Separating parents and welfare of the child

A number of children’s charities, working together as The Shared Parenting Consortium, had a result last week.

It campaigned, successfully, for an amendment to a clause in the Children and Families Bill. The clause originally provided that the courts should ‘presume,’ unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of the (other) parent in the child’s life would ‘further the child’s welfare.

The worry was that parents would assume this means that they are legally bound to equally share access to their children.  It was felt, quite rightly in my view, that there should be clarity about the meaning of this clause. This is especially important in a world where ex-couples, due to the cuts in legal aid, are negotiating arrangements without legal advice.

So well done to the Consortium. Good work. It has clarified that s1. of The Children Act remains king. That is, that the ‘child’s welfare’ is the court’s top consideration when making any decision about that child’s upbringing.

I can see that some Father’s groups may’ve supported the clause in its original format. Without wanting to be stereotypical, the reality is that more men are likely to feel at a disadvantage when decisions are made about arrangements. It may be felt that sharing time equally should be a presumption in law.

But if that’s correct, all we are then doing is moving towards contact/access arrangements being made on the basis of parents ‘rights’ not the welfare of the child. And that, to me, is a very slippery slope.

The clause has now been amended to clarify that involvement in the child’s life can mean direct or indirect involvement and is not a division of a child’s time.

All good stuff.

But it doesn’t help in those sad and not infrequent cases where one parent is desperate for the other, post separation, to maintain contact with the child but he/she just can’t be bothered.  Many times, in practice, I had a parent asking if there was a court order he/she could get to make the other see the child. Sadly, that is just not out there. But maybe it should.

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My writing process : Blog Tour

 

Thank you to Patricia Borlenghi for inviting me on this writing process blog tour. I met Patricia whilst we were both studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Essex Uni. Since finishing, we’ve kept in touch. I recently read her novel Clarisse and am looking forward to reading more. How great is she too for setting up her own publishing business. See: www.patricianpress.com

So here’s my blog tour answers:

  1. What am I working on?

I’m working on loads of things. Bookswise, I’m re-editing my teen thriller, Discoveries, which is a story about a young person whom, on learning she was adopted at birth, runs off with her birth mother. I then need to edit my fourth book, Best Interests, a story about twins in the middle of their parents’ custody batter. This book is based on a play I’ve written of the same name. I’ve also just started a blog and I’m aiming to add a post or two each week. My posts mostly relate to writing, law and children’s rights having spent many years as a children’s rights lawyer dealing with all sorts of welfare issues for young people. I’m also at the thinking stage of writing a screenplay about a child witness in court. I’d love to, at some point, write thrillers for TV. Oh yes, I’m also working on promoting my first book, Losing Agir. This means, amongst other things, I’m offering workshops on law, rights and writing in schools. I love the schools work. The children have, (so far at least) being amazingly receptive.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well I think its fair to say that currently in the teen market, my type of realistic fiction is in a minority. This then, when you throw the legal angle into the bag too, becomes even less mainstream. But I’m happy to do niche. The YA market is swamped with vampires and magic just now but I’m confident that there will be a gradual move towards my type of fiction. Then, when that happens, I’ll be well placed with plenty of material written and available. From my years representing teenagers in care, the homeless, those with mental health problems, those in custody etc, I’ve got all sorts of ideas for stories. My books are not overtly political but sometimes, I do refer to systems that have failed people in one way or another.

3.  Why do I write like I do?

My books are relatively short. I use plenty of dialogue and seem to keep away from heavy description. I love using dialogue to really move the plot plus show characterization. I think that’s why I’m so keen to write more plays and screenplays. I hope my books are page-turners and are fast paced.  My first book, Losing Agir, was inspired by a human rights case and my second book, The Silk Slaves of Bangalore, was inspired by a human rights report. Getting facts right is important to me in all of my writing so I read and research a lot before I get going. Although the issues in my books may be challenging, I’m not into ‘misery writing.’ I’m just into writing about what’s real.

4. How does your writing process work?

I try to write every day, even if it’s only a few lines. Writing at home, for me, is too quiet and isolating so I often find myself in supermarket café’s for a few hours at a time. I do freewriting before I try to write anything substantial. I spend 10 minutes writing about whatever is in my head and through these strange ramblings, have found new ideas. I often read my writing aloud, especially where it is heavy on dialogue. Although I look like I’ve totally lost it, it actually gives me some idea as to whether the piece sounds realistic and will work. It also helps in ensuring a consistent voice.

So that’s my bit on the writing process blog tour. Further details are to follow as to whom the blog tour will move to next week.

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Harassment, legal aid and lyrca. My blog.

In an effort to make a point, the Fathers for Justice mob are often pulling stunts. From defacing art to scaling Buckingham Palace, their antics have been audacious and extreme both in terms of their actions and, by virtue of the super-hero outfits, their lyrca.

Whilst I’m not sure that the all-publicity-is-good-publicity rule always applies, last week, a Real Fathers for Justice activist (a splinter group from the original Fathers for Justice) received a 4 week prison sentence, suspended for 2 years, after being found guilty of harassment.

