Five: Outcomes of Child-Inclusive Mediation

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This chapter sets out our findings regarding which families were able to resolve matters in child-inclusive mediation. It reflects on the extent to which the child’s views had been acted upon and informed agreements reached about child arrangements to consider whether Lundy’s fourth requirement of an article 12 compliant service for children whose parents separate, ‘influence’ (Lundy, 2007: 937), was met. It further discusses, then compares, young people and parents’ satisfaction with outcomes and the longer-term impact on the family and family relationships. For the minority dissatisfied with the outcome, it concludes by reflecting on what seemed to be driving their disappointment.

Introduction

This chapter sets out our findings regarding which families were able to resolve matters in child-inclusive mediation (CIM). It reflects on the extent to which the child’s views had been acted upon and informed agreements reached about child arrangements to consider whether Lundy’s fourth requirement of an article 12 compliant service for children whose parents separate, ‘influence’ (Lundy, 2007: 937), was met. Influence requires the child’s views to be acted upon where appropriate. Where the process had taken place some time ago, it examines how well settlements had lasted from the perspective of the young people who had engaged in CIM (and parents). It further discusses, then compares, young people and parents’ satisfaction with outcomes and the longer-term impact on the family and family relationships. For the minority dissatisfied with the outcome, it concludes by reflecting on what seemed to be driving their disappointment.

State Parties must ensure that all administrative decisions concerning children demonstrate that the child’s best interests have been a primary consideration (UNCRC General Comment No. 14, 2013: para 14(b)). To demonstrate compliance, States must create the necessary conditions for children to express their points of view and ensure that their opinions are given due weight (UNCRC General Comment No. 14, 2013: paras 14(b) and 53). ‘Administrative decisions’ include decisions reached in mediation when parents separate (UNCRC General Comment No 12: para 32). In Chapter Three, we discussed the barriers to creating the necessary conditions for children to express their points of view when parents engage in mediation. In Chapter Four, for young people whose views were heard, we considered whether the processes in place facilitated or hindered their ability to express their views. In this chapter, from their perspectives and those of their parents, we will reflect on whether the views of young people who engaged in CIM were given proper consideration and due weight placed upon them per the child’s age and maturity – in short, whether they had influence (Lundy, 2007: 937).

Resolving matters in child-inclusive mediation

As noted in Appendix I, the 12 parents and 20 young people interviewed came from 12 different families. Whereas Bell et al (2013: 136) reported that only just over a third of parents who engaged in CIM reached an agreement, in the present study, all but two families reached an agreement in mediation. Mediation broke down for one family where the child lived with the father because the mother, who had significant mental health issues, withdrew from the process and chose to cease contact with her child. Another family, in which the children lived primarily with the mother, had used CIM to support the children to process their feelings about the contact arrangements that had been in place for some years. The children chose not to have their wishes and feelings fed back to the parents, and the contact continued unaltered. In both cases, the child’s primary home was unchanged following mediation. The remaining ten families had agreed child arrangements in mediation. In Table AI.1 in Appendix I we outline the pre-mediation child arrangements. The family in which the maternal grandparents had been primary carers moved to a shared care arrangement between the grandparents and the father (the mother was deceased). One primary mother arrangement moved to a shared care arrangement. Once both parents acquired their own homes, the family with a nesting arrangement agreed a shared care arrangement with the children staying slightly more with the mother. Otherwise, primary care of the child was unchanged following mediation. Agreements included visiting contact only for one child and no contact for another. The remaining agreements were for overnight contact. As mentioned later, the children’s wishes had informed most agreements reached.

As detailed in Chapters Three and Four, the mediators and the parents are powerful gatekeepers to CIM. The mediators we interviewed did not extend an offer to participate to all children aged ten and over, despite the Code of Practice mandating this (FMC, 2018: 6.6.1). Two parents who agreed to CIM (Trevor Cox and Rose Enstone) indicated that the mediator had framed the offer positively, giving them the confidence to try, despite their initial reluctance. Had they instructed mediators less confident in their abilities as CIM mediators or the process, the outcome may have been different. Similarly, for children to be offered CIM, a confident mediator and two willing parents are required. Unsurprisingly, success rates are high when these factors coalesce. As Kirsty Oliver said: “[CIM] cases I have done are the ones where the parents have cooperated. They are prepared to allow their children to have a say, and as you would expect with parents like that, the outcomes are going to be better, because they are willing and open to that happening.”

