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
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.
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 It commissioned the survey to shed light on this progression from the outdated concept that it is always the mother left holding the baby.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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.