Acknowledgement : The Observer, 20 February 2000
AN ABSENCE OF JUSTICE FOR HEARTBREAK FATHERS
Maureen Freely meets a group of parents whose struggles to see their children are a shocking indictment of our Kafkaesque family laws.
Are you married or in a permanent relationship? Do you have children? If you know for sure that your children will remain central to your life, even and especially if you get separated or divorced, then you are just the sort of parent the Government says it wants to champion. That is what it says, anyway. But now listen to a few stories about what happens to parents post-divorce in real life. These are not about custody battles. All are about that slippery concept known as 'reasonable contact'. And most parents mentioned below have gone to court because the other parent is not letting them see their children. Their stories are so outrageous that you will think I've made them up. You may wonder why there's been so little fuss about the Kafkaesque legal machinery that produced them. But one answer is that cases that involve disputes concerning contact are heard in family courts, and the family courts are closed to the public.
CASE NO 1: PETER
First, a short story that illustrates the role of the key player in these proceedings, the Court Welfare Officer. The divorced parents have gone to court because the mother has qualms about letting Peter have their toddler son for overnight stays. But when they arrive at their first conciliation session, she has already agreed that she is ready to relent.The Court Welfare Officer has other views. He tells the couple that:
1. It is best for the children to think of visits with dad as 'infrequent treats'.
2. Children always care more for their mothers than for their fathers, even though fathers rarely like to hear this.
3. Mothers are the source of all nourishment, and always the most important members of their families, unless they die.
4. No child under five should have to see his father unless the mother wanted him to, because if she were anxious about contact the child could develop a condition called 'splitting'. After hearing all this, the mother panics and backs out of her agreement.
Court Welfare Officers write 35,000 reports a year: these affect the lives of 70,000 children.
By training, they are criminal probation officers. When they take on this specialised job, they receive no extra training in child development, and no guidelines about how to interpret such concepts as 'reasonable contact'. Most of the reports they write are based, therefore, on personal conjecture. What effect have their recommendations had on the families concerned? It is hard to say. In the 20 years since the Family Court Welfare Service was founded, there has not been a single follow-up study. The service has never checked its officers' reports for anything except spelling. Because court records are closed to the public, nobody else can check them either. This is why the Family Court Experience comes as such a shock to so many users.
CASE NO 2: JOHN
Certainly, it was a shock to a man we will call John.
His daughter was six months old when he left the marital home at his wife's request. She did not want him to see the child, but he persisted. One day, after John took the girl to a swimming pool, the mother complained to social services staff, alleging that he had forced the girl to put her head under water. Although they decided that the allegation was not true, this did not stop the Court Welfare Officer from alluding to the episode at hearing after hearing.
At one point in the proceedings, the judge even went so far as to ask the father to promise never to take his daughter swimming again. After two years of legal battles, John won the right to have his daughter for overnight visits. Since that time, he has had no trouble with contact. Relations with the child's mother, Jan, could not be more cordial.
'All the issues have gone. I won because I'm strong emotionally,' he says. But many parents in his position cannot call on these resources, and the legal battle can break them.
CASE NO 3: RICHARD
This is what happened to a man we will call Richard, a major in the Army and the father of two very young children.
He was devoted to their mother, despite the fact that she was violent, often with the help of a knife. He never reported the incidents, but one day Marion attacked him in the street and a bystander called the police. Divorce proceedings began soon afterwards. Marion works full-time. Although Richard also works full-time, his hours are shorter and he was always the primary carer. But once he had left the marital home, Marion was obstructive about contact, as he had feared.
And the violence continued, too. One day, when he saw her with their children in the street and waved, she tried to run him over with her car. By now, Richard had found out that Marion had a 16-year record of violence and psychiatric problems.
She had files with both the police and social services. In spite of this, and even after Richard found bruises all over one child's body, the courts let her keep the children. One judge justified this by saying that, all things being equal, children under five were much better off with their mothers.