Reaching agreement: ‘influence’

Respecting children’s views can lead to better, more relevant and informed decisions regarding matters that affect them (Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 85; Lundy et al, 2019: 399). Children who indicate that they were consulted over or influenced the agreed child arrangements report higher degrees of satisfaction with the arrangements (Butler et al, 2002: 96; Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 75). From young people’s perspectives, being ‘listened to’ is a two-way process that involves the relevant adults taking the time to hear and understand the young person’s point of view and informing them about what is going on (Carson et al, 2018: 89). However, having given young people an opportunity to express a view and taken time to hear and understand that view, there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that the young person’s view is taken seriously and acted upon as appropriate, in pursuance of their article 12(2) rights. The power of ‘space’, ‘voice’ and ‘audience’ are diminished unless they lead to ‘influence’. Young people report that they would prefer that they are not asked for their views if their views are then not considered in the decision-making process (Barlow et al, 2017a: 18). Conversely, recognition of the right to have one’s views taken seriously promotes a sense of self-esteem in young people (Lansdown, 2019: 5).

Children are vulnerable relative to adults, which justifies the special human rights the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) accords them (Tobin, 2013: 396). Whereas constructing children as vulnerable and lacking capacity has traditionally been used to justify their need for protection rather than special rights (Guggenheim, 2007: 11), constructing children through a rights-based lens acknowledges their evolving capacities. It changes how they are viewed and the response to hearing from them. A vulnerabilities approach risks silencing children, but a rights-based approach requires that adults listen to children by actively seeking out their views and treating them seriously (Tobin, 2015: 169).

The right to participate does not mean that children will be the decision-makers. However, it does require that they contribute to the process (Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 63). Similarly, the right to have one’s views taken seriously does not mean that the young person’s views will always be acted upon. ‘Influence’, when properly implemented, does, however, require that the young person’s views, once sought, are given proper consideration, weighted considering their age and maturity and that any decision made is reported back to them with an explanation of how and why the decision was reached (Lundy, 2007: 939; UNCRC General Comment No. 12, 2009: para 45; Lansdown, 2019: 9). We will measure the influence of the young people’s views against this criterion.

Proper consideration

What, then, is meant by ‘proper consideration’ in the context of CIM? Our previous research has shown that when children’s voices are not heard directly in mediation, then some mothers and fathers choose to invoke the child’s ‘best interests’ as a means of justifying their preferred child arrangements regime (Smithson et al, 2015: 12). Hearing directly from the children in CIM should help to ensure that their views are given better consideration than when their views are heard in absentia. Proper consideration of children’s views requires that adults be no longer the sole arbiters of the child’s interests (Tobin, 2013: 431).

Attending to children’s ‘voice’ requires that once obtained, children’s views are taken seriously by those with the power to effect change in their lives (Hanna and Lundy, 2021: 468). Within the context of CIM, this is the parents, facilitated by the mediator. Having agreed to hear from their children in CIM, most parents had given their children’s views proper consideration and come to agreements that reflected the child’s wishes either entirely or the child’s wishes had at least informed the decision reached. Wendy Lund and her ex-partner had, for example, reached quite complex arrangements involving time with stepsiblings and a parent and time with the parent alone based on their child’s suggested contact regime.

Mark Bell said that depending on the child’s level of maturity, they should be allowed to participate, and their views form part of the input into the decision-making. He likened the decision-making process when parents separate to a business environment:

‘I am the [Leader], and I am being paid, and ultimately, it’s my responsibility, but in order to reach a decision I have to sort of hoover up everybody’s input. And then, take that back to the environment we are talking about, my [children]’s input is just as important as mine or my [ex-partner]’s because we are talking about them.’

“Hoovering up” the input of others but retaining ultimate responsibility for the decision might sound somewhat paternalistic. However, following CIM, Mark had agreed to the children’s preferred contact regime even though their views coincided with their mother’s rather than his. However, his reasoning, which he explained to the children, had not been that he had recognized their right to have their views taken seriously; instead, he had “taken the pragmatic decision to allow Mummy to have her way”.

As discussed later, cases that ended without an agreement or a short-lived agreement tended to be because one or both parents did not adequately consider the children’s views.

