The com­plex chal­lenges of ‘shared par­ent­ing’

Ire­land’s First Na­tional Shared Par­ent­ing Sur­vey, launched yes­ter­day, high­lights the emo­tional, so­ci­etal and sys­temic bar­ri­ers that adults en­counter in try­ing to share car­ing for chil­dren af­ter sepa­ra­tion

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Parenting Challenges - Sheila Way­man The full re­sults and rec­om­men­da­tions of the na­tional shared par­ent­ing sur­vey are avail­able on one­fam­ily.ie sway­man@irish­times.com

In the­ory it sounds sim­ple. Two adults who are no longer in an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship park their dif­fer­ences to en­sure the chil­dren have a con­tin­u­ing re­la­tion­ship with both par­ents when they go their sep­a­rate ways.

In re­al­ity “shared par­ent­ing”, al­though gen­er­ally in the best in­ter­ests of chil­dren, is com­plex and highly chal­leng­ing, as re­flected in Ire­land’s first na­tional shared par­ent­ing sur­vey launched on Mon­day. It high­lights some of the emo­tional, so­ci­etal and sys­temic bar­ri­ers that even well-mean­ing adults en­counter in try­ing to share the joys and bur­dens of car­ing for chil­dren af­ter sepa­ra­tion.

The re­port, com­piled by One Fam­ily, calls on the Gov­ern­ment to re­move the ob­sta­cles that make it harder for par­ents to share par­ent­ing pos­i­tively and to im­ple­ment ap­pro­pri­ate sup­ports to re­flect the chal­lenges these fam­i­lies can face.

Its rec­om­men­da­tions range from fur­ther in­vest­ment in fam­ily sup­port and par­ent­ing ser­vices to re­form of the fam­ily law courts, as well as so­cial wel­fare changes aimed at re­duc­ing child poverty. The rules that ap­ply to the one-par­ent fam­ily pay­ment and job­seeker’s tran­si­tional pay­ment, for in­stance, “dis­cour­age shared par­ent­ing af­ter sepa­ra­tion and need to be amended”, it ar­gues.

Out­dated con­cept

One Fam­ily has worked for many years with fam­i­lies who are sep­a­rat­ing and par­ent­ing alone, but, in­creas­ingly, it has found its clients are “re­ally shar­ing par­ent­ing, in small ways and very sig­nif­i­cant ways”, its chief ex­ec­u­tive, Karen Kier­nan, tells Health + Fam­ily. It com­mis­sioned the sur­vey to shed light on this pro­gres­sion from the out­dated con­cept that it is al­ways the mother left hold­ing the baby.

“We know it [shared par­ent­ing] is hap­pen­ing but we don’t un­der­stand how peo­ple are do­ing it and how many peo­ple are do­ing it. And we wanted to hear from par­ents them­selves – how they per­ceive and ex­pe­ri­ence it and what would help them to do it bet­ter.”

Al­though one in four fam­i­lies with chil­dren is a one-par­ent fam­ily, the na­tional cen­sus does not cap­ture statis­tics on the num­ber of fam­i­lies who are shar­ing par­ent­ing.

A UCD study led by Tony Fahey, draw­ing on data from the Grow­ing Up in Ire­land sur­vey of nine-year-olds, found that there is some sort of con­tact with the non­res­i­dent par­ent daily to weekly in 72 per cent of di­vorced or sep­a­rated lone-par­ent fam­i­lies, and in about half of never-mar­ried lone-par­ent fam­i­lies.

“I don’t think any of us fully un­der­stand how peo­ple are shar­ing par­ent­ing – that in­cludes our pol­i­cy­mak­ers and our ser­vice providers,” says Kier­nan. She hopes the var­ied picture that emerges from the re­sults will help in­form im­prove­ment in the pro­vi­sion of much-needed sup­port and ser­vices.

How­ever, even the def­i­ni­tion of “shared par­ent­ing” is prob­lem­atic. One Fam­ily de­fines it as fol­lows: “Shared par­ent­ing is when both par­ents, who live sep­a­rately, have an ac­tive par­ent­ing role in their child’s life, ir­re­spec­tive of how much time they might ac­tu­ally spend with their child.”

Some sur­vey re­spon­dents took is­sue with that. Kier­nan says her or­gan­i­sa­tion wants to be in­clu­sive as pos­si­ble, but ac­knowl­edges that some lone par­ents would ask how some­body not pay­ing main­te­nance and turn­ing up only once a month, or twice a year, could be con­sid­ered as “shar­ing” par­ent­ing.

Work bet­ter

“Be­cause these par­ents are in chil­dren’s lives we are try­ing to reach them – it is not about them be­ing good or bad,” she ex­plains. “It is about them be­ing in the child’s life and how can we make it work bet­ter.”

Some 47 per cent of the 1,000-plus, pre­dom­i­nantly fe­male, re­spon­dents to the on­line sur­vey live on their own with their child(ren) in a one-par­ent fam­ily. An­other 23 per cent say they live in a one-par­ent fam­ily, but share par­ent­ing with the other par­ent. Just 5 per cent say they live partly with their chil­dren, who then re­side with the other par­ent the rest of the time, while 7.5 per cent have set up home with a new part­ner but share par­ent­ing with the other par­ent.

