There can be no doubt about the advantages for children to have access to their parents.
As Susan Maidment said :
``The weight of expert opinion now is that the most critical factor in the child's successful adjustment to divorce is his continued contact with both parents.'' [Family Law 1984]
Or as Lord Justice Latey said :
``Keeping in touch with the parent concerned so that they do not become strangers, so that the child in later life does not resent the deprivation and turn against the parent who the child thinks, rightly or wrongly, has deprived him, and so that the deprived parent loses interest in the child and therefore does not make the material and emotional contribution to the child's development which that parent, by its companionship and otherwise, would make.'' [M v M, 1973]
Or as another judge said :
``There have to be very compelling reasons to prevent the non-cutodial parent having access - strong evidence that access is harmful to the child''.
Dr Ronald St Blaize Maloney said:
``People are now realising that a father figure is essential as a strong fortress against delinquency. If we debase the male in general and the father in particular for much longer, people will seek out an alternative value syatem to supplant the loss.''
- as reported in the Daily Mail 27 October 1987
[Children in the middle - Living through divorce; Tavistock; 1985)]
There is a popular belief that children are happier if their parents separate than if they continue to live in a family where the parents argue or fight. This book shows that children do not share that belief. They would prefer to keep their parents together, even if they do not get on with each other. (Intro)
From this research an abiding impression remains of young people who have lost some of their childhood and have grown up sad and bewildered. Separation might have been the right remedy for the parents, but not for the children. ``My mum didn't understand how I felt - she was too busy being angry''. (p191)
Separated parents suffer depression or other nervous disorders which made them unable to appreciate how upset their children were and some had clearly felt too exhausted to notice their children's reactions. [George&Wilding,Marsden,Murch] (p83)
The experiences of this small cross-section of divorced families have illustrated the loneliness and bewilderment felt by children when their parents separate. Their poignant memories have highlighted the sorrow of children who do not understand why their parents have split up and who have lost touch with one of them. (p177)
Those [children] who had no access in the beginning found difficulties first in restoring broken relationships and then in maintaining them. (p141)
Parents had ascribed their own feelings to their children and had been unaware of their children's needs for information and for continued contact with both parents. (p177)
[Divorce: The child's point of view; Harper & Row; 1984]
Children are impressionable and their fear and confusion at the time of divorce perhaps makes them more so. Parents are therefore in a powerful position to influence their children's thinking and their understanding of a confusing situation - whether they intend to do so or not - and of tipping the balance in their own favour when trying to explain what has happened and why. [p 73]
Parents are parents, married or divorced; it is the child's right to have and to hold on to and continue to share in their lives fully. Our findings do not support the view that children want to sever the relationship with the loving parent following separation or divorce. [p 73]
It is also clear that a child's `natural' view of divorce can be changed by fear and insecurity, or by persuasion, or even by indoctrination by one parent, and can thereby for a time at least appear to have resolved the balancing position by opting for one side against the another - but with such regret and remorse later on that the cost seems too high. [p 78]
Satisfaction was linked to the quality of the relationship with the part-time parent as well as access arrangements and there was a strong connection between the two. It is difficult to love and feel loved by a parent with whom contact is infrequent or non-existent. Frequent contact on the other hand makes it possible for parent and child to know each other, to give support and tangible proof of love. [p 120]
It was the children who knew that both parents wanted and approved of access who remembered enjoying their meetings with the absent parent best. [p 121]
Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) found that the happiest and best adjusted children were those who had frequent, regular and flexible contact with the non-custodial parent and could exercise some degree of control over visiting arrangements ... It was the continuity of relationshipwith both parents that was of the utmost importance in helping children cope with divorce and recover from its initial impact. [p 121]
By making joint custody orders the rule ... the law would give the right kind of message to parents and encourage, rather than discourage, as it does at present, sensible behaviour. Only the principle of joint custody can emphasise the continuity of parenting and the child's right to have two parents. [p 134]
[Responsibility for the children of divorce - Family Law `84]
Which parent ? Nothing inherent in either psychological or social roles indicating which is the ``Better Parent''.
Mothers get custody not because they are better parents but because the legal system expects them to perform the child care function.
The question of ``Which Parent ?'' not only poses an unrealistic choice, it is also an improper one.
The weight of expert opinion now is that the most critical factor in the child's successful adjustment to divorce is his continued contact with both parents.
The child has a right to be protected against the damage of losing one parent.
The legal system must encourage parental responsibility and preservation of equal parental rights in the post-divorce situation.
In contested cases: everyone loses. The non-custodial parent loses a child; the custodial parent may lose the opportunity to share the chores of child care and to enjoy well-adjusted children.
Would a ``residence order'' preserve equal parental rights ? Would it encourage parental responsibility to make arrangements for care of the children and participation by both parents ? Both parents would continue to exercise legal responsibility and rights over major issues in the children's upbringing.
The dangers are that some parents will damage their children by their inability to co-operate.
Counselling and Conciliation required
Children of divorce can be protected against damage to their psychological or emotional health and development.
A society which desires and allows divorce on the scale now experienced is irresponsible if it fails to provide a legal system which encourages and helps parents to fulfil their responsibilities to protect their children.
consultant child psychiatrist
[Marital Breakdown and its Consequences for Children]
The disappearance of one parent from a child's life may make for difficulties between the child and the remaining parent. Some children are really frightened that they may lose the remaining parent and so a tense relationship develops in which feelings become distorted.... The child who has become bound to the remaining parent in these ways may be particularly susceptible to reject his contact with the absent parent.
Indeed sometimes the vindictive parent can use this situation to cut the absent parent off from the children altogether. This apparent brainwashing is far from being in the child's best interests and yet is sometimes hard to combat. Most children in this state can be helped to reawaken a healthy curiosity in the well-being of the absent parent and so, given co-operation, access can begin again.
Parents who deny the absent parent access to his/her child are doing irrepable harm to that child's development.
The child who rejects access to the absent parent is demonstrating an emotional problem which is often readily treatable (by routine child guidance)
In conclusion I would like to suggest that too few divorce court decisions are made in the full knowledge of the children's need for healthy mental and physical development.
Originally published - May 1990