Due weight

As Lundy points out, it is necessary to consider the extent of influence, ‘what constitutes the “due” in the “due weight”’ to be placed upon the child’s views (Lundy, 2007: 937). Tobin recognizes that since the weight to be placed on the child’s views under article 12 is per their age and maturity, the adults concerned (here, the mediators and parents) may seek to use this to retain authority over the child effectively. However, he offers an alternative reading of article 12, which demands ‘that adults cede their authority over children and actively facilitate their citizenship’ (Tobin, 2013: 418). Tobin argues that parental rights and responsibilities remain subject to the child’s evolving capacities and must be exercised ‘to guide and assist the realisation of children’s rights’ (Tobin, 2013: 424, emphasis in original). Therefore, article 12 does more than allow a child to influence decision-making. It requires that the child’s views must be given due weight, anticipating that the views of a child of sufficient maturity and understanding will be determinative (Tobin, 2013: 432). Children must be allowed to play an active role in decision-making, should they wish to do so, consistent with their evolving capacities (Tobin, 2013: 434; Dimopoulos, 2021: 440). Save in the most damaged of family relationships, when parents separate, children report that they wish to be treated as ‘respected agents’ along with their parents in the decision-making rather than having full agency (or indeed, responsibility) for making decisions (Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 64; Daly, 2018a: 37). The notion of evolving capacity, as conceptualized by Daly (2018a; 2018b), Dimopoulos (2022) and Tobin (2013; 2015), is a relational one in which, with direction and guidance from their parents, children are empowered to exercise their autonomy in the determination of their best interests, per their evolving capacities.

Where the families had reached lasting agreements (to be discussed later), the young people we spoke to felt their views had been given due weight. Several young people confirmed that the regime they suggested had ‘definitely’ been agreed upon in full; others that their views on what they liked (or did not like) had informed the decisions reached. Save as discussed later, all were happy that their views had been given due weight.

Nathan reported that having considered the pros and cons of each contact regime with the mediator and trialling his parents’ respective preferred regime, they had come to “a combined family decision” that he and his siblings were happy with and which had continued successfully since reached just under 12 months earlier. Daisy said she and her sibling had told the mediator what they did not like about the current contact arrangement. Once the mediator had fed back the children’s views, her parents had “made this whole plan so that mine and [sibling]’s thoughts and ideas were in there too”. Freddy reflected that the agreement may not have been drastically different had the children’s voices not been heard. Nevertheless, he appreciated that the children’s views had been used to formulate the settlement. He said, “It was definitely good for our parents to see our opinion and use that to formulate a system which ultimately affects everyone.”

The parents reported that the agreements reached had been either steered or determined by their children’s input. Bobby Gordon reported that his children had not explicitly said when they wanted to spend time with each parent. However, the mediator had taken “pointers” from them, which the parents had considered to “steer” the agreement reached. He felt that even if the children had only contributed to “one or two per cent of the decision-making process … in their eyes, they have done 98 per cent of [it] just by saying something”. As a result, the children “feel at the forefront of the decision-making now, they feel like they have had a hand in it. They feel like they have arranged it”. The child-led agreement had worked well for 12–18 months, and when the parents suggested a change for practical reasons, the children argued, “No, Daddy, we worked hard to get that. We want to keep that,” and the parents had agreed that the arrangement would not be altered.

Where safety concerns had been raised, the parent’s willingness to abide by the children’s wishes was caveated with the need to keep them safe. Doug Henderson said that he had gone into the process fully prepared to “abide by” the children’s wishes “within reason” and provided this did not compromise their safety. Others were prepared to take on board the children’s wishes, but only if they mostly aligned with that parent’s views. Phil Jackson said there was a threshold of contact with his child below which he would not have agreed to follow the child’s wishes and would have “pushed for more” in that case. In the event, this was unnecessary as the child’s views aligned with his.

Reporting back

While there was clear evidence that the young people’s views had influenced the decisions reached, the young person’s right to feedback on how their views had influenced the decisions was far from upheld. As outlined in Chapter Four, only two practitioners mentioned writing to the children after their meeting. No child disclosed having heard back directly from the mediator – 17 of the 20 young people reported meeting the mediator only once (with the remainder disclosing more than one meeting because of the need for ongoing support rather than for feedback purposes).

