Particularly hard hit are mothers whose partners have been abusive towards them. Photo: Getty
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Mothers4Justice: why we need a single mothers’ pressure group

Thanks to the success of the fathers’ campaigns, public policy is now biased against responsible mothers.

When the childcare expert Penelope Leach wrote recently that separated parents who agreed on their young children having regular sleepovers with the non-resident parent were doing harm there was an immediate response from Families Need Fathers and Fathers4Justice.

From mothers there was virtually no reaction. There is a simple reason for this omission: single mothers are just too busy, looking after their children and trying to earn money to keep them, to set up a pressure group on the lines the separated fathers have done.

Yet there is an overwhelming need for such a group because, thanks to the success of the fathers’ pressure groups, public policy is now biased against responsible mothers. Particularly hard hit are mothers whose partners have been abusive towards them. Such mothers are often ordered by the Family Court to hand over their children on alternate weekends to fathers who they know are likely to harm the children emotionally if not physically, because such men are more concerned with their own power and control than their children’s welfare.

The Family Court of England and Wales and its associated quango – CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Service) have become mesmerised by the idea that it is a good thing for children to divide their time between both parents, whatever the non-resident parents’ behaviour. In so doing they are reflecting the view of the Ministry of Justice – a department that has been over-influenced by Families Need Fathers and Fathers4Justice.

The Court and CAFCASS are so intent on ensuring children divide their time between both parents that things a rational person would consider a risk to children’s welfare are ignored by them, or regarded as irrelevant and not child-related. A father may have been convicted of a sexual offence, but if it was some time ago and not against a child it could be dismissed as historic.

A father may use all manner of dodges to evade providing financial support for his children, but the court is unlikely to take his parental responsibility away from him. The likelihood that a man who has abused his partner by controlling behavior is likely to use access to their children to try to continue that control is rarely considered.

A man may have hidden a lengthy criminal past from his partner for years, but that deception and dishonesty is likely to be dismissed as not relevant when the matter of contact with children is considered. Indeed honesty is so undervalued in the Family Court system that lying by parents is often considered the norm by CAFCASS’s staff and by family lawyers.

Perjury is rife in the Family Court, but it is usually ignored or explained away as being merely the behaviour of a parent intent on seeing their child. Thus the dishonest parent gets away with dishonesty and the honest parent is not believed.

As a result at weekends children, up and down the land, protest that they do not want to spend the weekend with their fathers, but are told by worried mothers that there is a court order saying they must do so. When they see the misery such orders are placing on their children some mothers become so desperate they defy the court and fail to hand their children over, but most mothers are too scared of the legal system and social workers to do that. Instead they take beta-blockers and suffer from broken hearts.

It should not take Penelope Leach to question the harm caused to children who are ordered to divide their time between two homes – particularly where there is a history of abusive or criminal behaviour on the part of the father. That should be obvious to anybody who has raised children and seen how they value security and safety, and how they benefit from good role models and suffer from bad ones.

It is high time the Family Court, CAFCASS and the Ministry of Justice reviewed their approach on weekend stays and shared parenting. Thanks to their exaggerated adherence to father’s rights what is happening in the court at present is akin to institutional abuse of children.

If the former partners of abusive and feckless men had the time and energy they would set up their own pressure group – possibly Mothers4Justice – to counterbalance the over-influential fathers’ pressure groups. Sadly mothers simply do not have the time, so children continue to suffer from this unnecessary institutional abuse.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear