In ten year’s time, or thereabouts, it will be taken as fact that the UK family justice system today was responsible, in significant ways, for contributing to soaring levels of mental health disorders faced not just by parents going through the courts, but later on, by their children. I modestly suggest this will also be established in other jurisdictions in the western world, too.
Whilst it would be terribly unfair to suggest that people inside the system have colluded together with the sole purpose of trying to deteriorate the mental health of families that come before them, the heady combination of several high impact stress triggers within the system and the government’s fear of addressing the problems without finding themselves caught in ever increasing political and financial conflicts of interest means that much like the sub-prime mortgage crisis, it is likely that intervention and reformation will not take place before we’ve paid too high a price. And it would be very easy to make the case that with one small life lost, the price is already too high.
Yet there are very real issues that need to be addressed when considering how the process affects mental health.
The UK family justice system is not sophisticated. Practitioners themselves, in private, often speak of it as a blunt instrument, often unable to provide the kind of detail that is required in family matters. When that metaphorical gavel comes crashing down, there’s no telling sometimes, where and on what, it will land. And the mess it makes, both physically and mentally, can be devastating.
Stress is often the catalyst for mental health deterioration and to that end we can perhaps group together a few major stimuli that cause stress levels within families to soar when they go through the family courts: these are what could be described as stress triggers. It’s important, I believe, to mention that before families come to the courts, there is an emotional background that is not taken into consideration, which adds to families’ stress levels especially when professionals inside the system don’t understand that they are not working with people at their best – they are working with people often at their worst and are therefore vulnerable and need support.
Arguably the greatest stress trigger is one related to the science in the system. Many professionals don’t seem to be aware of the high levels of stress families are already under by the time they come to it and focusing as they do on inter departmental issues like goal incentives and inter-group politics, the real focus which should be, to my mind, on trying to stabilise families first before supporting with advice, is being ignored. Mediation for divorcing couples is the latest offering in this department but it will not provide government with the solution they crave – supporting families so that they are confident and calm enough to make their own choices or feel comfortable being aided to do so, will bring about the kind of solutions good for families and good for government.
The lack of understanding about the range of emotions that families go through when they come to the courts is also confounding. Social workers often retaliate with anger when a family member shouts at them upon advising, as they sometimes have to in public family law cases that a report into the care of their child may lead to the child being removed. This is a perfectly normal reaction and yet, it remains largely misunderstood. The social worker takes it personally and before you know it, they allow their own upset to muddy the waters and retaliate by taking their hurt out on the family, sometimes through mild forms of bullying right through to court of protection orders, effectively removing decision making from the person in question and doing so without just cause in these instances.
There are unfortunately many cases where families who have perfectly good track records with their children are treated abysmally because they chose to challenge rather forceful social workers on ill-founded assumptions. Whilst physical violence should never be tolerated, there has to be a basic understanding of how family breakdown manifests in families emotionally and an inherent respect for the families in question. The kind of miscommunication going on at present is causing stress levels to soar, not just for families but for social workers too, who really should be able to spend regular periods of time with councillors to decompress and let out their own anxieties of having to work with often very troubled families. Without that support, people inside the system become very jaded and this has a definite impact on the way services are delivered. We’re all human.
Another stress trigger related to the science in the system stems from the lack of uniform and accepted knowledge on psychiatric conditions. The confusion in the family courts on these matters and the wildly fluctuating standards across the country are also sub-triggers, leaving families feeling as if they are at the mercy of disinterested bystanders sent to fill out forms and load the families up onto processing trays, to be dissected and divided at will. The stress of being misdiagnosed is immeasurable and there are far too many examples in the news from Dr Meadows to mothers who run away from England to escape wrongful diagnosis (due to impending removal of their children from their care) for this stress trigger to be ignored. The trauma this causes to children is enormous: from the fear of losing their parents in scenarios which should never have placed families under such a microscope, to sometimes the need to relocate, whether through fear or a poorly judged court order needs no explanation. And when families are wrongfully separated, one can only imagine the psychological harm that causes, with intense trepidation.
A further factor relates to the family courts being seemingly unaware of how these flaws inside the system all compound together to create major stress triggers and unwittingly force some families to be exposed to several of them at once, for extended periods of time, without anyone trying to stabilise the families during any part of the process. These raw, vulnerable units are often left to deal with the weight of an ailing and heartless system on their own and as they struggle to cope, their deterioration is often wrongfully misinterpreted as an implicit sign of their being something wrong with the families in the first instance, when in reality they are simply responding to insurmountable pressures placed upon them by a Neolithic system.
In fact the system is so basic that even the complaints procedures seem to be a no man’s land of no response and ‘no one home’. But it is even worse than this. With the system’s growing reputation for being unreasonable and irrational, today, people are sufficiently aware that should they even contemplate attempting to complain about poor treatment in the family justice system that they will probably find themselves open to prejudice and their case compromised by irate professionals who feel angered at being singled out for bad behaviour. As a result, even more families are afraid to speak out, leaving countless children at risk of gross injustice. It is of course true that sometimes people complain unfairly about those who work in the system yet the culture of retaliation within the departments in the system is strong and clearly unprofessional. And it’s contributing to the erosion of the system and the mental health of the families that come before them.
An added and significant stress trigger relates to poor communication, not just between families and professionals mentioned above, but by legal sectors which often cross paths during family proceedings. Family matters encompass myriad legal areas, from potential domestic violence issues resulting in criminal convictions or cautions to angry spouses sometimes trying to shed responsibility for financial obligations or even just shuffling assets around to friends and family to appear financially stressed, the system finds it almost impossible, unless you happen to be a millionaire and can conduct the evidence gathering process yourself in some instances, to ‘talk’ with various sectors and find out whether there are criminal judgments or fraudulent activities taking place. So poor is it, in fact, that when a breach of the law is committed in another field, families are often advised that family lawyers can do nothing about it, because it is ‘not their area of expertise’. This is understandable, but neither are matters relating to custody or contact, which is why they farm out these issues to Cafcass officers, for instance. This lack of pro-active and creative thinking cripples the system and leaves families at the mercy of the court’s ignorance, which is particularly dangerous in matters relating to child welfare and potentially violent parents. The levels of stress for children and the vulnerable spouse here is obvious.
And the financial implications of the process, set only to become greater as the government proposes charges for things like help with child maintenance and almost all but abolishes legal aid are a massive stress trigger for families. The cost of hiring lawyers is mind bogglingly high, with customer service satisfaction at an all time low. It’s all very well saying that no one is ever happy with the outcome of a court process in family matters but that is to ignore the often very poor quality service families receive in this area. The number of times families complain that their solicitors don’t even get back to them in a timely manner and seem to be immune to picking up the phone and returning a call is just a small part of a much bigger service provision problem. In private family matters especially, the majority of people simply cannot afford to pay for the kind of service that might, at a stretch, ensure the judge has all the information they need before them to have a shot at making an informed decision and when families try, they are often vilified for spending money doing so.
And after a while, some of the stress triggers become so all embracing, that parents start to take days off work and eventually remove themselves entirely via sick leave. At that point, it’s only a matter of time, before someone loses a job and finances take a hit. With a reduced level of income, already stretched due to the separation and the less than civil treatment families feel going through the process thanks to a system that operates as if it is under martial law, removing civil liberties sometimes without due care and consideration and doling out judgments that seem completely at odds with the realities of the families that come to court, families who are already in distress find themselves on the brink.
It’s a caustic catch 22, a bitter sweet blackmail wrap, that leaves families high and dry whether they bite on the bullet and pay through the nose at the expense of their families’ income or simply forego spending on the process and hope that justice will out, usually in vain. For how can a judge possibly make an effective decision without all the information?