What Richard would like to know is, how unequal do things have to be before a judge will override that prejudice? Richard has not seen his children for two and a half years. He has, he thinks, recovered from the mental breakdown he had two years ago, although he says: 'I'm still not the man I was.' He hopes to get his children back one day. And because they are still young, it is not too late to reverse any alienation they may have suf fered. He is referring here to 'parent alienation syndrome' or hate campaigns waged on children by one of their parents against the other.
It is a term you hear a lot in courts in the United States. It is not a problem that worries our own Family Court Welfare Service. But that is not to say it does not happen. Here's a classic case.
CASE NO 4: STEVEN
Steven and Jessica have been separated for two years when the story begins. Both are in new relationships. The son lives with Jessica.
But one day he asks Steven if he can come and live with him. His father jots a note to Jessica, asking her what she thinks. Jessica takes offence and begins to make difficulties about contact.
After one disputed visit, Steven is told that the boy returned home unhappy. Then he is told that there is to be a cessation of contact. Then he discovers that Jessica has contacted social services staff alleging that Steven forced the boy to have a bath with him while he had an erection. Some allegations of abuse must be true, and so all must be taken seriously. But you have to wonder when you hear about cases in which mothers suddenly allege abuse at a time when it will give them an edge in a dispute over contact.
When he heard about Jessica's allegation, Steven went straight to the Family Protection Unit. It decided after investigation that the allegations had no merit. But this was not enough to clear his name during the years of litigation that followed.
At the same time, the mother could do no wrong in the eyes of the court. No one was concerned, for example, when she said: 'Ian would rather be dead than reconnect with his father'. Nobody asked if she might be putting psychological pressure on the boy to turn against his father. 'As an adult one can cope. But what about the little lad?', Steven says. In his view, he has lost his son because the court welfare service is heavily biased in favour of women.
It is not, however, a bias that works in the favour of women who are non-resident parents, or women who are foreigners.
CASE NO 5: ROSA
Certainly it did not work in the favour of a Swiss woman we'll call Rosa. Her marriage ended seven years ago, when her husband, an Englishman, beat her up and left home in the middle of the night, taking with him their older child, then aged six. Rosa tried and failed to get her daughter back. Eventually she settled for reasonable contact.
Six weeks after the divorce was final, Rosa's daughter found her father dead in the shower. By the time Rosa found out about it, the girl was in the care of her paternal grandmother, who had already applied for residency. The application seems to have been supported by vague allegations of abuse. Rosa has not been able to see her daughter again.
For a while, the grandmother did allow Rosa's younger child to visit his sister in her new home. During these visits, the grandmother told him that his mother was a criminal, and like a chocolate onion - sweet on the outside, but if you bite into it, watch out.
Rosa insists that she does not blame her for these, or any, of her vicious lies. 'She is just following her nature,' she says. Like all of the other parents I spoke to, she blames the professionals and the system within which they work.
Contrary to popular opinion, custody disputes do not lead inexorably to out-and-out war. Divorced couples who manage to stay well away from the courts are often able to come to civilised agreements. Most of the conflicts they cannot sort out on their own, they can resolve, and resolve rapidly, if they take advantage of the new, still very small, but very effective, Family Mediation Service.
If they cannot deal with them amicably here, then of course the law has a part to play.
But even when divorced parents go to court, the first aim should still be to keep children connected with both parents wherever and whenever possible. The Family Welfare Service, however, resolves conflicts by choosing sides. And until very recently, the losing parties suffered mostly in silence.
When the nation wondered why it was that so many fathers left home and lost touch with their children within the year, and why it was that about 900 other fathers were driven to kidnap their children every year, they rarely asked how many of those absent and kidnapping parents had been barred by the Family Welfare Service from seeing their children.
But now things are changing. Late last year, a group of parents filed a class action suit against Jack Straw, charging that he has failed to train court welfare officers properly for their work with children after divorce. They belong to an organisation called Inpoww (Information on Probation Officers in Welfare Work), which would like to see a radical overhaul of the service. For the past two years, its founder, Oliver Cyriax, has been lobbying the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Family Policy Unit, to this end.