Did settlements last?

Research in Australia (McIntosh and Long, 2006; McIntosh et al, 2008: 113) and the United States (Rudd et al, 2015: 4) has shown that compared to child-focused mediation, CIM has been found to reduce re-litigation. In the present study, the threat of litigation was disclosed in only one case (another case was already in litigation when mediation commenced).

Of the 12 family groups, two did not reach an agreement in mediation. Of the remaining ten families, most agreements had been reached recently: two years before the interview (two), one year before the interview (one) and less than 12 months before the interview (seven). As most were recent, it was impossible to indicate whether agreements would be lasting. Since the interviews took place in 2021–1, most agreements were reached in the shadow of the COVID-19 restrictions. Save where these restrictions had made it challenging to implement agreements fully, the child-informed agreements reached were being followed in all but one family. This family engaged in CIM in 2018. The father quickly resiled from the child-led agreements reached. The children lived with the mother primarily. Having agreed that his teenage children could choose when to visit him, the father had reneged on this. He expected the children to visit per the pre-mediation contact arrangement. In a second family, an arrangement had been agreed upon in CIM based on the child’s wishes, which was being followed. However, the mother indicated that the father was issuing court proceedings to seek more time with the child.

What children liked about the outcome of child-inclusive mediation: ‘influence’

Of the ten families that had reached an agreement following CIM, the children of all but one family were satisfied with the outcome, mainly because their input had influenced the child arrangements agreed upon by the parents. Research shows that young people report being happy with the outcome of child arrangement decisions when they feel their voices have been heard and their views considered (Dunn and Deater-Deckard, 2001: 21; Smart, 2004: 487; Cashmore et al, 2010: 137). Our findings echo this: young people are satisfied with outcomes when they feel their views were acted upon (‘influence’, Lundy, 2007: 937) and, as discussed later, dissatisfied when they feel that their views were ignored.

Owning the outcome

When children are involved in the decision-making, they may generate proposals that the parents would not otherwise have thought of, making it easier for a parent to accept a solution without losing face (Al-Alosi, 2018: 18). Generating proposals that led to an agreement ensured that the young people felt that they ‘owned the outcome’ and as a result were highly satisfied. Alex was pleased that his involvement had led to an agreement, “It was quite helpful, the fact that it’s been all sorted out now, because I did that.” Jonny said that none of the proposals generated by his parents and discussed with the mediator had felt right to him, so he had formulated a proposal to which his parents had agreed wholesale. He was pleased that his parents were no longer in conflict over child arrangements because (with the support of his siblings) he “had made the decision for them”.

Clarity

Several young people were more settled because, having been involved in the arrangement, there was greater clarity for them. Alex’s parents separated several years before the mediation. He said the contact arrangement had been “all mixed over the place” before attending CIM. “It was just kind of like [going] to one parent’s house without really any arrangements.” He was pleased with the outcome and clarity, confirming that the agreement was based on his suggestions.

Linked to this, several young people had appreciated that their parents had taken on board their requests for fewer transitions or midweek disruptions. Whereas parents can sometimes become fixed on the quantity of contact (Barlow et al, 2017b: 177), save where safety concerns were raised, the priority for the young people was for good quality time with each parent, which worked practically for the young person and gave them a clear understanding of which home they would be spending time in throughout the week.

Improving family relationships

Child-inclusive approaches have been shown to improve parental relationships, which has a positive impact on children’s emotional wellbeing post-separation (McIntosh and Long, 2006: 10; Walker and Lake-Carroll, 2014: 27). Overall, the young people were more optimistic than their parents about the outcome agreed having led to improved family relationships. Some young people spoke of improved relationships between their parents or themselves and their parents following CIM. Harry, for example, thought that it had helped his parents get on better, or at least “definitely no worse” because it had clarified what arrangements each parent and the children favoured. Jonny thought that before the mediation, his parents had been arguing as they were not entirely “taking time to understand each other at that point”. The mediation had clarified what each parent wanted and the children’s preferred outcomes, which, as well as resolving matters, had “helped get a sort of an openness between, I guess, all of us”.

