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Collaborating to keep a rigorous focus on the needs of disputing families

Date:15 MAY 2020
Third slide
Chief Executive, NFM

Dramatic transitions have been made in so many spheres lately, ranging from the very personal - social distancing behaviours – to those that span a nation. Our country has been able to build a series of intensive care ready Nightingale Hospitals, from nothing to fully functional in a few short weeks.

It goes without saying that the way things that usually take years to come to fruition are being turned around in days can in no way compensate for the tens of thousands of personal tragedies. Yet it feels that in some areas of UK life, the nation is rediscovering a can-do attitude, and an agility and adaptability that nobody would have seen coming if you’d asked just two months ago.

The huge majority of people and organisations accept that we don’t know how long this situation is going to last, and yet despite the uncertainty it appears that access to high quality services has to be maintained. In my professional life, leading a national charity whose expertise helps families resolve disputes, experience shows that travel restrictions are causing:

  • major challenges for effective co-parenting for separated families
  • increased tensions between family members, and
  • more people deciding to end relationships, even if they currently feel unable to do anything practical to make this happen.
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I’m delighted how mediators and support staff have proved themselves to be agile, moving mediation online, so that consultations are conducted via Zoom or Skype, rather than all parties sitting together in a room.

And this adaptability extends to a wide range of family-focused organisations. It might not match the scale of the Nightingale Hospital projects, but a new collaborative approach has definitely emerged, with professionals sharing an absolute determination to combine forces to the front line of family disputes. It’s a spirit which, in ‘normal’ times, would have taken years to develop.

For the sake of children and parents enduring tough times, we simply have to keep this collective attitude going from strength-to-strength when we hit the ‘new normal’. Whenever that might be.

One example is the new Co-Parent Hub just launched by Cafcass, in association with the Ministry of Justice. And on the day it launched, I took part in a ‘meeting’ involving organisations such as The National Association of Child Contact Centres, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, and others. Even within the constraints of a multi-screen meeting, the resolve to work together was almost tangible. Many had worked online to a greater or lesser extent in the past… but have significantly upped their game to meet the context families are now living through, for example now undertaking client interviews online.

As an optimist, I naturally begin thinking about which of these adapted behaviours might become embedded in future, representing an improvement in professional practice. As I reflect on mediation techniques, I wonder if in future many families will find mediating via Zoom to be preferable to face to face meetings, and if the adaptability of mediators to meet client need where they most want and need it will remain. It could even improve take-up. We shall see.

One thing is for sure: the support staff who are currently working for NFM are managing a great many phone calls from parents who are struggling. They’re finding that people are spending longer on the phones, seeking more reassurance about their situation, sometimes over several calls, before they commit to mediation.

Understandably the focus has been on ensuring the physical health of the public is looked after. But underneath there must be a commitment to support the mental and social welfare of the nation. We are doing our part to continue to provide as much help support and advice in these extraordinary times as we can and, hopefully, once the rhythm to this new lifestyle has stabilised – and this will take some considerable time - we’ll be able to start discussions about the true nature of support, and what we and our families need.