Covid’s effect on separated families must be a priority for new Children’s Commissioner

By Katherine Res Pritchard -

On March 1, immediately after assuming her role as Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza released a blog post detailing her ambitions. Referencing the Beveridge Report of the 1940s, de Souza expressed her goal of bringing about “not just a golden age of policy making, but a golden age of delivery.”

Today, she announced her first step towards achieving this goal: The Big Ask, the largest survey of children ever conducted in England.

Taking place during the Easter holidays, an online survey will be distributed to all schools and sent directly to youth organisations, CAMHS inpatient units and children’s homes, with the aim of cataloguing the barriers preventing children from reaching their potential, how they feel their communities could be improved and most directly, how the Covid pandemic has changed their lives.

While this is of course an ambitious proposal, it is also deeply necessary. The effect of Covid-19 and the restrictions imposed to combat it have affected us all but the effect on children throughout England and Wales may be the longest lasting. From an increasing gulf between rich and poor families to children missing an estimated 840 million days of in-person schooling, the effects of the pandemic have been stark.

The Children’s Commission, and de Souza herself, recognise the enormity, and importance, of the task. Announcing the survey, and The Childhood Commission which will implement its findings, de Souza likened the impact of Covid-19 to the Second World War: “Our response to the trauma of the Second World War was to create a blueprint for a social service system and a National Health Service that improved our lives. We have a chance to do the same again now for children.”

This is heartening news for anyone working to support children, across any profession. With such a wide remit, however, there is a risk the commission may overlook one of the more under discussed effects of the pandemic: the consequences it has had on contact for the children of separated parents.

Rightly, much of the focus on Covid’s impact on children has related to education. This does not mean, however, it is the only factor.

From the very first lockdown, government restrictions have had a profound impact on the lives of children with separated parents. From travel restrictions to court closures, many parents, especially those with an acrimonious relationship with their former partner, have found themselves cut adrift, unable to visit their children. While, to their credit, the government has always included visitation as an exemption to travel restrictions, this has not prevented practical issues from derailing this intention.

For instance, from the very first lockdown, and as highlighted by my colleague and fellow Director Emma Gill in her comments to the Daily Mail, we noticed a startling rise in the frequency of parents using an underlying health condition, whether genuine or otherwise, as a reason to claim that both them and their children must shield indefinitely – thereby preventing the other parent from visiting.

This can happen both during proceedings or before – with some parents using Covid fears to prevent the other partner from seeing children before proceedings have been instigated, or as a reason to not comply with the orders that have been made.

If proceedings are going on, guidance currently states that there is no immediate mechanism to re-establish contact. Instead, the actions of the parents will be considered during the course of proceedings, and often after the event. Delays to hearings mean this lack of contact can persist for much longer than usual.

While issues like a lack of available, local accommodation have since been dealt with, new ones have arisen. For separated families with one parent living abroad, the introduction of quarantine measures for arrivals from abroad meant that any potential visit would involve a 10-day stay at a quarantine hotel at significant personal expense. For many, this made contact simply unfeasible.

The Children and Families Act 2014 states that where safe and in the best interests of the child, both parents should be involved in their children’s lives. The disruption of the pandemic has often made this impossible.

Alongside an increased risk of parental alienation, a lack of contact with a parent can exacerbate existing feelings of isolation among children kept away from their normal school routine. For those with a controlling former partner, Covid can also act as an excuse to control contact and the lives of their children. In all these situations, the effect on the children involved can be stark.

When the Children Commission come to reflect on the findings of the Big Ask, it is essential they consider this impact.

 

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Katherine Res Pritchard

Katherine specialises in children cases, in particular those with an international element. Her expertise covers all cross-border disputes involving children, with a focus on international relocation cases. Katherine also has a great deal of experience in child abduction matters (both Hague and non-Hague), and of representing children as their Solicitor Guardian. In addition she has significant experience in representing clients in proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction, international adoption, and in cases involving the registration and enforcement of foreign contact orders. Katherine also advises on domestic disputes involving children, and on issues relating to fertility and surrogacy.