In my previous blogs, I've addressed a number of issues facing divorced parents and what changes are needed to ensure that a healthy fairness can be reached for all. However, at the centre of that issue is a power struggle which is a little more difficult to overcome. The struggle for control of the child.
Divorce is ultimately the separation of two people who don't like each other. That animosity may range from forced amicability to pure hatred but very rarely is there a scenario where the two can get along and communicate. When a child is involved and loved by both parents, it's simultaneously a panacea against the negativity felt by each parent; a prize to be won in order to hurt the parent who 'loses' residency, and unfortunately, cash.
From a psychoanalytical viewpoint, the child can represent the 'only good thing' in a marriage. The parents individually still love the child (hopefully) and for that reason want possession of the potential of having love in their lives. Each parent is hurting, angry and trying to cope alone. It is that psychological state which projects on the child, a symbol of purity in their lives. The marriage has fallen apart so they must cling onto the child both as object of love and object of support. Even though the child isn't responsible for telling the well-being of the parent, they psychologically become the thing that keeps normality possible.
The problem of course is that both parents are feeling the same emotions. The child then becomes an object for one to possess at the expense of the other. Knowing that your ex-partner loves the child is Machiavellian incentive enough to want residency simply to take the child off the ex in order to hurt them. The power over access decisions which comes as a by-product of residency adds to the incentive of causing ongoing pain - 'Not only have I taken your child from you on a regular basis, but I'm going to make seeing her/him as difficult as possible because I know that seeing she/he is the thing you really want most in life.' The non-resident parent then loses even more. From seeing their child every day, they are demoted to alternate weekends with the only potential for more access being at the whim of an ex partner who would rather keep the child away from them through spite even though the child desperately wants to see them.
Added to the psychological reasons is a very realistic financial situation. Child benefit is £20.50 per week (for the first child and £13.55 for additional children), Child Tax Credit is around £60 per week. That's approximately £320 per month before considering Child Support. With residency of the child often comes the lion's share of the financial settlement, usually in excess of 70% of the equity of the former matrimonial home for example and quite often given to the parent who didn't contribute to the bills. Child Support payments now factors in living expenses when the child is with the non-resident parent instead of a flat fee. For example, a child who spends two weekends per month with the father creates x amount of financial expense for the father while the child is with him which the mother doesn't have to pay. So Child Support is adjusted accordingly. Sounds reasonable but the clever resident parent can work out that less time spent with the non-resident parent equals less deduction from Child Support and hence an increase in payments made to the resident parent. If ever there was an incentive for the resident parent to deny access, it's that. The fight for residency of the child becomes the fight for greater financial gain. The child equals cash. Not only that but the less time spent with the non-resident parent solidifies the resident parent's status as main carer which brings the financial rewards outlined above.
At the heart is a child who is also hurting and confused and wants stability through this difficult time. More than that, they want time with each parent because they love them no matter what politics are going on. How can Family Courts and social services rely on the parents to act in the 'best interest' of the child and then create a warzone of opposition? All it takes is one hurting, selfish parent to cause irreparable harm. Perhaps instead of washing their hands after the decision is made, the court/social services need to remain involved to gain assurance that both child and parent's needs are being met as per the arrangements made, with serious immediate implications for all breaches. If financial gain is a good incentive to deny access then financial loss can be a powerful incentive to abide by the arrangements. What we can say with certainty is that the current state of trusting the parents to do the right thing does not work. And as an old friend once told me:
'If you can't rely on someone to do the right thing, don't give them the choice.'