Sadly, the fallout for some following separation or divorce can be the children of the family. On occasions the children's feelings can be forgotten amid the animosity and fighting over finances.
In the worst cases, children can be caught up in the conflict as parents involve them in the dispute by distorting how they interact or think about the other parent.
"James" had a tough break-up and tells SplittingUp.com founder Joanne Major about how he tried to hang on to the relationship with his son despite efforts by his ex to sow division.
But there are techniques and tools out there to help, and Joanne speaks to Sam Carter of Major Family Law about how the law can help with parental alienation, conflict, and hospitality and to James Evans about the shared parenting app Our Family Wizard.
Hello, and thanks for joining me again on the SplittingUp.com podcast. I'm Joanne Major, a family lawyer in the Northeast of England. and I set up the website SplittingUp.com to help people going through a separation or divorce, and who just don't know where to turn to for help and advice.
In each episode of the podcast, we hear from someone who's been on this journey, and has made it out the other side. Today we're hearing about parental hostility and conflict, and how this can impact negatively on the children of a family.
And we're also looking at how to best manage conflict when it comes to sorting out arrangements for the children, and what resources are out there to help them.
But before we start, I've just got to say that as everyone's situation is different, although our podcast is intended to be helpfully informative and thought provoking, it cannot be taken as legal advice. For more information on our disclaimer, please go to the website's podcast page. But first, let's hear James's story. As always, it's not his real name. But James has some important things to share.
His breakup with his ex was tough, and their difficult relationship had a profound and lasting effect on how they managed arrangements for their son in the years that followed.
Hi, I'm James. So in my case, I was dealing with a person who had real control and anger issues. Over the last few years, my son had been constantly told that I am untrustworthy, that I'm a liar, and he shouldn't believe anything that I say. Things like "my new wife isn't his mother and he should not do what she says or talk to her where possible." She would also say things like "no, I can't take him away on holiday somewhere," and then when we go on holiday, she would tell him that we didn't want to take him. She would also say things like, "I preferred my new wife's daughter over him," and he was like second to her, and that I wasn't interested in him.
These were all things designed to undermine the relationship and harm the relationship. When it came to access, we did have an informal agreement in place, which was documented on email for the co-parenting and also access during holidays and things like that. But it was often broken, it was often ignored, and seemed to be forgotten. She'd stop him coming on a visit on an agreed holiday, for example, by making excuses for various reasons, but also booking other things at the same time - booking other trips and sand that she was taking him away instead, which make it made it impossible.
She would put rules around what he could do when he was at mine, saying he couldn't come to my house because she didn't trust my new wife with him. Saying that I was not allowed to leave him alone in the house with her because she didn't trust her, dictating when I can see him where can see him how long I can see him even where I could take him when I came to visit, or he came to visit me. Access when I travelled down to see him which was, you know, 400 mile trip there and a 400 mile drive back would be restricted to only a few hours, and again restricted to where we could go what we could do.
And the other thing that really made it difficult was things like his phone or his iPad were taken away from him, which meant that we couldn't call, we couldn't send messages, we couldn't chat. And that really undermined the whole relationship. But we did find our own ways and we did manage to maintain contact.
And the good thing is because we did manage to maintain contact, we do have a really good, really strong relationship now. And now that he's 16, he can make his own decisions. He knows that I have fought to see him, fought to be with him, I've always been there for him. I've always visited and every time I've done that we've spent good quality time together.
So overall, my advice would be: firstly, never give up, stick to your goal. Keep being present, and let your children know that you want to be in their lives, and that you love them. Any opportunity, you have to give that message, please give that message. When dealing with your ex and the other parent, always stay calm. Don't rise to any of the baiting any of the challenges and just keep the moral high ground, get everything agreed and documented in writing. And I'd really, really recommend getting the legal agreement in place wherever possible.
I definitely recommend seeking legal advice and support early on in the process. There's some great content on co-parenting from OurFamily Wizard.com. But overall, I would say don't give up. You will get there just like me. Eventually, your child will realise what is going on. They will grow up they will mature and they will know that you have always been there for them. So never, never give up.
Thank you James, for sharing your story. After all that angst, I'm glad things have worked out for you and your son in the end. James mentioned something called Our Family Wizard, a very useful parenting app, which I'll come on to later, but first, I'd like to turn to Sam Carter, a specialist children and family lawyer at Major Family Law. Hello, Sam.
Sam Carter 6:42
Hi. So Sam, we've heard from James about his experiences and difficulties and dealing with a hostile former partner when it comes to sorting out arrangements for their child. Is this a common problem?
Sam Carter 6:55
Sadly, yes, it can be. When parents approach me as a solicitor, generally they have tried to resolve matters themselves, so inherently, there's always an element of hostility and conflict there before clients see me. And I do find, unfortunately, for some parents, it can be difficult for them, separating their own personal negative feelings of the other parents caused by the circumstance of a separation. They have difficulty really separating that from thinking about the arrangements for their child. Clearly we need to be child focussed and thinking of child but but it is understandable, I think, Joanne that some parents do have that difficulty and it's our job to talk them through that and to explain why they need to try and compartmentalise the two: their own personal feelings of the situation, and what's best for their child.
Yeah, for sure, Sam. So, what advice would you give to other parents in this situation?
Sam Carter 8:03
Look, sometimes I will speak to a parent and it will be obvious that the hostility and conflict is a two way thing. But in other cases, it will just be from one parent - often in these cases, the resident parents so so the parent with whom the child lives. As I say, a good lawyer will always advise their clients of the importance of taking a child-focused approach. In these proceedings it's not about what's best for mum or dad, it's about achieving the best outcome for their child, which invariably will mean that child having a good relationship and contact with with both parents.
Sam Carter 8:46
And Joanne in those cases where I'm advising representing the non-resident parents, so the non-hostile parent, if you will, often they will present as deflated and frustrated by the situation. People like James that you've heard from. And really my advice to those parents is the importance of persevering and not allowing the other parent's approach to cause you to step away. It's important to keep in mind the goal that you seek: that of having a normal loving relationship with your child, and that's what what must be achieved.
Sam Carter 9:25
So really, my advice is to stay focused on that and also to stay on the moral high ground if you will. It's natural that where dirt is thrown at you by the hostile parent it's natural to want to respond in kind and to get into a fight with them, but really that doesn't help the child and it doesn't help your case - a parent like James going through court. So you need to stay focused in respect of what you want to achieve for your child; concentrate on that, don't allow the other side to engage in petty fighting and squabbles with you. And finally, Joanne, my advice to parents like James is, it's important not to have any inappropriate discussions with your child about the proceedings, because, first of all, it's not fair, of course on the child, but also, with high conflict parents on the other side, they will themselves invariably have discussions with the child, and if anything comes out that you've also had discussions with the child, that will be twisted and used against you.Joanne:
Yeah, good advice Sam. I suppose maybe in some ways that might be harder if the children who are the subject of the proceedings are a little bit older, though, because maybe if you've got children who are 12, or 13, they might ask the parent what happened and what went on today? I suppose it's easier maybe to keep a lid on it with younger children.Sam Carter:
Yeah, it's difficult. There's a fine line I think. I'd say with older children naturally it is about them, so they will have questions for you, but it's about dealing with this appropriately, knowing the other parent, and really trying to change the subject and to reassure the child it's not something they need to worry about.Joanne:
What approach does the court take to cases then of parental hostility and conflict such as in the situation James was describing earlier?Sam Carter:
