As a parent, if your child is refusing to spend time with the other parent, many would empathise with you for not wanting to ‘force’ them. Unfortunately, the Court does not always share this empathy. So, what should you do if your child refuses to go to contact?
It would be easy to assume that the law focusses on the ‘rights’ of parents to see their children. However, that is not the case. The law instead focuses on ‘parental responsibility’, with the paramount consideration being the ‘best interests’ of the child. There is a presumption, in law, that contact and spending time with both parents will be of benefit to a child. Whilst the Court will take into account the child’s wishes and feelings (depending on their age and understanding), in applying the welfare checklist, it is reluctant to allow their preference to be decisive. The long-term benefit of having a relationship with both parents, in most cases, will outweigh any short-term distress caused by seeing that parent.
Parents often must encourage children to do things they don’t want to do. If one day your child decided they didn’t want to brush their teeth, you might ask why, try a new toothpaste, or entice them with a toothbrush featuring their favourite cartoon character. You wouldn’t simply say ‘ok, you don’t need to brush your teeth anymore.’ Contact with the non-resident parent is no different. Of course, nobody is suggesting that a child should be dragged, kicking and screaming and so it will be vital to try to get to the bottom of why they don’t want to go or potentially try a different time or venue. What is not acceptable, in the Court’s view, is to simply say ‘ok, you don’t need to go anymore’.
Consequences of Not Taking your Child to Contact
If contact is refused and the non-resident parent makes an application to the Court, the resident parent will have to explain why contact was restricted or refused. If there is already a Court Order in place for contact, refusal to allow the contact to take place may amount to contempt of court and may lead to a ‘wasted costs’ order being made against you. If the Court is not satisfied that you as the resident parent, will do your best to facilitate contact, it may, in extreme circumstances, order that the child lives with the other parent or even committal to prison.
What if I Have Valid Reasons for Concern?
Where you have valid reasons for concern, for example, you have evidence that the non-resident parent is intoxicated whilst your child is in their care, you should seek immediate legal advice. It may be that the circumstances warrant making an application to vary any existing Court Order, and it may put you in a more favourable position to make this application before an application for enforcement is made against you.
Alternatives to Court Proceedings
There is an expectation to attempt to mediate with the other parent before making an application to the Court. A mediator is an independent neutral third party who will facilitate communication between both parties working together to try to resolve disputes amicably.
Arrangements regarding contact may need to change over time. For example, as children get older, they may begin to want to spend more time with their friends. Parents will be able to utilise the tools learnt during mediation to adapt arrangements accordingly without the need to return to Court. Mediators can also assist in agreeing a ‘Parenting Agreement’ between the parties which will set out all the things that go into the parenting of children.
As explained in our previous blog (https://www.familylawpartners.co.uk/blog/child-inclusive-mediation/), specially trained mediators are able to meet with children to involve them in this dialogue. It should be made clear to the child that it is not for them to decide the outcome of the mediation but that this is an opportunity for them to express their views regarding how things could be made easier for them.
Child Contact Interventions
Arguably, child contact interventions are a hugely undervalued resource. They are bespoke programmes which usually last between 8 and 10 weeks, working with parents and children alike to meet the individual needs of each case. They are commonly used to facilitate interim contact during Court proceedings to reduce the number of Court hearings necessary to deal with such matters. Cafcass can refer parents to these programmes where available in the local area, or parents can access them independently using a NACCC accredited provider.
Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP)
Parents may be directed by the Court to attend a SPIP or may access such programmes independently. The aim of a SPIP is to assist parents in identifying how their separation may be impacting their child and how to manage their changing parenting dynamic. Children often pick up on the tension between parents. Learning to manage this may be the change which is needed for contact to run more smoothly.
Family consultants are trained relationship therapists/ coaches. They can provide both practical advice and emotional support. Meeting with a family consultant may be able to help parents in navigating their new family dynamic, improving communication and assisting them in compiling a parenting plan.
If your child is refusing to go to contact then your starting point should be to:
- Speak with the other parent and explain the difficulties.
- Engage a family expert if you consider this would be beneficial.
- Identify support you could draw on to assist you both in managing your new parenting dynamic.
- Explore alternative options to Court proceedings.
- Continue to encourage your child with positive reinforcement and do your best to promote the other parent in a positive light despite your feelings towards him or her.
Remember, there is an expectation on you, as a parent, to do your best to facilitate contact and making a court application isn’t necessarily going to help the situation. You should work with the other parent to identify what is going wrong and how things can be made easier for your child. From this article, you will see there are a variety of options available to assist you in doing so, without the stress, expense and heightened animosity of Court proceedings.
Family Law Partners has experienced mediators and collaborative lawyers who can assist you in putting in place the right arrangements that are in your child’s best interest, please get in touch.