This period of social isolation has been difficult for all parents. However, separated fathers face further challenges during the crisis. Getting sufficient contact time with children as a separated father is often complex – and the results even when contact orders are put into place may be unsatisfactory. The process of resolving contact cases takes on average 6 months, but may take as long as 22 months. However, even when a case is considered “concluded”, fathers often face breaches of contact orders requiring further legal actions.
The onset of the lockdown and social distancing has enhanced the issues faced by fathers. Initially, there was a lack of clarity with regards to seeing non-resident parents during lockdown. The government moved relatively swiftly to address this – on March 25th, two days after the imposition of the lockdown it was clarified that seeing non-resident parents counted as “essential” journeys. Minister Michael Gove stated:
“While children should not normally be moving between households, we recognise that this may be necessary when children who are under 18 move between separated parents. This is permissible & has been made clear in the guidance”
Nonetheless, the confusion caused by the conflicting advice has caused some ex-partners to withdraw contact with separated fathers. Parenting NI’s ‘Dad’s Project’, which works with fathers has been contacted by several fathers in this position. One father told us:
“I was seeing my daughter 3 night a week pre lock down. Initially when entered lock down I didn’t see her for 2 weeks, then kept her every 2nd week for a full week. Up until last week I hadn’t seen her for a further 2 weeks.
Over this period, I have found it stressful doing my work and my daughter has struggled to understand family and has found it hard adjusting to the ex-partners new home”
A further complication of this was the cessation of “normal” court proceedings. With the coronavirus safeguards in place, private and non-essential court cases were halted. The Lord Chief Justice has outlined his guidance for what court business could proceed. While some family cases were included in this, they were limited to:
“Non-molestation Orders; Applications under the Children (NI) Order 1995 such as Care Orders, Prohibited Steps Orders, Emergency Protection Orders and Secure Accommodation Orders; Declaratory judgments in patients’ cases; Child abduction.”
Contact orders – and private cases to establish contact in the event of a separation – have been either postponed or unable to start as a result of the crisis. Additionally, with limited resources in an already over-stretched judicial system the fathers Parenting NI supports expressed concern that their issues were unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Small numbers of ex-partners acting in bad faith have seemingly been able to use the crisis as a means to reduce or remove contact. The normal resources available to fathers in this time are under strain, making it harder to address.
A father said:
“Just before the lockdown at the end of February a new order was issued leaving contact as per the wishes and feelings of the children, thereby removing my right to contact with my children or any means of legal recourse against my ex-wife which I had.
Since then I’ve had no contact with my daughters aged 12 and 14. I contacted the court office and they just told me that my appeal is on file and would be dealt with when possible. Only very urgent matters would be dealt with by the Court until further notice. They just told me to wait until I hear from the Court.”
Even where a father has been able to maintain contact, the impact of the crisis has complicated normal contact. For fathers who had supervised contact via contact centres, there has been restrictions and even closures. While many contact centres have implemented innovative solutions to attempt to address these issues, they cannot provide face-to-face contact. Additionally, the regulations on social distancing have meant that fathers cannot avail of outdoor or leisure activities in the same way as before. If a father has non-overnight contact and a home that is not well suited to time with his children, the crisis has made it harder for him to spend meaningful time together. One example we received informed us:
“He is 4 years old and has limited understanding of what is happening and social distancing. I am holding off taking him to parks or busy areas until I am satisfied the risk has decreased considerably. This includes visits to my mother who is having to shield.”
One of the major issues has simply been a lack of clarity regarding the rules. The mixed messaging of regulations and the manner in which they have been reported by the media have meant that fathers are often uncertain as to what is allowed. This has created unneeded stress and concern for some fathers.
Fathers who are separated already face significant mental health challenges. One report found that they are more likely to have serious mental health problems, and feel more isolated than separated women. In addition, the Royal College of Psychiatrists notes that men who experience divorce or separation experience depression more often and it is more severe. Studies have shown that fathers who no longer live with their children experience poorer relationship quality with their children and experience more social isolation, greater conﬂict with former spouses, and suffer the loss of emotional support from former friends and peers compared to fathers who reside with their children. Lack of contact can exacerbate these outcomes and has negative impacts on children as well.
Parenting NI continues to provide advice and support for fathers both through our general support line and specifically through the ‘Dads Project’. We feel it is more important than ever for fathers to be aware that support continues to exist even during this difficult period. Fathers can still ring the support line on 0800 8010 722 and be referred for direct help. In addition, they can access any of the following voluntary organisations:
Finally, if a father is experiencing any other issues, looking at the Helplines Network NI website can point them toward an organisation that may be able to address it: