Legal expert Michelle Crilly discusses why the digital age, despite some glitches, has actually been a blessing for families who live apart...
Families come in all shapes and sizes and families living apart can present very special challenges. Many clients who are parents often tell me that it is extremely difficult for them to separate what they believe is right for them and what is right for their children. For families living apart, top of their agenda is how contact is to be worked out between the child and the parent no longer living in the family home.
Whatever the relationship difficulties, it is very important for the children to have contact with both parents. Every parent has something to offer and children need both their parents and almost always have certain loyalties to them, no matter why the family unit has broken up.
A common feature of a break-up is that children and young people often blame themselves, thinking that they have done something wrong. If a parent leaves and does not keep in touch with the child, then that parent may well be reinforcing the child’s belief that it was they who caused the break-up.
Some parents tell me that they find contact with their children a very painful experience and that saying their goodbyes at the end of the day or weekend is so emotional and upsetting for everyone that they find it extremely distressing. Other parents tell me that so many hurdles are put in their way that contact with the children is simply impossible. Some parents live or work long distances from the family home, other families may move abroad to live, with the absent parent remaining in Northern Ireland. These scenarios can prevent very particular challenges to contact, but the most important thing is to put all differences aside and start co-parenting rather than parenting.
One parent client recently suggested to me about the advantages of digital technology to him and his children, given that his job commitments required frequent travel and contact with his children suffered greatly as a result. As most children have access to some form of digital device such as an iPad, tablet or mobile phone, facetime and skype became an alternative means of keeping in touch when direct contact was not viable. In fact, the situation worked very well avoiding a situation whereby the children suffered disappointment after disappointment when that parent could not be present for his contact arrangements. Just a simple “hello” and “goodnight” from the absent parent was enough to maintain the link and rebuild the bond between the children and their father.
In one case, where the parents were unable to sort out any arrangements as a result of an antagonistic break-up, contact was maintained with the older child via the mobile he received as a gift to keep in touch with his dad. In another example, a mother told me that she could not cope with speaking with her ex-partner and felt that at least with text messages and emails that she was able to keep the situation civilised and polite between them. Arrangements were kept to a minimum and she was able to discuss issues in relation to the children and pass on information about parent teacher meetings without any confrontation.
Another parent who consulted with me recently suggested creating a memory box containing photos and birthday cards, the children’s achievements, artwork, text messages and videos and photos of holidays could be scanned and uploaded and kept safely and securely in online storage. The children and each of the parents could add to the file so that they could enjoy these memories at any time. This was developed further with the family conversing together on the private social media app ‘WhatsApp’. This enabled the absent parent to be part of the family’s development, keeping him in the loop, and enabling him to share in the joys as well as the anxieties the family were facing and therefore he could offer his support when it was needed.
However digital technology can also pose a problem for families living apart and it is vitally important that rules and boundaries are put in place. There may be a tendency after the break-up to slightly relax rules and regulations as parents try to make up for the negative effects of the separation on the children. The most important thing is consistency as if a parent suddenly changes these rules, it could be seen as an attack against the other parent. This brings us back to basics – communication is key between parents so that their arrangements do not impact on their children’s emotions. Setting boundaries, rules and regulations benefits children, giving them some sense of belonging, structure and security.
In all circumstances, digital technology needs to be strictly monitored as children who are left to their own devices can, either intentionally or unintentionally, stray into all sorts of undesirable websites putting them at risk. When using social media, it is advisable that privacy settings are always used so that the world at large cannot view your content.
The law relating to contact to the child is enshrined within the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and gives the child the right to have contact with their family. However sometimes contact is not in the child’s best interests and on some occasions Courts have ruled that contact with the absent parent would be placing the child at risk – for example in situations of domestic violence. One client in particular was fearful that both herself and her child could be located by the other parent and so I had to contact the child’s school and request that the child’s photos be immediately removed from the school’s website so that the child could not be identified. This proved a lengthy process, even though there were already Court Orders in place preventing contact and the removal of the child from the jurisdiction.
How advances in digital technology assist with parental contact is certainly a topic for continued debate, however the biggest challenge for all families after a break-up, whether by separation or divorce, is how to work together in the best interests and for the good of their children.
Michelle Crilly LL.B Solicitor is a member of the Law Society of Northern Ireland/ National Institute for Trial Advocacy and holds a Certificate in Advanced Advocacy. Michelle is a member of the Children Order Panel, and the Northern Ireland Guardian ad Litem Agency (NIGALA) Solicitor Panel. Visit michellecrillyandcosolicitors.co.uk