Muzzling Children

If you were an innocent victim caught in the crossfire between two opposing forces and suffering most of the collateral damage, would you want a say? Even if there was no war but the country in which you grew up divided into two, might you want to be heard?

Clearly you would in either circumstance. The world’s view would be that you should have a voice. However, if you are a child whose parents are separating or already separated, you have no such right even though what happens at that time will affect you for the rest of your life. I know that not just from reading research studies but also from what I hear from my adult mediation clients who themselves went through parental separation.

Simon Hughes when in the coalition government thought that every child over a certain age should be entitled to speak to an independent person whether or not there was conflict between their parents. Whilst undoubtedly a great idea which is endorsed by what children and young people say they would like, that was always going to founder on the issue of who would pay for that to happen. It isn’t going to be funded in a country where we can’t provide enough places for vulnerable mentally ill young people who need urgent care.

Parents aren’t going to pay for their children to speak when they haven’t agreed to that happening. And there is the problem. Even in mediation where it is absolutely clear to the mediator that children’s views should be canvassed, that first requires parental consent. There is of course a well established system where mediators who are trained to do so can talk directly to children. Whether that is appropriate is the mediator’s decision.

There are many cases where having the direct words of the children brought into the parental mediation, usually through the mediator delivering feedback as agreed with the children, can help shift parents who are stuck. That isn’t confined to older children. However it is clear that when the Children Act ensures that wishes and feelings will be taken into account where appropriate, it should be self-evident that the views of children who are of such an age that the mediator knows they would be relevant in determining a court application should be introduced to the mediation.

I know that in those relatively few cases where parents have agreed to my speaking to their children, those views have almost always assisted the parents when making their own decisions. It’s a little hard to maintain that there is only a problem on one side when told that your child thinks you could both do better.

Why do so few parents agree? I don’t think that it is the cost, certainly not primarily. Some they say they don’t want their child to have to talk to a stranger. I get that but, after all, if there is a court application, the chances are that they will. Also a child has to agree to see the mediator. Some decline to do so. It seems to me that it is often a fear of what their children might say if given a chance to speak freely. I think there is a general societal reluctance in this country to respect and value the honest opinions of children however cute people find those television programmes which eavesdrop on them.

One thing I do know is that those children with whom I have met respect the purpose of our meeting and all appear actively to value having the chance to speak to someone whom they know is neutral. They want to speak and to be heard. They surely are entitled to both.

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