in the majority of these cases at the outset, it's likely that CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) will recommend to the court that both parents attend a separated parents information programme, known as a SPIP. That's a standard programme that parents will attend with other parents going through the court process, and there is information and talks in respect of how to deal with a high conflict parent on the other side of the case. So that normally is ordered in these proceedings. You wouldn't attend the same court as the other parents in your case, for obvious reasons. And really generally, the approach the court takes to this, Joanne, frankly, judges don't like it, they get very frustrated and concerned where there are cases of parental hostility and conflict because the person that impacts on is the child.Joanne:
Yeah, for sure. And what can the court ultimately then do to help parents like James?Sam Carter:
At the end of the day, the legal power that a judge has in the Family Court is to make an order setting out who the child lives with, who they spend time with. Unfortunately, judges don't have a magic wand to change parents and their approach. But what judges can do in their judgments, at the end of the case, is give a warning or clear view to a parent saying: "look, I consider your parenting and your approach to be unacceptable. I expect you to change that and to ensure that the defined order works." Ultimately, if the parent ignores those warnings from a judge, a judge may have to take the nuclear approach of even ordering a change of residence as the only way in which to ensure and safeguard a child's right to have a relationship with both parents.Joanne:
And can I interject there? Sam, have you come across that in practice? Have you had such an extreme decision made by a judge in view of parental hostility?Sam Carter:
Yes. It's not the norm. Generally, the court will try and do all it can to give appropriate warnings and to encourage parents to change but yes, ultimately, if a parent has been given a number of opportunities and is implacably hostile to contact, then yes, judges are prepared to take that nuclear approach of change of residence.Sam Carter:
And also, at the end of the case, sometimes Joanne, judges will insist that their decision be communicated to the child normally through the CAFCASS officer so neither parent can seek to twist the decision of the judge when it's communicated to the child - could be a face to face meeting at school, or a letter from CAFCASS or even in some cases the judge may consider it's appropriate for themselves to send an appropriate letter to the child explaining why they made a decision that they did.Joanne:
And indeed that something that I think's recently been circulated isn't it on social media where the judge made the rather unusual decision - didn't he - to write the child explaining to the child his decision as to where he felt the child should live? Didn't he? I think you're familiar with that aren't you Sam?Sam Carter:
Yes, in quite bold language, wasn't it, for the child to understand. So yes.Joanne:
Brilliant, well thank you very much Sam for explaining to us today a little bit more about parental hostility and how the court deals with these tricky issues and also as parents, how perhaps they can maybe reflect in terms of sometimes their own needs and prioritise maybe those of the children rather than their own, as you were explaining earlier. So thanks very much Sam for joining me again today.Sam Carter:
No problem. Thanks, Joanne.Joanne:
Back now to James's story and something he mentioned earlier - the brilliant parenting app Our Family Wizard, which was designed specifically to aid better parental communication. So with me today is James Evans, who is the head of UK Professional Education at Our Family Wizard. It's a tool designed to help minimise conflict and hostility by helping parents make arrangements for children living in two different households. Hello, James.James Evans:
Hi, Jo, thanks so much for having me.Joanne:
So can you tell us more about Our Family Wizard and how it can help families?James Evans:
Certainly, yes. So Our Family Wizard is a co-parenting communication platform, as you've described, specifically built to help parents with their communication before, during or after the divorce and separation process. It has a series of features that have been tailored specifically for the needs of separating parties.James Evans:
The first of those features is what's called a message board, where parents can send each other direct messages. This is somewhat like email, it's a familiar format, but the difference is everything on Our Family Wizard is fully accountable. So those messages, they will have time stamps, who sent the message on what date at what time, who first read it. And those messages include what is called ToneMeter. ToneMeter is like a spell check for your emotions, so if one parent is writing a message to another on our message board, it will alert to that parent as they're writing the message of any language they've used that might be considered offensive or inflammatory. It's sort of like a filter on their language.Joanne:
That sounds quite useful, actually.James Evans:
Indeed, yeah, we've seen it help a lot of families over the years. And it's a really helpful tool to guide parents on their language and give them an opportunity to think about what they've said before making that choice of whether or not to say it. It's a really functional tool.Joanne:
