Batmen and a Robin
Radio Netherlands Worldwide - English - Vox Humana - By Mindy Ran - 23-02-2007
Click to listen to the programme of Radio Netherlands Worldwide
In the UK and in the Netherlands, you see them on the news and in the papers, wearing superhero costumes and perched a top tall buildings or bridges. Some people use this as an excuse not to take the fathers' support group, Fathers 4 Justice, very seriously. But restricted access - or no access at all - to one parent and that parent's family is a huge problem in the Netherlands.
It affects up to 25 percent of the children in this country, says Liesbeth Groenhuijsen, a psychologist and specialist on children and divorce. She is also the acting advisor to the branch of the Dutch Ministry of Justice that oversees custody questions in individual cases, the Child Protection Agency or Kinderbescherming.
"There are two groups in that 25 percent. One group is the parents who are denied access by the other parent, but there is also a group that decides to leave the situation for themselves. Together they make the 25 percent, which I think is too much."
In conflict situations between the two parents, the Child Protection Agency will step in and advice the courts which parent the child lives with on a daily basis, with access granted to the other parent. According to Groenhuijsen, these decisions are based on the laws and treaties that protect children's rights.
Since 2005, the law gives custody automatically to both parents, unless there are safety or abuse issues. In a small number of cases, the child will live equally between the two parents, but more often the court will decide which parent become the primary parent, or where the child will primarily live.
"What we think is very important," says Groenhuijsen, "is that after the divorce, the children have the opportunity to recover."
"So, we advise the judge to create a situation that is stable and as much like it was before the divorce. In very many households the fathers still go out to work and the mothers take care of the children. This being so, the most secure arrangement for the children is to go on living with the mother. But we hope they also have the space to have a good relationship with their father."
For Groenhuijsen, the key point is to end the conflict and fighting that often accompanies divorce, as she sees this as adding further damage to the children involved. She has developed a "parenting plan" which she hopes will eventually become law. The main focus of this plan is that a couple, much like a signing a pre-nuptial agreement that defines, before the marriage, how their monetary goods will be divided in the event of a divorce, does the same thing for any children from the marriage.
"I am certain that by refining the system we can help parents keep more contact with their children," says Groenhuijsen.
"But, whether we like it or not, there are bad people and there are bad parents. There are people who cannot cooperate with the other parent to have a good access arrangement. You cannot prevent that in all cases."
Unfortunately, this plan may have little impact on the main complaints of Fathers 4 Justice. They campaign to change the law so that custody decisions made by the courts can be enforced, as a matter of their and their children's human rights.
Currently, regardless of what the courts decide, most of the parents that are forced into a lesser or non-existent role in their children's lives are done so by one parent simply refusing access to the other. According to Fathers 4 Justice statistics, over 200,000 fathers and 50,000 mothers in the Netherlands have little or no access to their children.
There are stringent measures that can be taken such as fines and in some cases, prison. However, according to Groenhuijsen, the Child Protection Agency will, as a matter of policy in restricting conflict, always argue against enforcing these measures.
Fathers 4 Justice disagree that the focus on solving the problem should be on the conflict between the parents. Most of those interviewed stated their primary concern, and where they believed the law should be focussed was on preventing the emotional impact of separation: on the children, on the parent, and on the extended family by enforcing access agreements.
They all agreed that it was a feeling of helplessness and desperation over not being able to see their children that led to the superhero, and other, actions. As one member of the group said, "The first time I climbed a bridge I was terrified, but I was also exhilarated. I was standing up and doing something about the situation."
Joop Zander is a member of Fathers 4 Justice. He has studied the impact of divorce and "alienation" syndrome and written a book on what he refers to as the "devastating" psychological impact of separation for both the children and the parent called "Missed Fatherhood" (or "Gemist Vaderschap " in Dutch).
The book focuses on the highly emotive aspects of children and parents losing the experience of daily interaction with each other and the pain created by enforced separation, as well as the lasting impacts on the relationship. It also looks very closely at the sorts of psychological problems it can create.
"This is the problem, even if you have the right to see your child, if the mother chooses not to allow it, there is nothing you can do," says Zander. He believes that to allow this situation to continue damages both parent and child from "alienation syndrome".
Playing the power card
"Alienation syndrome," Zander explains, "is a syndrome where children are alienated from one parent by the other parent where they are living. In some cases, one parent can so poison the children against the other parent that it will have permanent consequences on the relationship between them and sometimes destroy it."
"What society should do," he continues, "is to put out a clear message that a child needs both parents and not to allow one parent to play the power card and alienate the child from the other parent."
In the meantime, changes to the law are not expected very soon, and if they do occur will lean more towards a solution like the "parenting plan" recommended by Groenhuijsen.
For the Fathers 4 Justice, this means they will continue to campaign for their rights as parents. As one member of the group said; "I got nowhere with the courts, but my ex-wife was so embarrassed when she found out that I was on an action, I get to see more of my son now."