What he and his fellow campaigners want is what most people think we already have - properly trained and routinely evaluated welfare officers, and:
Acknowledgement : The Independent on Sunday, 12 December 1999
Give men a chance, judges told
Fathers' rights: European Court petitioned to overturn laws that leave ex-husbands in penury
By Nicholas Pyke
An audacious attempt to overturn the British divorce laws in the European Court of Human Rights is to be made by the militant arm of the British male-rights movement.
The Man Kind group, which under its former name of the UK Men's Movement ran a guerrilla campaign against the Equal Opportunities Commission, has petitioned the court arguing that men are left in penury while women routinely take both the children and the cash. Fathers get custody of their children in only 1 per cent of cases, the group claims. "The current divorce laws reward women for desertion and adultery by giving them custody of children and maintenance payments," said Barry Worrall, the national secretary of the Cheltenham-based group. "Meanwhile men get punished financially. A man's life is wrecked in the process and a woman's life is materially enhanced."
Mr Worrall, a 52-year-old lecturer in computer studies at Newcastle's Northumbria University, has filed two complaints to the court in Strasbourg. He wants divorce settlements to take account of which party is at fault, ensuring that women who precipitate a break-up do not then "benefit" by gaining custody of the child as well as financial support. He also believes it is wrong that divorced men receive no share of child allowance money, despite sharing the cost of their upbringing.
Man Kind says there are 11 discrimination cases before the human rights court, mostly filed by men caught in the mesh of the divorce or benefits system an experience common to most of its 300 active members.
The resort to law is a new departure for the group, which has previously attracted a reputation for aggressive anti-feminism. Its leadership is anxious to shed that image.
It will not be easy. The group's Scottish chairman, George McAulay, a 50-year-old fitter, is currently barred from phoning or visiting the Equal Opportunities Commission under threat of police action because officials said he was harassing them. The commission had accused the robustly masculine group of "gumming up the works", bombarding its switchboard with complaints about the treatment of men.
Mr McAulay, who said he would "give them equality until the pips squeak", remains a potent source of embarrassment. Last week he repeated his view that, as natural leaders, men should take charge of their wives and families. Too many British men were "addicted to mummy-pleasing", he declared.
That is a long way from the language used in the group's weighty submission to the Court of Human Rights or its complaint to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "We don't want to come across as cranks or as misogynists," said Mr Worrall. "We don't want men to be the head of the family, although we might have one or two members who, individually, do think that. We are concerned about the well-demonstrated grievances men have in almost every area of life."
He points to the fact that the national cancer programme is weighted towards women, who also benefit from women-only courses in education.
Earlier this year the group told the Scottish parliament that all boys from eight to 15 should undergo rites-of-passage training at girl-free camps to help them do better at school. There would be lessons in integrity and heroism as well as outdoor adventure activities. The movement also called for an equal gender balance of primary and nursery school teachers.
Acknowledgement : The Times, 4 December 1999
'Villainous women are waging war on us'
The UK Men's Movement has just escalated hostilities against feminism. John Naish investigates
Can you hear the sound of marching slippers? Across the world angry men are mobilising to fight feminism and restore chaps to their rightful place - in a comfy chair next to the fire, with their wives in the kitchen and the children at their feet.
The backlash of Traditional Men has spread from America to Spain, Japan to New Zealand. Now it is heading for the European courts. In Britain, the UK Men's Movement has picked up the cudgel and is campaigning to put Dad back at the head of the family.
In bygone days, Traditional Man might have defended his patch by shouting into the scullery, but the manifold barbs of women's liberation - no-fault divorce, maintenance, careers, self-assertion and even sexual harassment - have prompted the UKMM to take its case to the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile in Britain, the Equal Opportunities Commission has accused the movement of attempting to jam its system by bombarding it with complaints about the treatment of men.
Don't confuse the UKMM with that tree-hugging, in-touch-with-your-manhood stuff popularised by American Robert Bly in his 1990 new-man's bible, Iron John. "Bly's people are just excuses for men," says UKMM national secretary Barry Worrall. "Suppose when Hitler started attacking Europe the Allied leaders had got together to hold hands and explore their feelings? Pathetic. We are not concerned about what it is to be a man, we just want a fair deal."
