When the issue of access for fathers broke a few weeks ago, I was clear in my mind that I supported access and maintenance as the rights of the child. I have not moved from this position and I think a point of clarity is needed here. One of my greatest concerns about the way that access is being marketed by the new poster child for access is that access is interpreted as a right of the father of the child.
Just as the financial payment made for the upkeep of the child is not made to an adult, but is made for the upkeep of a minor child, access to a minor is the right of the minor so that the child gets the benefit of emotional bonding and support. Access is not the right of the visiting parent of the child.
I want to write this article about some of the difficult issues which present themselves in the issue of access. Before I do that, though, let me reflect briefly on what it means to be an ambassador for a cause.
When a person chooses to become involved in advocacy work, that person seeks to hold him or herself up as a paragon of virtue on a particular matter.
That said, I want to spend some time offering more information about the issue of access. Hopefully these little kernels will make the issues clearer.
The matter of access always throws up some hard questions and balances. Upon the dissolution of a relationship where offspring were created, the first order of business should be to ensure that the offspring continue to have as normal a life as possible.
In cases where the break up is not acrimonious, the cultural norm is that both parents retain custody of the child with the mother of the child also having care and control over the minor. Care and control enables the parent who retains physical custody of the child to make the decisions necessary for the day to day administration of the child.
The other parent is usually referred to as the visiting parent. The child can benefit from visits with the visiting parent but these visits may not be granted if they are not deemed in the best physical or emotional interest of the child.
Where there are concerns over the safety of the child, the court may reserve the right to make the final decision about the conditions under which access is granted or if at all. When coming to a ruling on the matter of access, the court will rely on reports that are done by social services agencies.
Those agencies will have social workers or child care officers trained to be able to make recommendations on family issues and child protection. In cases where there are concerns about the safety of the child, one of the protections that a court may order is public access to the child.
In this case, the visiting parent meets with child in a public space such as a park or restaurant. Whether there is protection guaranteed by the court or not, if the parent with care and control of the child does not agree for access to be granted in their home, that cannot be forced.
Access does not mean that the visiting parent has the right of entry to the home of the parent with care and control. Under the laws of Barbados, a child has the right to refuse to have contact with the visiting parent or either parent at the age of 18.
When considering issues of custody or care and control of children, the court can consider the concerns and views of the children but these views will not necessarily shape the ruling of the court. Culturally, the parent with care and control happens to be the mother but there is no rule which says it cannot be the father.
The legal system and its custodians are trying to make mediation a more prominent feature in the resolution of family disputes. It is anticipated that this will both speed up the time period for a resolution of a matter and allow families to get to healing faster. Secondly, it should reduce the financial overlay for families with issues to seek remedy.
The weak family structures that we have in Barbados are a central part of the problem when we are looking at youth crime, recidivism and control of other social ills. In order to deal with the more compound problems in this society, family and the protection of children must be a major areas of focus.
The people genuinely invested in advocacy work, whatever their issue, have much work before them.