Only 27 per cent of the sur­vey par­tic­i­pants say that the time each par­ent spends with the chil­dren was agreed am­i­ca­bly be­tween them. An­other 22 per cent agreed it be­tween them­selves, but with difficulty, while 8 per cent did it through me­di­a­tion. In 21 per cent of cases it was or­dered by a court. Among par­ents who have the chil­dren liv­ing with them most of the time, 9 per cent say that the other par­ent spends time or has con­tact with them daily; for 33 per cent it’s weekly; 12 per cent say monthly; 6 per cent dur­ing hol­i­days; and 26 per cent “less of­ten”.

Just 37 per cent of re­spon­dents agree that they make de­ci­sions jointly with the other par­ent on is­sues im­pact­ing on their chil­dren. While 52 per cent of par­ents who have the chil­dren most of the time say the other par­ent con­trib­utes fi­nan­cially and 32 per cent say they don’t.

It’s clear from the re­sponses to open-ended ques­tions in the sur­vey that both moth­ers and fa­thers feel that so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing pol­icy- and law-mak­ers, treats them un­fairly be­cause of their gen­der. Women tend to feel judged as sin­gle moth­ers and think that their role is put un­der more scru­tiny, while fa­thers are more likely to be­lieve their gen­der works against them in court hear­ings and me­di­a­tion.

Open com­mu­ni­ca­tion is seen as a pre­req­ui­site for shared par­ent­ing. Once this post-sepa­ra­tion ap­proach is es­tab­lished and work­ing well, it is seen as bring­ing ben­e­fits not only to the chil­dren, but also to par­ents, giv­ing them “time off” and some­body with whom to share re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence

How­ever, the chal­lenges to achiev­ing this ideal range from com­mu­ni­ca­tion dif­fi­cul­ties and lack of con­trol to per­ceived lack of in­ter­est on the part of the other par­ent and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

“Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is ac­tu­ally lit­tered through­out this,” says Kier­nan. “I don’t

think in Ire­land we have yet at all un­der­stood the con­nec­tion be­tween do­mes­tic abuse in its baldest sense in the home, the im­pact on chil­dren and then how par­ents have con­tact with chil­dren where they may be a per­pe­tra­tor of once-off or on­go­ing vi­o­lence.”

It was one of the big­gest is­sues One Fam­ily en­coun­tered when run­ning a pi­lot pro­gramme of child con­tact cen­tres from 2011 to 2013. De­spite a highly pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tion of the scheme, there was no fund­ing forth­com­ing for con­tin­ued pro­vi­sion of such su­per­vised, neu­tral spa­ces for non-res­i­dent par­ents to spend time with their chil­dren.

“Peo­ple are be­ing forced to fa­cil­i­tate con­tact where they think it is not safe or ap­pro­pri­ate – and maybe it is not safe or ap­pro­pri­ate,” says Kier­nan. “Some­times the courts get it right and some­times they don’t have all the in­for­ma­tion.”

The “chasm” in all of this is the ab­sence of a court fam­ily wel­fare sys­tem, she says, along the lines of the UK’s chil­dren and

fam­ily court ad­vi­sory and sup­port ser­vice, most com­monly re­ferred to as Caf­cass.

If we had a sim­i­lar or­gan­i­sa­tion here, a lot of the prob­lems would go, Kier­nan ar­gues, be­cause “you have got some­body who is work­ing with the fam­ily, sup­port­ing them, as­sess­ing them, giv­ing ac­cu­rate, un­bi­ased in­for­ma­tion to the courts. We have real in­equal­ity in terms of jus­tice here be­cause peo­ple who can af­ford to pay for pri­vate as­sess­ments will pay the ¤3,000 for a sec­tion 47 re­port and peo­ple who need it and who don’t have that sort of in­come can’t.”

Good out­come

It doesn’t guar­an­tee a good out­come for chil­dren if the courts don’t have all the in­for­ma­tion, she points out.

Many par­ents com­ment on the need for me­di­a­tion be­fore le­gal pro­ce­dures, with 34 per cent say­ing they had at­tended such a ser­vice. But opin­ion was di­vided on its use­ful­ness. Any­thing that can help peo­ple stay out of courts is bet­ter, agrees Kier­nan, but

where there are power im­bal­ances or vi­o­lence, me­di­a­tion isn’t go­ing to work.

As to what peo­ple say would help them share par­ent­ing bet­ter, more than half of them agree that im­proved fam­ily court ser­vices, coun­selling, ac­cess to rel­e­vant par­ent­ing cour­ses and im­proved sup­ports for chil­dren, such as play ther­apy, would be ben­e­fi­cial. When a non-res­i­dent par­ent seems re­luc­tant to en­gage fully in a child’s life, Kier­nan thinks lack of con­fi­dence may be a fac­tor or it may be eas­ier, emo­tion­ally, for them to let go. She would like to be able to get that par­ent into a sup­port ser­vice, to help them look at what’s go­ing on.

Fi­nally, she re­calls the com­ment of one

mother who said “I would love an agency that deals purely with sepa­ra­tion”.

Kier­nan re­calls the com­ment of one mother who said “I would love an agency that deals purely with sepa­ra­tion.”

“That re­ally struck me: one place to go for help with fi­nance, emo­tional sup­port, fam­ily law, to help you fig­ure that all out – wouldn’t that be amaz­ing? The smoother this be­comes and the more nor­malised, the less the neg­a­tive im­pact.”

FAM­ILY PHO­TO­GRAPHS: PA­TRICK BROWNE PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRYAN O’BRIEN

Above and right, Keri Knapp with her daugh­ters, Aoife (9) and Scout (4) in Water­ford. Left, Karen Kier­nan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of One Fam­ily, works with fam­i­lies who are sep­a­rat­ing and par­ent­ing alone.

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