The last major stress trigger is arguably the adversarial nature of the system. It might be fun for lawyers to battle it out in court and I daresay even more so in the corporate world, where the playing field is better suited to the rough and tumble of semantic sparring but to the family who’s future is being held in the balance, the tension and ‘excitement’ is not enjoyable nor indeed is it appropriate by virtue of the fact that there is a definite lack of dignity to the process which sends out a subliminal message: this is about our game not your perspective. The alienation from the process is a sub-trigger in itself, making families feel as if they are not a party to their own fate and more worryingly, that their views on their fate are irrelevant. This, coupled with the tangible hostility that is encouraged in some quarters, only serves to heighten anxiety levels, which parents harbour and take home and often unable to set the angst aside, expose their children to high levels of anxiety at best or at worst, unable to control the fear at all, take it out on their children.
As the court processes in family matters take longer and longer to complete, the chance for mental health to deteriorate and become debilitating, increases. The story of the Mail Box Monster is one such example. It has become something akin to Family Law Folklore, but I’m often asked why letters from solicitors always seem to arrive on Fridays, always carrying some kind of harrowing message and more often than not, laced with passive aggressive-style blackmail usually written with a hostile bite to match and sometimes just downright rude. I have seen many of these letters for myself. None of the ones I read suggested for a moment that the parties in question had fallen foul of the law or the payment of a bill.
Yet this Mail Box Monster manifests every Friday and families have to limp on through the weekend, often trying desperately to put a brave face on for the children, sometimes not succeeding, but leaving parents feeling anxious and tired with worry. If left unchecked, the Mail Box Monster becomes a spectre in the psyche, so much so that families even come to fear their mailbox. And I have experienced this myself. After two years of receiving vitriolic rhetoric from lawyers who thought they were being clever, woefully blinded by what was perhaps well meaning sentiment, I too began to fear and loathe my mailbox. It became very difficult to consider going down to check the mail and every time I saw a letter in the box, I would panic. My heart would start to beat terribly fast and although the court process had come to an end and I knew those letters were not related, I would panic nevertheless as to what might be inside the envelopes: was it good news? Was it bad news? And if it was bad news, how bad would the bad news be? The sheer level of my anxiety, heightened over such a long period of time, had worn down my resistance and my ability to take uncertainty in my stride. My only respite from the fear was the time I spent with my son. During those periods, my anxiety would melt away, lost in the heavenly haze of my motherly pursuits. But being uncomfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable in such a situation, I resolved to sort the problem out. Soon, I was receiving occasional parcels in my mailbox from Amazon, filled with books, for myself and my son. Instead of going down to my local book store to buy novels and children’s stories, I had decided to send them to myself in the post. There were two advantages to this: the books were quite a bit cheaper and my fear of the Mail Box Monster began to die-down, as my delight at finding my favourite books in the box took over. I am now no longer afraid of the mail box and have renewed my patronage at the book store, but it never ceases to surprise me, how many families I come across who are familiar with the Mail Box Monster too.
There is no doubt that we cannot blame the system for the problems families bring to court but we can take a compassionate view and change the way the system reacts to parents and their children by invigorating the system with a renewed energy, patience and passion to problem solve. All these things are free – they just require a sifting of the system, to find lawyers, judges, social workers and doctors who genuinely care about their work and the families that come before them and who have a deep understanding of the human condition and how it is affected by inter-related processes.
Going through my own divorce, it never ceased to astound me how little empathy and genuine listening went on in the process and how determined people were to take a point of view without full consideration and run with it, often to the detriment of all of us. At the end of the process, a lawyer once turned to me and said “Now can you see that the courts are not to blame and that it really is all down to you and your husband?” He was not a family lawyer and had not been a part of my divorce. I did not want to contradict him but I did reply “I take the view, that everyone has a part to play in the process”. I learned later on that this lawyer had rather unfortunately started to go through a rather acrimonious divorce himself. I did wonder whether his sentiments changed during that period of time.
It would be a pretty bleak thing if everyone had to go through the process themselves before they fully understood the ramifications of the system on the mental health of parents and children going through the courts. But there is plenty of evidence and information out there now for us to conduct research that, I believe, would show quite clearly that the lack of communication on all levels and the sheer cost of the process is unduly harming families and to that end I have asked the government to review a proposal for that research. I don’t know who will be brave enough to take it on, but I hope very much that in ten years’ time, the system will respond to the challenges it faces - and come to life.
Edited by Anthony Gonzalez for Child Quest International