Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Guest Book Review: Family Breakdown: Helping Children Hang On To Both Their Parents

Ruth Langford, qualified paralegal, reviews Penelope Leach's controversial book, Family Breakdown: Helping Children Hang On To Both Their Parents

Unlike most commentators on this book, I have actually read the entire book, cover to glossy cover. It took me an afternoon – this is time I will never be able to recover and put to better use. 

When I spoke to Ms Leach’s publicist just over a week ago, there was a huge furore in the press about the comments she allegedly made about no overnights for under 4s. The publicist told me that Ms Leach has been “mis-quoted” and “misrepresented”.

I really wanted this book to prove wrong all those critising those comments in the press about overnight contact, I really hoped this book would be enlightening, and provide me (and other readers, specifically separated parents) with some decent, honest common-sense advice and guidance. 

Firstly, the book is already hopelessly out of date from a legal perspective.  Ms Leach talks about both “custody” and “access” (not used in a legal context since 1989) and residence and contact orders – which were replaced by Child Arrangements Orders as from 22nd April 2014 – some two months before this book was published.  The entire chapter entitled “Legal Issues” is of no use to parents at all – and in some instances the information is not just out of date, it is worryingly very wrong. For Instance, Ms Leach writes on legal aid – “ legal aid is no longer available for private family law cases unless there is public interest in the case usually because there is evidence of domestic abuse or the risk if it” (page 68).  This is plainly wrong, and mis-leading. Nowhere does she mention the stringent domestic violence “gateway” for legal aid applications.  Infact, in the chapter entitled “False Allegations” she writes:  “such claims may or may not be accurate, but because they are about child protection…they will have to be investigated and legal aid will be provided” (page 96). This gives the distinct impression that all one has to do to gain legal aid is to make up a bucket load of false allegations about the other parent, and hey presto – public funding magically appears.   It is very disappointing that given the wide publicity over the Children and Families Act 2014 (and the Bill previously), Ms Leach didn’t ensure that the legal content was accurate and up to date. Not to mention the fact that Sir Paul Coleridge (yes, him who is a recently retired High Court Judge) has written a very glowing foreword and either didn’t actually read the book, or failed to pick up on the out of date information. 

The book is difficult to read, content jumps about all over the place – you can be reading a section on (for example) separation anxiety in chapter 8 and you are referred back to chapter 2.  Or you are reading a section about spending time with 2 year olds and all of a sudden, she starts talking about teenagers and mobile phones.  She regularly hedges her bets by describing a potential situation and then saying that this “may happen, or it may not” – it’s as if she hoping by being so wide in her surmising  and scenario-describing that she might at some point actually be right. 

The book is very clearly aimed at mothers, the language and tone through-out is gender-tailored towards mothers. She talks about husbands leaving the family home because they have had affairs, almost as if she expects husbands to have affairs, and she certainly expects husbands/fathers to leave the home forthwith as a matter of course. She talks of mothers having solicitors as if this is to be expected, ignoring the fact that more mothers now self-represent in court than fathers.  Her encouragement of using a solicitor for sorting out almost everything bar unblocking the kitchen u-bend is worrying – her section on mediation is just a few lines long – and it is as if she is encouraging women to allow conflict to creep into these women’s situations even if there was little there before. 

She isn’t anti-father as such, but she is most definitely pro-mother and old-fashioned in her approach and views.  Most of the book is opinion and views – it is the handbook to the Leach School of Do As I Say.  Back in 1994, there was an article in the Independent (link is at the end of this article) about how her bestselling book “Baby and Child” caused many parents to feel guilty that they were parenting wrongly according to the Leach “bible”  - her new book 20 years on also holds the capability to induce great wracking pains of guilt in separating/separated parents.  Guilt is something separated parents already have by the tankful, and certainly don’t need this added to by a woman who addresses parents like an old strict Edwardian school mistress.  A few kind and gentle words would have gone a long, long way – and helped soothe the harshness of the antiquated views of Leach.

It was very concerning to read so often through-out the book Leach’s encouragement of mothers to only permit  fathers to spend time with the children in mother’s home (presumably, this also would have once been Dad’s home?) so that the children don’t have to endure mindless, endless day trips around cold and wind-swept public parks.  Much has been made of her comments about children under the age of 4 not having “sleep-overs” at Dads. Firstly, it’s not a sleep-over, it’s time with Dad.   She writes “regular and frequent nights away should be delayed until a child is three or four years old” (page 120) – this is written in the context of overnights with what she refers to as the non-resident parent.  I will leave the research and academia to others (see the link to ExInjura’s blog post on this at the foot of this article), as the extensive research speaks for its self on this issue. Leach very clearly and unashamedly supports and promotes the primary carer concept, demoting Dad to the status of “other parent” and to the odd day visit to Mum’s home if Mum allows it.

I doubt this will be a best-seller, I can’t see professionals recommending this book to parents in their hour of need nor can I see Leach writing another book on this thorny issue. I have no doubt that the book was written with good intent, but one can’t nail jelly to a wall. 

Ruth Langford, F.Inst.Pa