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Does family justice need Families Need Fathers?

David Chaplin, publisher of Family Law Week, met with the team at Families Need Fathers to discuss the recently published contact research and their current activities

I have now been in family law publishing for over 15 years and during that time I have been well aware of the existence of Families Needs Fathers. My first real notice of them came when working for Family Law. One day a copy of their samizdat newsletter McKenzie landed on the then publisher's, Richard Hudson, desk. At that time the group had a reputation as rabble rousers and the newsletter certainly bolstered that image: it contained a scurrilous, satirical sub Private Eye spoof of a typical issue of Family Law. I cannot remember much in the way of detail but it did raise a mixture of consternation, amusement and probably a twinge of respect within the office.

In recent years of course, the public antics of the now you see them now you don’t Fathers 4 Justice / Real Fathers for Justice seem to have deflected attention away from FNF. On top of that in September 2008, the Ministry of Justice published the results of research carried out by the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy which purported to find that the courts handled contact cases fairly and that many cases settled before reaching court. Headlines in the papers such as “Fathers Groups Are Wrong” (The Times) and “The case against Fathers 4 Justice” is now proven (The Observer) trumpeted the death knell of their campaign. Yet I also knew that Family Law Week had recently referred several fathers to the organisation (we get a steady stream of cries for help to the Family Law Week email) and had received glowing tributes from them about the support they received. So I decided I would like to find out more about FNF and so visited their office in London to find out for myself.

The first impression was that of an enthusiastic and professional office. The charity now has 5 full time staff members including Nick Barnard their Director of Communications and Beck Sibert, Policy and Information Officer who I was due to meet. I first wanted to find out about the current activities of FNF. Their core service, Nick explained, is the FNF support group. There are now 32 groups spread throughout the UK. The groups provide the support on the ground for (mainly) fathers and are run entirely by volunteer members. Anyone who is going through the court process and the traumas it can cause can turn up where there will be someone who can listen and provide guidance. Some of the volunteers organisers are experienced McKenzie Friends though some may be just members who have had the experience of going through it all before.

Recent funding from the DFeS has also allowed the charity to offer more services, including the expansion of its telephone helpline. Again this is manned by volunteers all of whom have attended a three day training course. As Nick was keen to say, the helpline cannot provide advice but information on court procedures and a sympathetic ear are on hand. Last year the helpline answered 10,000 calls yet still 5,000 calls went unanswered – a sign Nick says that such advice is still very much sought after. Of course they continue to publish their newsletter McKenzie – better described as a magazine nowadays – and also run online, moderated forums, parenting workshops with the help of CAFCASS and contribute to policy development and consultation.

So with an idea of what they do now I turned to what they would like to see done in the future. I brought up the subject of the recent Oxford research. The apparently good news findings of the report were not the experience of their members and Nick pointed out that the increasing use of their support services seems to corroborate that claim. He described some of the subsequent media reports as “slightly spiteful” and expressed some concerns about the sampling used in the research. The remit of the report had also deliberately focussed on the early stages of court proceedings and so could not look at the longer term success of any of the agreements and arrangements between couples. What will be more of interest will be monitoring the effectiveness of the new contact sanctions due to come into force in late 2008. FNF will be keen to see whether and how early these sanctions are imposed on the recalcitrant parent – speed will be a real issue here.

We then moved on to shared parenting. If there is one wish that FNF could have come true it would be the presumption of shared parenting. This is unlikely to happen with the current Labour Government but hope remains that political change could see a change. He also felt that the FNF view is winning the philosophical battle and that the “deferred damage” children experience when their father fades out of their life has yet to be fully appreciated. The health of parental /child relationships is a problem for society as a whole – not just those affected by divorce and stressful court proceedings.

Finally I had to mention their relationship with Matt O’Connor and F4J – what did they think of the recent talk of their imminent closure? Nick was quick to play down any real friction but FNF have had to distance themselves from their more exuberant brethren. FNF are now at the point where they feel that such campaigning is not as productive as working on the inside with Government agencies: a policy that rather neatly encapsulates the evolution of FNF from indignant, dogged campaigners to, in their own words, “a social care organisation”.