‘And?’ you may say, weary of the common post-separation slide; wife gets more time with kids. Husband gets mad. So wife gets even more time with kids.  So husband gets madder. Then loses it. Harassment commences.

Well, what’s different with this situation is that instead of harassing his ex-wife, the husband and activist took a different approach and harassed her solicitor. It seems husband set up a web site to attack the lawyer plus made all sorts of accusations about delay and the lawyer’s failure to pass on messages to his client about their three children.

My guess is that the husband was unrepresented meaning that the ex-wife’s lawyer had no option but to communicate with him direct. No doubt, that’s where the problems began. It may have been that had the husband had a robust lawyer himself, removing him from the sharp end, the whole situation would not have become so personal and out of hand.

But this sort of situation isn’t going to go away. As the very damaging cuts in family legal aid bed in, a large group of those facing divorce and family proceedings will have to represent themselves.  And like the activist above, (who, without any lyrca in sight still managed to gain attention to his cause) inevitably there is plenty of scope for those emotionally stretched people in the middle of proceedings, to get it all so horribly wrong.

 

 

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2014 – New Year Resolutions

Mine are – to get blogging – writing, law, rights, other stuff. And here is my new blog. Who knows where it will go.

Also I want to write a screenplay. I’ve an idea for a thriller involving the courts, abuse in the legal system and revenge. It could all get very nasty.

Am also editing other books. And I must, must, must finish my fourth book which is based on my play ‘Best Interests.’

Lots to do.

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What’s going on

Well lots really.

Film script is the big one this week. I had a brilliant day on Sunday when I attended a workshop at the Writers Centre in Norwich. Run by Christabelle Dilks and Michael Lengsfield of UEA –  both of whom so totally knew everything about everything – and funded by Creative England and Write2screen, the workshop was the result of a competition set up to help writers develop film scripts. I now need, with the 11 others shortlisted, to go away and write my first 30 pages of my film. Out of my depth? Yes, totally. But going for it anyway? Absolutely.

Otherwise, I’m about three quarters of the way through book 4 which is based on my play, ‘Best Interests’ (twins in the middle of a court case concerning with which parent they should live ie move to America to live with Father or stay in the UK with Mother). I’m undecided at the moment what to call it. It may be ‘Mercy’ which is the name of the twins mother. Mercy one of my favourite characters in all my writing. Life is not easy for her but she’s resilient and loves her kids.

I’m also thinking about future projects. There’s been lots in the press recently about young people in care. Also young victims giving evidence in court and some of the issues around that. I’ve got an idea for, what I thought would be, a TV drama about young witnesses. But now, after all the info gleaned from the Film Workshop, maybe its better to think big by thinking big screen.

Right, with all that, I’d better get writing.

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How exciting – A Play for the Nation’s Youth

I’m so pleased. My play ‘Simeon’ has been ‘highly commended’ (yes that’s commended with extra on top) in the ‘A Play for the Nation’s Youth,’ competition run by Salisbury Playhouse, Nick Hern Books and BBC Writersroom. I am so chuffed. The play had to consist of 20 plus teen characters. My play is about two young men, both part of a tragic situation as young children, who meet again as a group of young people from a Pupil Referral Unit visit a local independent school for a talk. I loved writing it and got so carried away in Costa Coffee doing it that, on racing back to my car to collect children from school, I had a massive parking fine. Sadly I didn’t win as that really would have justified the fine. Still, winning anything where writing is involved is a miracle and I’m delighted my play even got a mention. For details see here

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Amnesty,Fiction and Human Rights – Teachers Materials

It’s so great to see that Amnesty International’s document entitled ‘Using Fiction to Teach Human Rights.’  In it, Amnesty recognises the ‘power’ fiction has to ‘further human rights education.’ It just makes so much sense. Well written fiction raising human rights and welfare themes could play a role in different areas of our education system in terms of PHSE, Citizenship and of course English/English Literature. And such books don’t need to be heavy. Nor do they need be moralistic. They just need good, engaging stories which give pupils a taste of another world or life that they may never otherwise come across. Surely this has to be a good way of breaking down barriers created by differences whether such differences are cultural, physical, emotional, learning or any others. In turn, that should pave the way for a more open-minded, respectful and understanding society. It would certainly help at least.

I am so pleased to read about Amnesty’s work. I’ve written Teacher’s Materials for my book, ‘Losing Agir.’ It is basically a guide to the legal and human rights themes the book raises plus it gives, chapter by chapter, some ideas around class exercises, discussions and  themes. If any teachers are interested, I’m happy for you to have a copy.

In the meantime, bring it on Amnesty. Let’s hope schools and the education system engage. 

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Ormanici : 20 years on.

Ormanici, South East Turkey : 20 years on

 

 

20th February 1993.

Ormanici. 5am. Soldiers, dressed in white camouflage, descend on a small Kurdish village nestled in the mountains. Doors are kicked in. People are pulled from their beds at gunpoint. Homes are burned, livestock killed and families separated. As the terrified women seek sanctuary in nearby caves, the men, after being forced to lay facedown in the snow, are blindfolded. Then, chained together, they are made to march, many barefoot, through the mountains to imprisonment and torture.

