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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.