Ellie disclosed that CIM, in conjunction with joint counselling for her parents, had helped to improve their relationship, underscoring the need for a holistic approach to managing the adults’ emotions on separation as advocated for by several relationship professionals. As outlined later in ‘What children did not like about the outcome of child-inclusive mediation’, several young people regretted that CIM had failed to improve communication between their parents.

Regarding the relationship between the parents and the child, Alfie felt the process had improved his communication with his parents. He reasoned that if he could be open with a stranger, he could be honest with his parents: “It opened me up a lot more and made me a lot more confident to speak to my [parents] about things, which just made a lot of stuff much, much easier and took a lot of stress off my chest.” Another child thought the mediator had helped her see that she did not have to do anything she did not want to do. As a result, whereas before, she would agree to see her father even though she was afraid of him, she was now more open with her mother about feeling scared of her father. Reflecting research findings that CIM can improve father–child relationships (McIntosh and Long, 2006: 10; Walker and Lake-Carroll, 2014: 27), Joel reflected that once his father “had understood that I have an opinion and that I have one that maybe differs to his, then he [had become] more open to listening to it and understanding it”. He thought that this extended to decisions beyond the child arrangements. Jonny thought hearing from the children had helped his father be more open with him and his siblings about the divorce, which he thought was positive. Greg considered that the CIM had been helpful to him as it had given him a forum to voice his problems with his parents to another adult. He felt things were “a lot clearer” between him and his parents because of the CIM and that it had helped his father understand why the agreed arrangement was in place and accept that it needed to revolve around the children.

When agreeing to speak to the mediator, one family group of siblings had done so on the basis that their views would not be fed back to their father as they had little confidence that he would take heed of those views. Unsurprisingly, while finding the discussions with the mediator helpful, the process had not impacted family communication.

Anna recognized that her father, who had primary care of her, had benefited from being able to get across how he felt about the situation. Improving parents’ mental health is likely to make them more emotionally available to their children, which will benefit the child.

Safety

As outlined in Chapter Four, one child disclosed that the CIM had led to an arrangement whereby she did not have to see her father (of whom she said she was scared) unless she wanted to. She reported that the outcome had been empowering, “Now, after I have seen [the mediator], she made me feel like I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. So, it’s just made the situation a lot more better [sic] and less scary.”

What children did not like about the outcome of child-inclusive mediation

Only two young people (siblings) expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome of CIM. These young people could distinguish their dissatisfaction with the outcome from their feelings about the process. As the younger child said, seeing the mediator “was okay, but it didn’t really do anything”. The elder child was annoyed that her parents had not taken her views “into perspective. … Even though they have agreed on it, they are not doing it. They didn’t really take it into play”. She also thought that the meeting with the mediator had “backfired” for her younger sibling because, having expressed a view (to spend less time with the father), the father’s dismissive response had been, “Well, you are too young, it’s my say.”

What parents liked about the outcome of child-inclusive mediation

As with the process, parents disclosed both child- and parent-focused reasons for what they liked about the outcomes reached in CIM. As they had hoped, hearing from the child helped them reach an agreement. Importantly for the parents, the agreements were child-led, resulting in wellbeing and developmental benefits for their children and more durable outcomes. The children had been empowered by the influence of their voices, equipping them to use their voices beyond the CIM setting. Some fathers reported that hearing the children’s views had led to a more even playing field between the parents.

Child-led agreements

Our findings endorse earlier work on the value of child-inclusive processes. Respecting children’s views can lead to better, more informed and developmentally sensitive agreements that the child finds acceptable regarding matters that affect them (McIntosh et al, 2008: 118; Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 68; Lundy et al, 2019: 399). Including the child’s voice directly in the process makes it easier for parents to resist arrangements tailored to any sense of entitlement (McIntosh and Long, 2006: 9; McIntosh et al, 2008: 118). Parents who agree to their children being involved believe it can lead to better decisions and, therefore, to better outcomes and happier children (Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 85). The parents in our study reported that the child-led decisions reached had indeed resulted in their children being very happy with the outcome. Some, like Doug Henderson, were relieved that while they had come to CIM feeling “stuck” following feedback to the parents, “the children’s voices were seen as definitive”, leading swiftly to an agreement based on their wishes. Rose Enstone reflected the view of many parents that hearing from the children had led to a child-informed outcome that was “top-notch” and meant that the children were now in a “settled and stable and happy routine which suits everybody”. Bobby Gordon thought that the mediator “deserved a medal” for managing to facilitate an agreement and help the parents avoid court. He said that both parents had had to compromise on what they wanted, but they had been prepared to do so as it had resulted in an agreement that “his children now love”.

