Friday, October 23, 2009

In the UK ~ Children's Act, 20 years on: Fathers' rights under review

Posted: 23 October 2009 |

writes Molly Garboden

Campaigners want reforms to the Act to better reflect modern parenting and the growing role of fathers

The introduction of parental responsibility was one of the most important aspects of the Children Act 1989. However, though protests by groups such as Fathers4Justice have become less frequent in the past couple of years, there is still debate over whether the legislation goes far enough.

Families Need Fathers, a charity devoted to the role of both parents in children's lives, says the Act should be changed because parenting itself has changed since 1989.

Currently, only married fathers have automatic parental responsibility for their children. An unmarried father can apply for a parental responsibility order for the court to consider or may have it granted through an agreement with the mother. The father is also given responsibility if registered on the child's birth certificate.

Welfare Reform Bill

However, the Welfare Reform Bill, which this week concludes its passage through the House of Lords, could change that. Under the bill, mothers would be required to give the father's name on a child's birth certificate. There would be some exceptions, such as if the mother does not know the father's identity or is afraid for her safety, but those who refuse to comply or give false information will be fined and face jail sentences of up to seven years.

Becky Sibert, policy and information officer at Families Need Fathers, says: "The Children Act was revolutionary 20 years ago in pioneering a more child-centred approach but ...traditional roles have changed and we now see more equal parenting, yet unequal rights remain."

Sibert points to the Equal Opportunities Commission Gender Index of July 2007, which reported that fathers spent on average just 16 minutes less each day than mothers in looking after their children. "What is needed now is a presumption of shared parenting, which means providing emotional support and sharing important decisions about the child's welfare, as well as spending quality time with the child," Sibert says.

Unmarried fathers

The Fatherhood Institute agrees, saying unmarried fathers continue to be marginalised from their children's lives and denied universal parental rights.

Joint chief executive David Bartlett says: "The Act emphasised parental responsibility and looked at the whole family in a way never seen before, but the spirit of many issues which led to the Act are still present when it comes to the role of fathers."

While the changes in the Welfare Reform Bill could bolster fathers' rights, the NSPCC says the bill fails to provide enough protection to children of unmarried mothers who are registered with their father's name on the certificate.

Instead, it proposes that in cases where there are concerns for safety, the mother should be required to make a legal declaration to the registrar explaining her fear that the father puts herself or the child at risk. This declaration must be supported by an approved professional, which could be a social worker, midwife, health visitor or GP.

The NSPCC believes this would be the best option to ensure the safety of children without alienating fathers completely.

This article is published in the 29 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Fathers at the margins

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