Worrall, a 52-year-old computing lecturer at Northumbria University, is taking the British Government to the European court. He claims Britain is denying men their right to marry by creating a legal system that makes it positively dangerous for them to walk up the aisle. "No-fault divorce laws reward women for desertion and adultery by giving them custody of children and maintenance payments. Meanwhile, men get punished financially," he argues. He hopes the case will be heard in a year's time.
The UKMM, set up seven years ago, has a 300-plus membership and subscribers range from male nurses to company directors. In appearance they could be any thirty-to-sixty-something man next door. What they share in common is a gnawing anger at their treatment at the hands of women and the divorce courts.
Worrall is bitterly convinced that an unholy alliance of liberalism and feminism has wrecked his life. He says: "I was treated in an indescribably evil way by the courts. It destroyed me financially and personally and opened my eyes to what has happened to this country in the past 30 years.
"Men are discriminated against in most forms of life. In healthcare, cancer programmes concentrate on women, in education there are women-only courses.
"Some of the feminists behind all this plainly hate men. There are some villainous women waging war on us."
It doesn't stop at discrimination, reveals the UKMM's house magazine, Male View. It carried out a sexual-harassment survey of members and discovered that a quarter said they had been whistled at, nearly half had been subjected to women "exposing themselves with see-through or otherwise provocative clothing," and a fifth had felt women deliberately brush against them.
But in the face of this rampant - or imagined - repression there is a gleam of hope. Worrall says: "Men's groups are breaking out all over the Western world." Indeed, the Australian Men's Party, a "masculinist" political group, argues that men today are treated as "little more than a sperm bank and chequebook by family law courts".
The Norwegian Men's Movement, meanwhile, offers its own backhanded tribute to strong women. The homepage of its website, anonymously purporting to be the voice of Norway's manhood, says: "I have always liked a little resistance from my girlfriends - someone to have a little struggle and discussion with, otherwise life becomes too boring. I soon tire of the ones who let me take them to bed the first evening."
It has to be said too that these howls of male anger remain too ugly, too unpalatable to be included in the general wave of compassion prompted by that latest fashionable cause - "men in crisis". This has arisen out of issues such as the fear that schoolboys are falling behind academically, and the all-too-real rise in suicide among young men. Nevertheless, American feminist Susan Faludi's new book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of The Modern Man, strives to understand this die-hard misogyny.
"We have to learn to listen, to get underneath the rant against feminism, to the underlying source of men's anguish," she says. Faludi blames this anger on a witches' brew of consumerism, repressive fathers, job insecurity and the emptiness of tough-guy role-models.
"They have no meaningful role, their work has no connection to the larger social purpose," she argues.
To psychiatrist Dr John Campion, 53, such sympathy is just empty chat. A dedicated men's movement activist and serial writer of angry letters to the press, he argues that a victorious male backlash would benefit both sides in the sex war: "Feminism has produced nothing but misery for men and the vast majority of women," he says.
"It has nothing to do with equality, it has just been propaganda for a tiny minority of women who have high-flying careers. The vast majority of working-class women would rather stay at home with their children instead of having to do the mundane jobs that are open to them." There, there: Denise Knowles, a counsellor and sex therapist with Relate, claims to understand why men feel they have a raw deal. But she adds that they will have to learn to live with it.
"Women during the past 20 to 30 years have had huge opportunities to develop their education and careers, but men have not been enabled to develop their new social roles, such as parenting and running a home," she says. "Women now seem to have more choices in life - such as putting off having children until later in life - while men seem to have fewer. Men see their roles being eroded and, because they can no longer fill their traditional ones, they get angry."
She says, however, that men's groups are unrealistic in demanding the restoration of their traditional roles: "There has to be negotiation and compromise. Just standing there saying you are not going to change means you are going to end up a dinosaur."
