Thursday, January 20, 2005

Mediation for parents

Yesterday’s government announcement on reforms to family law were desperately needed. I’ve been surprised by the number of fathers I’ve met in the past few months who, however hard they try, are having problems getting any access to their children.

Conciliation seems a sensible step, and is the first time, as far as I’m aware, that a anything resembling a reconciliation and mediation programme has gone mainstream in the public sector on this scale. Thames Valley Police have been leaders in restorative justice (a form of conflict mediation between victim and offender) since the late 1990s. Mediation has also been used by some local authorities to try and deal with neighbourhood disputes, young offenders and schools – see for more information. A number of conflict mediation charities exist throughout the country (e.g. the Christian inspired Conflict and Change) , from which local authorities sometimes ‘buy in’ expertise.

However, my (relatively limited) experience suggests that their services are not well integrated and tend to be called upon as a last resort, by which time it’s too late.

Mediation between parents to try and avoid damaging and painful court cases must be welcomed as a positive step. Whether a service run by Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), a court based organisation, are the right people to run mediation I’m unsure. By the time people have applied to the courts in many cases it may already be too late and conflict mediation can be driven by those wanting to cut costs. A lot will depend on the expertise already existing within Cafcass and their ability to adapt to their new role.

As usual all the announcements yesterday focused on ‘what’s best for the children’. Protecting children is of course hugely important, but the rhetoric conveniently sidesteps and ignores what happens to the parents involved in the breakdown. The fact that relationship break-down is one of the most stressful events that can happen in your life, causing knock on effects to friends, jobs, the economy, mental health and the NHS, parents are simply left to ‘reap what they sow’.

The long term aim must be to develop a culture where asking for input into your long-term relationship or marriage becomes the norm, not just for those whose relationship is on the verge of breaking down. Relationship building is a core value in many churches (and other faith groups) , who potentially have a great to deal to offer wider society. Christians that have them don’t need to be defensive about the relationship-building skills that we can bring to people in our towns and cities. I don’t know anyone who wants to grow up as a single parent or see their relationship fail. A survey by the Scottish Council Foundation ‘identified [a parent’s] highest priority, both during pregnancy and after the baby is settled at home, as having the full support of partners and family members’ . However, the question is how churches can move beyond ‘marriage courses’ (excluding large segments of the population) and assist those wanting to work at long-term relationships, whilst still upholding the importance, benefits and sanctity of marriage.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Tsunami thoughts

Like everyone else I’ve been encouraged by the response in the UK to the horrific tsunami in South East Asia. Peer pressure is usually used with negative connotations, but the past few weeks illustrate its positive aspects. It’s become expected that businesses and websites should collect funds and publish the contact details of the DEC. Between Christmas and New Year that callers were contacting Radio 5 Live to ask how much supermarkets were donating in the crisis. A spokesman from Tesco was hauled onto the programme and held to account. The ‘moral economy’ has been re-emerging for a few years now, but this is another boost as it continues to gather pace.

In the same way, politicians have been assessing the political importance of the public sympathy for the tsunami. For the first time, commentators are arguing there are votes ‘in’ international aid. In fact, there’s been some votes in international aid since the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Local MPs are always willing to meet church groups that are campaigning on aid, because they know that they are likely to vote. However, the government won’t see the tsunami’s political import purely in terms of votes. During the Jubilee 2000 campaign Gordon Brown urged campaigners to keep the pressure on him to act. Public pressure is one way to create political capital for politicians with the right ideas, but who need to clear ‘blockages’ of vested interest in the system. Hence the chancellor’s and the UN’s recent attempts to divert some of the political capital from public sympathy over the tsunami to assist in the Aids, debt and trade problems of Africa.

I’m not convinced this will work, because I think one of the reasons (although not the main one) that the British public were so generous in response to the tsunami is because no one was to blame. Debt, unfair trade and poverty in Africa are man-made problems. Their root causes lie with exploitation by the west of these nations and our consciences are touched with guilt at the thought. Even disasters caused by droughts or floods leave a niggling feeling of doubt in our minds as the spectre of man-made pollution and global warming springs to mind. If it’s our fault something is happening responding requires a change of behaviour on our part to restore justice. The politics is messy and repentance is costly. The tsunami gave the opportunity for grief, generosity and empathy unbridled by guilt.

Such emotions are God-given. Responding in this way makes us, as a nation, more like God wants us to be. The church needs to find ways of fostering and encouraging this into gifts that we practice regularly in the UK. In a couple of weeks the tsunami and it’s devestating aftermath with disappear from our screens. What ways can the church find of keeping interest alive, of providing a valid outlet and opportunity for people’s interest and feelings? I don’t yet have answers to that question, although the possibility of churches initiating links with churches or other faith groups in affected areas springs to mind. If churches across a UK town had the courage and vision to make links with a town in say, Sri Lanka over time it should be possible to draw in schools, businesses and local Councils into a connection that could be fruitful for all involved.

Jerry Springer

The outrage of Christians at the Jerry Springer Opera worries me. I’m desperate to see Christians have the confidence to engage in public life and politics (small p), but this type of target is a red herring. Many Christians who wrote to the BBC did so with the best of intentions – to stand up for Jesus in a society that has forgotten Him. But to the rest of the country it makes us look defensive, over sensitive and interested only in protecting ourselves. If we are to engage distinctively with our society we must defend and raise our voices for others. There are more than enough pressure and lobby groups shouting their own interests.