Monday 12th December, 2011

Summary of the Westminster Debate: Supporting Families after the Riots and the Role of Family Law

Four months on, the Summer Riots that took place in England continue to be a source of fascination and discomfort, a series of events which are still unravelling in the aftermath of the many lives touched by the unrest. Family Law in Partnership and Researching Reform hosted a debate in the House of Commons to look at what implications the riots have on our society in relation to the way we view children and parenting more generally.

With an unusually large amount of children taking part in the riots from eclectic backgrounds, the one thing that seemed to unite them all was a sense of displacement, exclusion from the world and everything meaningful in it. The debate sought to encourage and take a look at how the family justice system can play a part in supporting our children and families. In this way, the discussion ran as a whole without a break, as we began to realise that the riots asked more questions than they answered and curiosity ran high as to exactly what those questions were.

Our Chair for the evening was John Cryer MP, who did a wonderful job whilst he was with us, however a family emergency prevented him from staying with us throughout the debate and his humour and insight were sorely missed. Researching Reform was privileged to Chair the rest of the evening’s discussion and to sit among the panel members: District Judge Nicholas Crichton, Elaine Halligan, David Allison and Sue Atkins.

Despite the truly awful weather, most of our guests bravely made their way to the House of Commons. Our audience, which was made up of politicians, academics, policy researchers, journalists, magistrates, parenting experts, lawyers, heads of family organisations and parents asked a broad range of fascinating questions, both thought provoking and controversial.

John Cryer MP very kindly opened the debate by explaining the nature of the meeting, and the order of events. District Judge Nicholas Crichton was the first panel member to speak and he focused upon his work and experience at the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC), which focused heavily on protecting children from displacement, usually within the family where one or more parents are struggling with substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol.

Judge Crichton felt very strongly that in order to protect children from feeling excluded and alienated by society that their best hope was to, wherever possible, remain within their family and be nurtured there, which often meant providing substantial support to mums and dads dealing with addiction, but which was a great deal better for the children and families involved and also a great deal less strenuous on the government’s budget in the long term. He also felt strongly that parenting was not always instinctive, that intervening elements like substance abuse impaired that ability to parent and as a result, children in such families would not have the opportunity to learn how to parent for the future within their current family setup whilst addiction played a vital role within the family unit.

Judge Crichton went on to talk about a newly published report by the Prison Reform Trust called “Care – A Stepping Stone to Custody” to highlight the difficulties with children being taken from their families and placed into care. He noted the startling findings of the report which indicated that children in care are far more likely to commit criminal offences and in this way suggested the possibility that the involvement of children in the riots were perhaps a symptom of a lack of extensive support for our young. He also touched upon the attitudes of the police towards children in care, citing a quote from a young girl who had herself been in care and who felt the police were labelling children like her as inherently bad, and drawing upon a parallel in the riots where police were deemed by many people in subsequent research carried out by the Guardian, to be one of the main causes of the riots themselves.

Following on from his observations, Judge Crichton then went on to talk about possible solutions for protecting our children and supporting them. He spoke about drugs and alcohol and the hugely negative effect they had on parenting, the statistics which revealed a shockingly high number of children living in conditions where one or more parents were suffering with addiction and the huge difficulty in working with families who continue to have children under these circumstances prior to seeking out and making use of help available to battle their addictions. He stressed the glaring lack of government interest in addressing these issues, which lead to more and more children finding their way into the care system and as a result usually not being able to make their way in the world without feeling stigmatised and ignored.

Judge Crichton emphasised the positive results that have come about through FDAC, the ability it has given the court to return children to their original families and the financial benefits of using a system like the Drug and Alcohol Court to protect family units and to reduce the costs of family breakdown. He rather poignantly closed his speech with a recollection of a psychiatric report he had seen in which a mother had said that every time a child was taken away from her, she could only get over the pain by getting pregnant again. Judge Crichton went on to say that this heartache also kept a vicious cycle alive, with both mother and child paying a heavy price as the newborn would often be premature and suffering with drug related withdrawal symptoms whilst the mother herself had not recovered from her addiction. In this way, Judge Crichton emphasised the importance of the family justice system being able to nurture children within their family units and reduce the incidence of exclusion and repair the rifts between children and authority figures in society; possible key causes of the riots.

Next to speak was Elaine Halligan, who described the negative impact the government had caused by choosing to blame parents for the riots and the involvement of young children in the unrest. She touched upon the Guardian’s extensive research which indicated that parents were in fact not considered to be a key element in the involvement of young people in the riots and spoke about the blame culture which she felt currently prevailed within society. Elaine highlighted this point by looking at the research and citing the blame which was also heaped on to the police.

Elaine also spoke about the backgrounds of the rioters, that they came from all walks of life and that she felt these young people taking part in the riots were united by a sense of powerlessness and a moral vacuum, which created a sense of confusion and a general numbness in relation to how they viewed the consequences of their actions.

Looking at the possible causes of child involvement in the riots, Elaine considered that a value system was missing from parenting, that parents were not infallible and that sometimes parenting was complex and not always immediately obvious. She explained that whilst parents should not be blamed for the riots, they too had a role to play in protecting children from exclusion and were in a powerful position to nurture and provide their children with the tools they needed to blossom.

Elaine then went on to look at the possible solutions she felt could be offered through parenting classes. Concerned about the stigma attached to these kinds of classes, Elaine explained that they were a place to find inspiration and tips on how to parent better; an environment which did not seek to dictate parenting skills, rather to enable parents to find their style and evolve it. Elaine explained the need to individualise parenting, as a homogenous approach was not realistic or right for children and she went on to say that by removing the stigma such classes had, parents would feel more comfortable about seeking out alternative types of support when they found themselves stuck in a rut.

Touching upon instinctive parenting, Elaine felt that it was not always the case that parents instinctively knew how to bring up their children and that it was heavily dependent upon how parents had themselves been parented as children and their experiences during childhood. She went on to explain that these classes were for mothers and fathers and that it was unjust to assume that mothers were more adept at parenting as compared to fathers. She also expressed the view that rising divorce rates could be mitigated by strong support for parents, so that children felt the effects of the divorce much less and in so doing, would be less likely to carry the scars of such a traumatic experience, which in itself can lead to deep feelings of isolation and exclusion, which can last a lifetime.

Elaine finished her speech by reiterating the need to have diverse types of support, for all family members and that events like the riots would continue if we did not address the core malfunctions within the family unit which can take place, whether through divorce or separation or just a lack of support at a time when parents need it most.

Next to speak was David Allison, who began by looking at the lack of certainty surrounding the causes of the riots and the involvement of children in them. He spoke about the many possible factors which may have caused the riots which had been mentioned by the panel members before him and that he felt the family justice system had its part to play in taking some of the responsibility for supporting society and helping to heal the evident rifts that came to the fore during the unrest.

As the Chair for Resolution, David went on to explain how important for children he felt it was to approach family breakdown in a collaborative and non confrontational way. He spoke about helping parents, although he noted that the majority of people asked about the riots in the Guardian’s research did not feel that bad parenting was the root cause. However, David noted that inevitably and despite the extensive if somewhat incomplete research to date, parenting did play a role in providing children with the support they needed and a close-knit structure which would enable and empower them.

David went on to talk about how separation and divorce specifically can impact upon parents’ ability to care for their children and that at Resolution, their Parenting After Parting initiative was designed to help parents counteract the stress of divorce and separation, an emotion that all too often can impact upon caring for young people. David went on to explain that he felt the key way the family justice system could help parents was to minimise conflict, through mediation, collaborative law and arbitration. Having worked as a mediator and collaborative lawyer, David explained that he saw positive outcomes working with these methods and as a result children suffered less.

Speaking about the Family Justice Review, David welcomed David Norgrove’s findings on alternative dispute resolution and went on to say that David Norgrove wished to put the welfare of the child at the centre but David Allison was deeply concerned about the effect the lack of legal aid would have on families and the wider implications of that on society as a whole. David also warned against rising costs of social unrest, citing the costs of the riots and his concern that cutting legal aid would cost more in the long term. Aware of the need for cost cutting at a time when the economy was weak, David explained that taking a long term approach now would save money in the future.

David concluded his speech by thanking everyone for listening and noting the enormous task ahead in relation to smoothing out the family justice system and offering meaningful support which might play its part in keeping social unrest at bay.

Our final speaker was Sue Atkins, who opened her speech with observations about the devastating effect of the riots, on family businesses and local communities and her view that the riots were caused by a complex range of factors. Sue was particularly shocked by the lack of remorse the rioters felt in the wake of their actions and the seeming lack of values that prevailed during the unrest. Sue felt very much that parents had a key role to play in preventing children from feeling excluded and alone and cited a UNICEF report which described children in the UK as being unhappy, un-cherished and un-nurtured. Sue then went on to mention a later UNICEF report which remained unchanged in its tone in relation to the way UK children felt.

Sue was also concerned about the taboo in relation to seeking guidance about parenting and felt that the UK were ‘self development’ shy and unwilling to be taught how to parent better. She hoped that the government would consider helping to remove the stigma from parenting classes and encourage families to put children first, to change the culture surrounding children in the UK and most importantly she felt, that more time was devoted to children by their parents.

Speaking about child welfare, she was passionate about making children central to family life, to offer parents tools they may not have cultivated or may not know how to cultivate in order to communicate better with their children and support them better and the concept of being a role model to our children.

Sue finished her speech by explaining that parents are integral role models to children and that as parents we have a responsibility to step back and consider whether we are passing on the right values and tools to our children and in what ways society can enhance that experience.

The debate was the opened to the floor and the first question came from Roberta Tish, a family lawyer who related her feeling that as a nation we did not like children very much! She went on to mention the Battersea Broom Brigade and whether it might be worthwhile to understand what it was in these children’s lives that gave them the incentive to act positively at a time when so many more children seem disillusioned and alienated. Another lady asked how we could break the cycle of parents who needed support but were too shy to come forward and seek out parenting classes, a question the panel acknowledged was complex and one which needed further thought.

The next question was asked by David Clements, a social policy expert and writer for the Guardian, who questioned whether the rise of the parenting class was in fact undermining parenting by shattering parental confidence in their own skills and creating even more vulnerable family units by instilling the notion that parents were not equipped to look after their children without help. Elaine Halligan answered by saying that at times, parents are not at their best, whether through substance abuse or divorce and that the kind of help she envisioned is there to support parents during those times, not as a permanent feature of a family’s life, but to give them the support and confidence they need at a time when these feelings take a hit in difficult circumstances.

David Clements when on to ask why it was that parenting was not considered inadequate in the past but was viewed that way today and that he felt parenting was something learned on the job and instinctive. The panel answered by suggesting that parenting has not always been perfect and that some parents lack the seminal instincts to nurture their children. David Whelan, a gentleman who had himself been in care spoke next and explained that he felt that parenting was not always instinctive as he had experienced a difficult childhood himself and witnessed his parents struggle to care for him. David Whelan also went on to say that he felt parenting was not the only issue and that the riots were more complex in terms of root causes to which Elaine Halligan responded that she agreed and that her view was that parenting had a small but important role to play in building a society free of significant unrest. The next audience member to speak was Delma Hughes, who works with looked after children; her concern was in relation to the kind of love and nurturing children in care received and how she felt it was terribly lacking and therefore potentially problematic when considering social unrest.

Another gentleman spoke about his experience in the family court process and his subsequent exclusion from his child’s life which he felt was unnecessary and a product of a system that was not able to support families in its current state and that the system was in desperate need of modernisation. Nicholas Crichton acknowledged the system would benefit from being able to offer more intensive help but observed that the current alternatives were sparse and not able to offer the kind of support that was needed. A father in the audience went on to speak about co-parenting and how he felt this was a positive way forward in protecting family units and ensuring that children were given more stable structures to grow up in, regardless of whether the parents were themselves separated or divorced. Seema Thobani spoke next, a lady who worked for Kidz4Mation, an organisation that offers parenting classes also spoke about the stigma of attending such courses despite the underlying curiosity of many parents who seem to want support.

Further questions were asked by Daniel Sieff, Liz, a lady magistrate and John Wilkes, a father together on issues ranging from interest amongst parents for parenting classes, the way youth courts work and what lessons could be learned from them and whether parenting coaches could go into schools and offer their support. The panel spoke in turn on each question and broadly encapsulated the positive effects of parenting support they had seen, across all family backgrounds, the desire to encourage parents from all walks of life to view parenting support as a user-friendly option and to look at other systems and alternative approaches for inspiration in order to better support children.

As the end of the evening was fast approaching, we had to cut the questions and answers short and Researching Reform drew the event to a close by recapping on what was discussed; the possibility that the unusually high level of children present during the riots was symptomatic of a deeper problem, which was reflected in the everyday pressures of family life, from economic stresses and strains to divorce and separation and on another scale, the misuse of drugs and alcohol within family units. With that, and after thanking the panel and the audience for taking part, the debate came to a close.

I would very much like to take this opportunity to thank the audience members again for coming along; whether familiar faces or new ones, it is always a privilege to be able to debate these issues with the guests and as has been said many times; there is no debate without the audience. I would also like to thank the panel members for taking time out of their hectic schedules to take part, for giving thought-provoking and insightful speeches and sharing their experience with us. A big thank you also to John Cryer MP, who was a wonderful, if brief chair and to both John and Lord Listowell for allowing us to use the room in the House of Commons to host the debate.

Finally, I would like to thank Family Law in Partnership for sponsoring this debate; it was wonderful to be able to discuss the many and varied issues buried within the riots and to use the debate as a forum for encouraging the family justice system to play its part in protecting the welfare of our children.

 The summary can also be found in our document archive.



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