No one in a difficult separation can be impartial and uninfluenced, least of all the children. It’s a mistake to think the child’s voice alone is the answer. Back to the key report
Does the child in the middle know what to do?!
At one recent event, the unqualified lawyers and voluntary organisations were determined that promoting ‘the voice of the child’ was the way to rescue the situation in Scotland. Doing this using a simple F9 form has been firmly rejected. But the persisting idea that children will get us out of our mess is yet more evidence of unqualified leave of our senses.
Of course children’s views should be sought and genuinely included when children want to do that, and can do so understanding how their views will be used. But the original Australian use of the voice of the child was precisely to keep that out of court, to enable the child to be heard with skilled help for their parents to take on board. This was particularly intended to ensure the child was NOT given a powerful vote in the complex decisions that mature and skilled adults need to put together.
We know how deeply upsetting attachment change and loss can be for children of all ages. In Scotland we have, in a word, rather forgotten about: Influence. Children – all of us in fact – are constantly influenced. You don’t need to be a professional to know that children are influenced all the time in all kinds of positive and negative ways.
Yet many who seek change in Scottish family law seem to have forgotten that. Once the child’s voice has been heard, the complexities of influence are what requires the most careful thought if not a qualified professional’s skill, to meet all parties and take into account bias and influence of all kinds and to assess the child’s capacity and response to it (see Miller, S G, in Baker et al, 2013). One of the proposed topics for future child welfare reporters in their brief training is to understand influence and undue influence. It seems that we all need to be reminded some more about influence. So here goes:
To repeat: There’s no such thing as an uninfluenced child. Never mind the usual 12 year old watershed of responsibility for thinking for themselves. Even into young adulthood, children are not mature in their thinking and understanding, nor resilient against influence. If well-functioning adults can be recruited by the undue influence of online scams and mind-control cults (who create a new disturbed attachment to do it), then a child’s parent is already in pole position to shape their own child’s mind. By definition children are immature. They are inevitably influenced by their close family, dependent as they are on those primary attachments.
Of course (adults and) children have valid experiences and views to contribute. But no one, and certainly not the child, can get the full picture in conflict situations without looking at the full picture and the influences going on. In the extreme distress, high emotion and tense loyalties of separating, children become sitting ducks for a parent – with others chipping in as well – to consciously or unconsciously, strategically or unduly, validly or invalidly, influence them to side with one parent and tribe against the other.
It is madness to imagine that anyone’s views, let alone a child’s expressed views and feelings, will be somehow pure, pristine, objective fact and informed judgement without consideration of many factors including what may have influenced their views and feelings. On the other hand, if their minds aren’t minced, children can be savvy. They will sense or know well what their family are like, who they think they need to keep in with, what it is that whoever wants to hear from them.
Voluntary organisations include the child in their talk but tend to represent the partial interests of the parents with the children and their voice likely to be used to serve the adult interests. That is part of the problem not part of the solution. Skilled qualified assessment of a child’s best interests has to go beyond a child’s stated views, feelings and wishes and beyond the partial views and wishes of the disputing parents (Weir, K. 2011).
If we turn to the child to lead us through adversarial courts, another once core principle has been forgotten – one that children have also ‘voiced’. We know that children want to be informed and involved in what happens in their family after separation, but they do not want to be made responsible for decisions that force them to choose between one or the other parent. There is no better way to escalate the harmful tug of love that tears apart the children in the middle than to place a child and their voice in such a central role.
Child-focused adults listen to the child’s voice. Let’s take the more neutral familiar legal expectation that children attend school but may not want to: “I never want to go to school”. We all know that a child’s welfare is not served by blind obedience to what a child says. Someone needs to assess all aspects of the situation carefully, at school: bullying, insensitive teachers, specific learning problems, and at home: the child’s separation anxiety or even panic disorder, and the relational factors with their home parent (intentionally keeping the child off school, or the parent’s unintentional stressed feelings, mental health or personality disorder).
Even without any extra complications, children resisting contact with their other parent may equate precisely with children resisting going to school. Without qualified professionals in place to assess things properly in complex family law cases, the pursuit of the child’s voice as the solution to the major flaws in the Scottish system is a most terrible mistake.