COMMENT : if it is true, with regard to complaints to the EOC, that UKMM members are "attempting to jam its system by bombarding it with complaints about the treatment of men", then why doesn't the EOC deal with these cases instead of complaining themselves about receiving them ?
COMMENT : this article has serious flaws and does not represent the information which John Naish was provided with. Here is our subsequent letter to the Press Complaints Commission :
To : Press Complaints Commission
1 Salisbury Square
Copy : Editor, The Times
John Naish, The Times
Complaint about John Naish's article in The Times of Sat 4 Dec 1999
'Villainous women are waging war on us'
I wish to make a complaint about this article with reference to your Code of Practice.
1 - Accuracy
John Naish reported that my case is at the European Court, when it is at the Court of Human Rights. He did not report that our submission to the UN Human Rights Commission on the same subject had already been referred to the UK Government.
He has included a statement which we have never made, and so has seriously misrepresented our group, i.e. that the UKMM is "campaigning to put Dad back at the head of the family", when I did not say, and the movement has never said, such a thing.
2 Opportunity to reply
John Naish ended his article with references to a member of Relate saying "(men) will have to learn to live with it" and "standing there saying you are not going to change means you are going to end up a dinosaur", while these opinions are presumably not those of Relate, or even of any other group or any significant number of women. We had no opportunity to respond to these ridiculous statements.
4 - Privacy
John Naish has referred to my private circumstances without my consent (see below under misrepresentation) when he quoted me as saying "I was treated in an indescribably evil way by the courts. It destroyed me financially and personally". Please bear in mind that I am a University Lecturer who appears in front of many students each week.
7 - Misrepresentation
John Naish misled me regarding his motives for the phone call when he phoned on Fri 12 Nov.
I specifically asked John Naish about the reason for his phone call. He evaded telling me the truth by saying that "it was a personal interest of his". He did not say that it was for a future article in The Times.
John Naish subsequently phoned a colleague of mine, Dr John Campion, who was so outraged by John Naish's attitude towards himself/us that he terminated the conversation with John Naish. While John Naish included some of Dr Campion's comments, he did not tell his readers about this aspect.
Please process this complaint against the author and against The Times.
UK Men's Movement
Acknowledgement : The Sunday Times, 31 October 1999
Scots sort men from the boys
A man's a man for a' that, but only if he can wrestle. A pressure group is calling for compulsory courses on manhood to teach boys about integrity, heroism and tree-climbing, writes Geraldine Murray.
All boys from the age of eight to 15 should undergo rites-of-passage training at girl-free camps, according to a submission to the Scottish parliament.
The UK Men's Movement wants to reverse the trend of underachievement at school by introducing a boys' own programme of adventure training, physical exercise and seminars on manhood given by servicemen, sportsmen and emergency workers.
The movement believes the initiative, which would cost an estimated £30m a year, would reduce violent crime.
The programme, which is being suggested in response to the government consultation on its Improvement in Scottish Education draft bill, would progress until, at 15, boys would have "three weeks of communal male experience, culminating in initiation and welcoming into the world of men".
This would entail tests of hardship, discomfort and solitude. There would then be a graduation ceremony at which the boy's mother would be welcomed.
George McAulay, chairman of the movement in Scotland, said it was only a rough blueprint to stimulate debate.
"The point of these centres is to prepare boys spiritually, as well as physically, mentally and emotionally, for what lies ahead with as much wit and wisdom as can be given to a boy of 15," said McAulay.
The movement is also calling for an equal gender balance of primary and nursery school teachers and for a commission to investigate which teaching methods and environments best suit boys.
Dr Linda Croxford, a senior research fellow at Edinburgh University, is conducting research into gender and performance at school.
She said she was unsure whether the courses' values were old-fashioned. She added: "It does sound quite interesting, but I don't think anything is going to create a quick fix. Perhaps what is needed is a real look at what it means to be a boy in school today and what it means to be a man in the 20th century."
The Scottish Executive said: "The consultation finishes this weekend and we wouldn't want to pre-empt any of the submissions by making comments."