Okay, cool. And I suppose having heard James's story earlier, where he was explaining there was a lot of parental conflict and hostility, I suppose had he had the opportunity to use such a tool as this it might have just helped defuse things, I guess. Yeah?James Evans:
Well, we'd like to hope so, in that sense, when that that emotional reaction happens, something's happened with the families like that situation with James earlier. Instead of going straight away and typing out a message that's emotionally charged, and might not necessarily be the right way of communicating about that concern, ToneMeter will give an opportunity to have an extra thought and an extra opportunity to think about their message before making the choice whether or not to send it.Joanne:
I was just going to say, James, it's a bit like, isn't it - certainly in practice - that we get an inflammatory email in, and the best advice that I always give to the team is just wait, sometimes 24 hours before responding, because you think differently in the morning to how you think at the time that you get it. So I suppose really what you're saying here, it's really like that pause button, isn't it?James Evans:
Yeah, you've hit the nail on the head, I think that's a really good way of describing it. ToneMeter won't stop parents from sending messages, it won't, you know, give them an opportunity to type something else, it just gives them that moment to reflect on that language and see if that's the right time and the right way to phrase what they're trying to say. So hopefully, in that context, and yes, especially in the in the situation described with James, that really, hopefully should help.Joanne:
Brilliant. Excellent.James Evans:
Yeah. And then it's all fully accountable. So everything in our family was at his timestamps will know who sent the message on what date at what time, who first read it, and all that information then can be turned into court-ready documentation. So there's no query of, you know, "I never sent that message" or "I don't remember reading it." We'll know who sent those messages on what date at what time and who first read them for clarity.Joanne:
So you were just touching on there, very briefly, that you can refer to these exchanges - they can actually be referred to in court settings?James Evans:
That's absolutely right, yes. And that's being done more and more so now in this country. Judges are ordering the use of Our Family Wizard in cases every day, and it has functions for all our different features that allow them to create court-admissable records or back communications, so there's no query of who said what, or who didn't do what when - it's all fully accountable. And as a result of that accountability, we see our users language and behaviour tends to improve over time.Joanne:
Oh, great, excellent.James Evans:
The next feature available to parents is a shared calendar. It's a really dynamic calendar, it's really vast, it has parenting schedules that parents can create different parenting times. There's holidays, there's events, and then they can actually swap their allocation of time spent with the child within the app itself. So there's no back and forth of communications over the phone, over email: "can you spend time with a child on this day or that day," everything is done within the app, and again it's fully accountable, it'll all be time stamped, and everything is done within that feature, so they don't need to jump off and get confused. It should streamline that calendar process nicely for the families.Joanne:
Yeah. Which I guess in some ways, again, is quite helpful because when you've got children living in two different households, and if you've got more than one child or blended families and it can be quite complicated really can't it managing children's diaries and calendars and especially when parties are apart?James Evans:
Oh, absolutely. I spent five years as a teacher before I started working with Our Family Wizard, and I've seen exactly how complicated these children's lives can be with all the things that are going on with school with home with every all sorts of responsibilities, it really can be very complicated. So Our Family Wizard's calendar can really help facilitate organising those different family dynamics for everyone involved in the in the family, be that the children, we can add grandparents, you know, dog walkers, babysitters, nannies, they can all have different accounts within Our Family Wizard and access the calendar for what they might need.James Evans:
They also have access to an information bank, that's really a place to store information about the family: things like medical records, or receipts, or perhaps school reports, that kind of thing. There's a journal feature where they can upload pictures, they can actually geotag their location, so they can say, "oh, I'm stuck in traffic, here I am," that kind of thing, and then there is an expense log as well, where they can track reimbursements.James Evans:
So it's really vast, and there are lots of different things that Our Family Wizard can do, and it really is there to help families in different situations, which is what we're hoping to see. On top of that, family law practitioners of any capacity: family law, coaches, mediators, lawyers, anyone can have professional accounts where they can actually link in with their clients accounts, help give them support, give them some guidance and create some of their own reports as well. So it's a vast growing number of features, and we are going to build even more this year to help families through this process, but those are the sort of that's a whistlestop tour, if you like, of the different features available within Our Family Wizard.Joanne:
