parents to facilitate their involvement with children;
- To explore how far these services meet their needs, from the perception of children, the non-resident parents, resident parents and service providers;
- To make recommendations for ways in which policy and practice can better meet the needs of non-resident parents and their children.
The first stage of the project consisted of an extensive review of the relevant literature on separated families. This included the legal and policy context in England and Wales, an account of research into the effects of family separation on family members, the beneficial effects of children’s continued contact with non-resident parents, the barriers which prevent contact, and an overview of domestic and international initiatives developed to foster better outcomes for children and parents when separation occurs.
This was followed by empirical research in eight economically deprived locations in England and Wales, selected to provide a geographical spread and, where possible, a mixture of rural and urban areas. This stage involved a qualitative study of non-resident parents, resident parents and their children aged between seven and 16 and a qualitative study of providers of key mainstream services – housing, education, social services and Cafcass – focusing on which services were available locally, what service providers understood to be the needs of non-resident parents, and how services could be better configured to help non-resident parents and their children.
The final stage of the project was dissemination of the findings to draw attention to the issues and to influence policy at a national level. This strand was carried out by Duncan Fisher at the Fatherhood Institute
Key findings showed that children in this sample typically had the closest relationship with their resident parent but, for the majority, contact with their non-resident parent was also extremely important and enjoyable. Most importantly for children, contact needed to be an evolving process, changing as they grew older and/or as their, or their non-resident parent’s, circumstances altered. Having a non-resident parent who lived nearby was seen as an ideal solution. Conversely they described poor relations between their parents leading to periods of not seeing the non-resident parent and/or feeling caught between the competing demands of parents. Most children felt that there was inadequate support for them in such circumstances.Both sets of parents said they needed more general support. Mothers favoured informal support groups while fathers, if they accessed support at all, opted for the more remote telephone help-lines. On the whole, however, neither set of parents knew where to go for either practical or emotional help and advice. They both reported feeling isolated and this caused or contributed to poor mental health. Parents were generally in agreement that services for separating families were not well enough advertised.
In terms of children’s needs more counselling in schools being available would help to provide an outlet for them in stressful situations
Service providers in mainstream services believed that the needs of non-resident parents and their children should be met by a co-ordinated approach involving statutory and voluntary services. But none thought that this was their primary responsibility. A greater extent of multi-agency working would help to address the needs of non-resident fathers, but it seems that a strategic approach, rather than an ad hoc arrangement, is needed.Subsequent developments have seen DCSF acknowledge this need for greater cooperation of services and pilot projects in ten locations in England aimed at building broad local partnerships to cover the wide range of needs of families during separation and after.
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