Fathers have described the feedback session about their children as valued and transformative (McIntosh and Long, 2006: 8). Again, there was support for this in the present sample. Doug Henderson described hearing his children’s voices reflected in the mediator’s feedback as “very emotional and kind of an eye-opener”. Phil Jackson thought that hearing from children:

‘Can bring quite a lot of clarity … I think if you … hear the words coming from your child, that this is something that they like or which they don’t like, then you are going to pay a lot more attention to that than if it was coming from your ex-partner because their motivation may be to hurt you.’

Wellbeing benefits for the children

Several parents expressed regret that their children had been put through the trauma of parental separation. Therefore, their primary objective had been to minimize any fallout and reach agreements enabling their children to thrive. Tanya Adams said that she had felt personally “empowered” by the outcome reached but, more so, was relieved that the outcome had also been empowering for her children, helping to minimize the damage the separation had caused them, ensuring that they are “beginning to thrive”. Likewise, Mark Bell said that his sole focus was that the children should retain their equilibrium and thrive (as he believed the agreement reached had achieved). Any outcome that achieved that aim and his children deemed successful would be acceptable to him. Even when the outcome was not what they had hoped, parents were satisfied, provided the outcome was what the children wanted. Wendy Lund explained that if her child was happy with the child-led agreement reached, “then that’s what we are just going to have to go down the lines of, you know, put my thoughts and feelings to one side”.

Developmental benefits

Some parents believe that involving their children in the decision-making on separation has empowering benefits that stretch beyond the immediate issue, helping them to develop life skills that improve the child’s self-efficacy (Parkinson and Cashmore, 2008: 86). Several parents, including Mark Bell, echoed this sentiment. Whereas putting young people in “an interview type setting” can be uncomfortable for teenagers, they need to:

‘[O]vercome that feeling and be able to make eye contact and listen to what is being asked of them and come up with a reply, and that’s part of life, isn’t it? So, it’s part of kind of growing up process, you know, for a couple of hours your opinion is required here so, you know, you have to listen and give it, for your own benefit.’

Tanya Adams felt that her child was now more open to help-seeking. By voicing their opinions in CIM, she thought that her child had learned the importance of help-seeking, that there was no shame attached to it and that “it’s part of life to get those things in place if you are going to thrive … so it’s set [child] up a bit there, you know, for the future and how to cope”. Doug Henderson appreciated that while “empowered” might be “stretching it”, his daughter “feels a lot more confident in that … now she knows that her feelings and her ability to express her satisfaction or dissatisfaction [about] things will be taken seriously, and I think for a [age] child … that’s a big thing”.

Improving family relationships

Brown and Campbell (2013: 195) found that parents whose children had participated in CIM reported having a greater understanding of the children’s views. Bell et al (2013: 136) found that most parents who had engaged in CIM reported improved relationships with their children. However, they found that only just over a quarter disclosed improved inter-parental relationships, compared to almost 60 per cent of the control group of parents who had mediation that did not include the child. Parents in the present study reported a better understanding of their children’s wishes, which improved family relationships – although primarily the parent–child relationship rather than the relationship between the parents. Melinda Kingsley thought that on marital breakdown, there is a tendency for each parent to want to be “right”, so having the child’s voice can help guard against parties becoming entrenched, which can help the family going forward. Tanya Adams believed that following CIM, her children could tell her what contact with their father they wanted, and she was now more receptive to their suggestions. In her view, it was also instrumental in improving their father’s parenting. Bobby Gordon, who thought he had been in tune with his children’s views before CIM, said that hearing their opinions in CIM had made him “even more in tune”, resulting in the relationship between his children and between the children and each parent “blossoming”. As outlined later, however, only two of the 12 parents reported any improvement in communication between parents, even less than Bell et al (2013: 136) reported.

