The issue of access for fathers is again in the news. This is one outstanding matter that is yet to be addressed in Barbados. It is also highly charged because it’s seen as an action used by women to spite men. Any activity that a woman performs in a patriarchal society which can be construed as female power or choice is vilified.
Let me hasten to say here that I am not in agreement with women who use their children as pawns in unresolved disputes at the dissolution of a relationship. Although I understand how a frustrated mother could feel it is the only recourse she has, such behaviour invariably does more harm than good.
A child is the product of two individuals and nothing good can come of attempts to block that child from knowing or interacting with either parent unless the child is in clear and present danger.
This is the part of the discussion I want to pursue in today’s reflection. I am all for fathers having access to their children but only when this access is wholesome and positive. Access and maintenance (money paid by the non-custodial parent of the child to complement the child’s expenses) are both rights of the child. They are instituted because of the need children have to be supported financially and emotionally by both of their parents.
Notwithstanding, there are times when allowing either parent to spend time with a child can expose that child to toxicities. Withholding access has traditionally been perceived to be a spiteful reaction women use to hurt their partners after a relationship dissolves. I want to posit though, that increasingly, men are calling for access as a means of power and control after a woman terminates a relationship. Some men have worked out that access gives them visitation at their ex’s home. It also gives them a reason to call or text. In some cases, these negotiations are misused, and that brings emotional distress to the woman.
In these cases, I have no problem with a mother making a value judgement to withhold the child from negative exposure. To my mind, the crux of the matter is not the mother’s action, but the inability of our social services to receive a complaint from a mother, investigate it and adjudicate the outcome.
A few years ago, the Family Services Unit was opened in the Welfare Department and initially it dealt with such matters; but I am unsure of the current status. Additionally, the Family Services Unit of the Royal Barbados Police Force was added, but as I explained a few weeks ago, the Unit has exactly three staff members and obviously severe limitations.
I suppose I should mention the Government department whose legal mandate it is to protect children in Barbados – the Child Care Board. Having mentioned it, I shan’t now waste editorial space explaining what the Board should do on behalf of children but is seriously lacking in doing.
With nowhere to turn, mothers take matters into their own hands. Can we really sit outside of their challenges and cast blame and aspersions? Let us not forget that in some cases women end relationships because of abuse. In such a situation negotiating access is not simplistic. Firstly, the contact puts the mother at risk each time the child has to be delivered or retrieved. Secondly, and more importantly, the benefit of having the child spend time with a perpetrator of abuse simply has to be weighed.
Supervised access or restricted access are often better options in certain cases but again social services are entirely too slow and too clogged in dealing with these matters. Having worked in the women’s activist space over the last 15 years, I have not encountered a single case in which a mother was withholding a child from its father simply out of spite. Mothering is a hard and involved job and many mothers who can get an hour; a day or even a weekend of reprieve usually zealously takes the time. In 100 per cent of the cases I have dealt with, there have been underlying unaddressed concerns of the mother.
In a few cases, I have come across women who seek to withhold access because fathers do not pay maintenance. I try to work through with them that the two rights are separate rights of the child and because the father is not paying, this does not preclude him from time with his child. It is a hard and bitter occurrence to work through, but I try to show women that even if the father is unwilling to give money and he is willing to give time, then time still has a value.
Many people ascribe a feminist world view to me. In my own words, I am a ‘womanist’. Embodied very strongly as a part of ‘womanism’ is the support of the black family in all its non-simplistic manifestations. We would be well served in Barbados if we create mechanisms for helping dissolved partners negotiate access. Co-parenting is not impossible, but it needs first recognition, and then resolution of outstanding irritants.
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)