 

Little is known about the fate of the village or the villagers today. It is understood that some families have drifted back to the village but for the most, it’s thought they never returned.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

In some respects international justice has been done. In 2004, judgment was handed down in the European Court of Human Rights in favour of the villagers who, with the help of a Kurdish lawyer, Tahir Elci (who is now the Chairman of the Diyarbakir bar),  and a UK team of lawyers, won their case for reparation for the destruction of their village and their torture and inhuman treatment at the hands of the Turkish military and police authorities.  Despite facing many barriers, every villager either in person or via a representative, gave evidence at the fact finding hearings in Ankara. They travelled for days by foot, cart or other means. Most were unable to read or write and many had never been away from their locality before.

 

The case concerning Ormanici and many others taken after the gross violations of human rights which took place in South East Turkey in the early 1990’s, changed the architecture of the European Human Rights case law. Principles established in these cases are still being applied now. However, 20 years on, what has the litigation in Europe actually meant to the villagers?  Many will have since died. The children present on that day will have grown up. The young people, one of whom had both feet amputated due to frostbite following the walk through the snow, could now be settled with families of their own. It is impossible to say.  What we do know is that the villagers, some 10 years or so after the attack, were awarded compensation but by then, many had drifted off and were difficult to track down.

 

There is much that can be said about the on-going tensions between Turkey and the Kurds. It is now particularly topical due to the imprisonment of Kurdish lawyers and other professionals, and the new dialogue between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish separatists. But what has changed since the villagers of Ormanici lost their homes, livelihoods and way of life on the 20th February 1993?  For a small community of people with little education and resources it is difficult to see that receiving compensation some 10 years later would do anything to really compensate them for what happened.

 

The villagers of Ormanici, and those who represented them in Turkey were brave pioneers. Their case was an inspiration to others who have used the much maligned European mechanism to seek justice. The Law Society in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, is to host a conference looking at both the 1990’s cases (of which Ormanici was, although the largest in terms of applicants, just one of many) and the more recent prosecutions of some of those involved in orchestrating the attacks.

 

Although the Turkish cases in the 1990’s created important European precedents, it seems that Turkey has a long way to travel to reconcile its relationship with its largest minority population. Let’s hope that the journey towards that reconciliation has now begun in earnest.

 

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20 February 2013

It’s an important week this week – it’s 20 years (on Wednesday) from the day the village of Ormanici was destroyed. The events of that day impacted on so many people in so many ways. For me, just an Essex girl interested in law and writing, it sent me on a path which led, ultimately, to my first book. For me, those villagers who overcame massive barriers to be heard, were inspirational.

Then on Friday, I’ll be at Wivenhoe Book Shop talking about my book. It’s really great to have the support and interest, so thank you lovely people from Wivenhoe.

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Family Justice – the need for support

 

Family Justice and young people :  The need for support

 

The Family Justice Systems Young People’s Board, a group of 32 young people with experience of family proceedings, has stated its wishes for family justice in 2013.

At the top of the list is the desire to tackle delay. That is, young people apparently want ‘normal’ family life to resume as soon as possible. It’s arguable that, post separation/divorce, a whole new ‘normal’ has to begin but the point is still a good one. The sooner the new normal is clarified and begins, the sooner the process of adapting to the new normal can start.

For me, the more important point arising from this group is that of the need for support.  The group call for greater support both during proceedings and afterwards. They suggest that an external person is appointed to give face –to- face, telephone and email support. It would be really good to see something like this happen. Having set up legal advice services for teenagers, I was contacted often by young people at the centre of proceedings asking for help. Interestingly, more often than not, they were not pushing for representation or active involvement in their parents’ cases. Instead, they sought information on procedures, processes and clarification on their role in the proceedings.

There is a big need in my view to feed more information to young people about the family justice system. Lets face it, in one way or another, many young people will have some experience of it. There will be those who will see it from the periphery as parents, even with an  ‘amicable’ divorce, are still likely to have some contact with the courts and the legal system. Then, there will be the children whose parents negotiate or mediate an outcome for their children. Again, although not directly involved in decision-making (which to me always raises questions about the ability for the child’s voice to be heard) the family justice system will still impact on the child.  Finally, there will be the children who are the subject of protracted, acrimonious disputes who experience the system at the sharp end. Like those young people navigating the legal meanderings of the care and child protection system, these young people need all the help they can get to understand the systems they find themselves in.

Whilst I am wholeheartedly behind the call by young people for more support in the family justice system, I wonder if alongside this, more could be done generally to generate awareness of the law and legal systems amongst young people.  The PSHE/citizenship curriculum in schools would have been a good place to do this but as this is only an ‘opt-in,’ it is difficult to see how it could ever be consistent.

Schools must already feel weighed down by the many demands by which they operate. However, the education system would be a great place to help young people develop an awareness of the family justice system and how it operates. This being so, it may then go some way towards helping those experiencing the system, like the young people from the Family Justice System Board, to feel better informed and far more supported.

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