Greater durability

Giving children a voice is associated with more durable agreements (McIntosh et al, 2008: 113; Walker and Lake-Carroll, 2014: 27). Several parents welcomed the opportunity for some external, professional verification of either the child’s views or the agreement reached and credited this with ensuring the durability of the agreement. Mark Bell appreciated that the agreement reached came with a “sort of gold-plated badge on it saying that somebody else has approved this”. He felt that the agreement was more likely to be durable since a mediator had facilitated it rather than it being the idea of one parent. When a further decision needed to be made, Bobby Gordon’s children were adamant that if it led to arguments between their parents, then they wanted to go back to CIM, so the parents had agreed to listen, rationalizing that they would only hear the message via the mediator if they did not, “so even now it still plays a part in our relationship”. However, as outlined, most agreements reached were recent and therefore whether they stand the test of time remains to be seen.

A level playing field for fathers

McIntosh et al (2008: 118) report that fathers feel that hearing from children produces a level playing field in circumstances where the primary carer mother was the de facto ‘gatekeeper of the truth’. There was some support for this in our sample. Trevor Cox explained:

‘The child mediator came in and said, “Right, this is what [child] has said”, and there it was! I just sat back, and I was so relieved that … what I had been fighting for all these years, I was right in what I was saying, because right up until that point I was still being told … [child] … doesn’t want this … doesn’t want that blah, blah, blah … ahh, the relief! I can’t tell you how much relief I felt, you know, I call it a victory, but it wasn’t just a victory for me, it was a victory for my [child].’

Doug Henderson also reported: “Every accusation, every claim, every wild thing that mum had said … as soon as the children’s voices were heard, she retracted immediately, and she changed her tack in an astonishing volte-face.”

What parents did not like about the outcome of child-inclusive mediation

As discussed later, only one parent was dissatisfied with the outcome of CIM. Otherwise, there was a correlation between whether parents resolved matters in CIM and satisfaction rates. The one major disappointment expressed was that although parents were satisfied with the outcome overall, there had been no perceived lasting improvement in communication between the parents.

Communication

Some parents expressed regret that the process had not improved communication between the parents as they had hoped. Ten of the 12 parents said that communication had not improved. Some had not expected an improvement in communication due to the ex-partner’s mental health difficulties or controlling character or because the level of animosity was too great. Trevor Cox reflected this view, concluding that while he had hoped for better communication and improved working relationships across the two households, his “expectancy of [achieving] that would be minimal and certainly served to be the case since”. Others hoped that communication between the parents would improve once a financial agreement was reached. Some reflected that it was a less destructive process than the alternative of court proceedings, and reaching an agreement meant there was less need for high levels of communication between the parents, reducing conflict. Some highlighted improving communication between the other parent and the children. For example, Ellen Foxton said involving the children in mediation had “unlocked a dialogue” between the father and the children, which meant they felt more able to state their views to him.

The two parents who said it had improved communication disclosed that they were now more mindful of the content of texts. However, one, Bobby Gordon, attributed this to work on communication in the mediation sessions rather than CIM. He credited the chance to talk, the ground the parents covered in mediation and the mediator’s facilitation and skill at “extinguishing fires before they were even lit” in the main sessions as instrumental in effecting change. Even if parents had not experienced lasting improvements in communication, they appreciated the opportunity to be heard in the presence of a neutral third person. Phil Jackson was grateful that the joint mediation session had given both parents “space to speak … space to express your views” and have those views reflected to them by the mediator so that each parent could judge whether they were being reasonable and rational. It should not be forgotten that the parents also need ‘space’, ‘voice’ and ‘audience’, which the mediation sessions can facilitate.

Cases unresolved in child-inclusive mediation: fringe benefits

In Mapping, we found that even if a case did not resolve in an out-of-court process, there were often fringe benefits of attempting the process, such as improved communication or a better understanding of the other’s position (Barlow et al, 2017b). Saini (2019) found that knowing that their views were important to their parents and that their parents were trying to resolve matters amicably had benefited children who engaged in CIM, even if the case did not settle.

Of the young people we interviewed, only two cases involving four young people had not ended in an agreement between the parents regarding future child arrangements. In one of the cases, mediation was not attempted until several years after an arrangement had been put in place. The mother consulted the mediator because she felt the children needed an outlet to express their frustration at the father’s lack of flexibility over arrangements that had been in place for some years. Even though the children chose not to have their views fed back to their father by the mediator, they found the process worthwhile. One sibling felt that speaking to the mediator had helped him understand the process and his father’s position better and allowed him to “let my emotions out”. Another had appreciated having someone independent from the family to talk to who understood the process and how they were feeling and could bring a different perspective and strategies for possible future issues. Even without any impact on the contact arrangement, the mother felt that the children had benefitted from the mediator’s independent support.