That's tremendous. James, it really is. And I think it's something - if the courts and judges perhaps could start ordering more parties to do that. And as you were explaining, it's it's a way of making people think twice and sharing information, being more transparent with each other, and I guess if you can start those habits early, then hopefully going forward, it will just ease hostility conflict, intention wouldn't it?James Evans:
You're absolutely right. Our goal really is to focus the parents communication back on what's important in their lives, be that the child or the child arrangements or the or the home arrangements that they're having whatever it might be. We want to have that focus back on what's important trying to take away some of that hostile language, trying to improve some of the language and behaviour of the parents in the hope that that focus in the communication is on what's healthy for that family.James Evans:
So that's what we're trying to do, and as you said, more and more courts are recommending us. If anyone would like to find more information about that just go to OurFamilyWizard.co.uk, you can drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org as well. We can share some of that information with you - anything that should hopefully help you along the way.Joanne:
That's great, and I think you've got some famous people, haven't you signed up to this? Is that right? Or are you not allowed to mention names?James Evans:
No, of course, I'm not allowed to mention names I'm afraid, but our family wizard has been going around the world for a very long time. It started in America in 2001, believe it or not, and in that time it's been court ordered in all 50 States of America, as well as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. So there are some pretty big names out in the States who use Our Family Wizard. A quick Google and you can find some of those celebrity names. But we've been going here in the UK for about six years. We have our own UK entity with GDPR compliance, so you will be using a UK version of the app - it is it is separate from the US one. But yes, there are a lot of big names who use it. So a quick Google shold enlighten you.Joanne:
And one more question, James. And that's just the white elephant in the room: what does it cost?James Evans:
Yeah, of course, absolutely, it's important to be upfront about these things. So Our Family Wizard costs £79 per parent, per year. Parents pay once at the start of the year, and then it is an annual re-subscription. And there are reasons why those costs are involved, but mostly it's for security purposes: Our Family Wizard is one of the most secure online platforms in the world, so that £79 is going into securing data and making sure it's GDPR compliant, as well as giving parents access to free seven day a week customer support.James Evans:
If a family is on low income in any capacity: Legal Aid, welfare benefits, Universal Credit - anything like that, then their Our Family Wizard accounts are free. We have a form on our website, which is called a financial hardship application form. You simply fill out that form you send it to email@example.com. And those accounts are free. So that's sort of the dynamic there of the payment setup.Joanne:
Now that's fantastic, and I think if clients are working with solicitors, then I think they can also be discounts applied if solicitors are signed up to Our Family Wizard, is that correct?James Evans:
Absolutely.We work with plenty of different solicitors, firms who might have codes you can get codes that are unique to different organisations that come at a reduced rate for parents. All those those payments can be split across different people, different organisations. So there's lots of different ways to have that conversation with your legal practitioner about how best to pay for our family wizard, if indeed you are able to do so.Joanne:
Brilliant. Well thank you very much James. And if any of our listeners want to know more information about Our Family Wizard, you can find James's details as one of the experts listed under the child and parenting resources on SplittingUp.com.Joanne:
And my thanks too to Sam Carter of Major Family Law solicitors for talking us through the legal side of parental hostility and conflict when it comes to facilitating arrangements for children.Joanne:
Finally, my thanks of course to dad James, for sharing his story.Joanne:
And thank you for listening to this latest episode of SplittingUp dot Pod.Joanne:
We're covering a whole range of topics surrounding divorce and separation in this series, so do sign up wherever you get your podcasts and check out our archive of episodes.Joanne:
And there's even more information available on the website SplittingUp.com.Joanne:
Staying child-focused and thinking about what's best for your child are this week's take-away messages. I'm Joanne Major, and I'll see you next time.