In the other case, the child’s mother had mental health difficulties and withdrew from the process (and from further contact). The child was saddened and reflected that the process had been difficult. However, in the absence of settlement, being open about how she had been feeling and her preferred outcome had helped her and her parents to “move forward from that point”. It had helped to expose some of the issues in contact stemming from her mother’s mental health problems and had helped her to come to terms with her parents’ separation. Finally, it was helpful for her father to express how he felt about the family situation.

In two cases, agreement had been reached that either did not or may not last. In one case, while an agreement had been reached following CIM, the mother disclosed that the father had subsequently alleged that she had coached one of the children and that he intended to apply to the court alleging parental alienation. Nevertheless, the mother indicated that she felt that the outcome was positive in that the children had been able to say what they wanted to, which had given them confidence, and their feedback had validated what she had been saying. She indicated that the father had not listened, but she had not expected him to listen to or act upon the children’s views, and her hypothesis had been proven.

The second case involved the family in which the parents and children reported dissatisfaction with the outcome. Neither the parent nor the children reported any fringe benefits of having engaged in the process, save the mother felt it had been helpful to her eldest child to hear from the mediator that her views could be decisive, given the child’s age, and she could choose when she wished to see her father.

Parental dissatisfaction with outcomes

As indicated, the mother, who reported that the father had reneged on the agreement reached in CIM, was dissatisfied with the outcome. As Bell et al (2013: 137) found, her disappointment stemmed from her dashed hopes that hearing from the children would cause the father to change his behaviour. She also hoped that the process would stop the “petty arguments” around contact to establish a working relationship between the parents for the long term, but this, too, was unrealized. Like her children, she separated her feelings about the process from the outcome, indicating, “It wasn’t that I didn’t like [the process]. I just don’t think it has solved any problems.” The mother reported that the youngest child was becoming resentful of her father’s attitude and was frustrated that having said what she wanted to in CIM, which her father acknowledged at the time, “none of it has changed”, reflected similar frustrations of her children, as discussed earlier. Our findings support those of McIntosh and Long (2006: 9) and McIntosh et al (2008: 120) that inclusion criteria for CIM should be capacity-based, that is, ‘based on the ability of a parent to usefully participate in mediation and to consider alternate information’. The evidence from the mediators was that they would assess parental capacity as part of their assessment of the case’s suitability for mediation. As Marjorie Jenkins put it, “What I am looking for is that degree of openness … because I feel that I don’t want to put a child in a situation where you are kind of bringing up false expectations of situations, and for a parent then to just dismiss what they have to say.”

Conclusion

From our interview findings, most parents gave their children’s views proper consideration in CIM, weighted considering their age and maturity. To that extent, Lundy’s fourth requirement of an article 12 compliant service for children whose parents separate, ‘influence’ (Lundy, 2007: 937), had been met.

Parents had acted upon their children’s views, and both parents and children reported having reached child-led outcomes with which they were satisfied, some delighted. Reaching child-led agreements brought wellbeing benefits for young people. They were proud to have contributed meaningfully to decision-making and influenced the outcome. They felt more settled as a result, and, from the perspective of many young people, it improved family relationships.

Even the minority of young people whose parents had not reached an agreement in CIM reported some fringe benefits (as confirmed by the parents) of engaging in the process. These included understanding the process better or appreciating an outlet to process emotions surrounding their parents’ separation.

The parents and children who expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome did so precisely because the father had not taken seriously or acted upon the children’s views. This highlights the need for a capacity-based assessment of parental suitability for CIM (McIntosh and Long, 2006: 9; McIntosh et al, 2008: 120). That is not to say that the children should be denied an outlet (space) for expressing their views, as discussed in Chapter Six.

Influence, when properly implemented, requires that having acted upon the children’s views, any decision made is reported back to them with an explanation of how and why the decision was reached (Lundy, 2007: 939; UNCRC General Comment No. 12, 2009: para 45; Lansdown, 2019: 9). The evidence indicated that this rarely happened, and we similarly suggest improvements in the following chapter.

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