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BPM is a Child’s Rights charity working under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The community we work with in our core business consists of non-resident parents and grandparents seeking to maintain a constructive and beneficial relationship with their children/grandchildren after parental separation. Parents who have recently separated, both resident and non-resident, face enormous practical and emotional problems. Our focus is on helping prevent these difficulties adversely affecting the children’s best interests, which generally means facilitating an ongoing meaningful relationship between both parents, and all grandparents, and the children. Non-resident parents need particular support because of the nature of their position. These are mostly, but not invariably, fathers. .
Parental separation is a traumatic time for both parents and the affected children. As regards the children, parental separation is recognised by Public Health Wales as the most prevalent Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Moreover, constant support from both parents is strongly correlated with providing the child with the resilience needed to ameliorate the adverse effects of ACEs. This is the factual basis of the value of BPM’s services in assisting both parents to retain meaningful involvement in their children’s lives post-separation in pursuit of the children’s best interests.
However, a parent is not best placed to play a positive role in their children’s lives if they are themselves in acute psychological distress. Non-resident parents face particular difficulties due to a dearth of provision. Non-resident parents are predominantly fathers – and men, it is generally assumed, do not require assistance. Our daily experience in BPM tells a very different story. After separation, fathers in particular often face a total collapse in social contact.
Our service users are strongly biased to the lowest socioeconomic groups. At least half are unemployed, and two-thirds have an income less than £12,000 pa. Around 20% indicate a disability and 8% are BAME.
Our core service provides two distinct types of support: assistance with practicalities and emotional support. In respect of the former, we emphasise the need for our service users to devise a clear plan and constructive proposals to put forward to the other parent, avoiding destructive confrontation. We also provide assistance in completing paperwork, which can be daunting for the uninitiated. This includes applications for Legal Aid, where appropriate. It also includes access to pro bono solicitors for an initial consultation.
Our Core Service operates throughout Wales. Prior to Covid-19 lockdown this was principally through monthly meetings in each of ten different locations. We also operate a helpline and during lockdown this has been particularly important. However, we also get referrals from a large range of other agencies, especially solicitors. One of the chief challenges we face as a charity is misunderstanding. We do not exist to exacerbate conflict between separating parents. Regrettably that often needs no encouragement, rather the opposite. It is the opposite we seek to encourage: constructive dialogue focussed on the genuine emotional and developmental needs of the children.
Our service users are typically experiencing severe social isolation at a time when they require support most. The other aspect of our service is therefore emotional support. As from summer 2019 we have been asking all our service users to complete standard psychology questionnaires to measure mental wellbeing and social/emotional loneliness. (We use the same measures as advised by the Welsh government). The results emphatically confirm what is readily apparently in our typical service user. 41% are severely lonely, compared to 5% in the general population. In terms of mental wellbeing, our service users clearly form a distinct statistical population from the general public, with a huge elevation in the poorest levels of wellbeing.
The Welsh Government’s Strategies for Working with Fathers (2016) acknowledges problems fathers may face, including “social isolation, fear of the unknown, concerns about being watched and judged, feeling that they wouldn’t be accepted”. BPM is unique in routinely reaching fathers and is also well positioned to provide desperately required services to an increasing volume of clients.
BPM has carried out a number of surveys. In 2015, 2016 and 2017 we carried out the Welsh Dads’ Surveys, the latter with 419 respondents. Only 1-in-6 respondents said that they felt that the role of the father was valued equally with that of the mother, whilst 2/3rds of all respondents believed that their role wasn’t recognised or valued equally. Almost 80% of respondents identified that Government and Local Authorities needed to do more to engage them as parents. Many respondents reported feeling excluded and marginalised associated with separation difficulties. Society sends fathers a mixed message: demanding their greater involvement in child rearing, whilst denying them the means to achieve it.
During the lockdown, non-resident parents have faced particular difficulties maintaining contact with their children. BPM carried out a UK-wide survey on these contact difficulties in late April/early May. 61.5% of non-resident fathers responding to the survey had no contact, or only indirect contact, with their children during lockdown, a huge increase from 15% which prevailed prior to lockdown.
The other part of our service is to act as a specialist service provider to male victims of domestic abuse, which we carry out under a distinct name “Aegis”. This became a natural extension of our core business as nearly two-thirds of our service users are victims of domestic abuse. This service has been provided via weekly male DV drop-in centres in Neath and Swansea, started in the first half of 2019. However we also take male DV clients from our core business (monthly support meetings, helpline, and referrals). This has been funded in 2019/20 by NPT county council and the Big Lottery Awards For All, and we have recently won another Awards For All grant to continue the service in 2020/21.
We now ask all new service users to complete the DASH/Safelives Risk Indicator Checklist (RIC) to gauge their risk as victims of domestic abuse. This is the same instrument which is used with female victims. An alarming 37% of service users completing a RIC have a score of 14 or above, the level usually taken to indicate “high risk” and motivating a MARAC. Since November 2019 we have put 20 service users forward for a MARAC. Our National Manager is trained as an IDVA. Three-quarters of service users completing a RIC report depression (generally diagnosed and on medication). 18% report suicidality.
Last but not least is the Buddy Scheme. The purpose of this scheme is to address the very challenging issues presented by the poor mental wellbeing and severe isolation (and often domestic abuse) which is typical within our client base. The role of the Buddies is strictly confined to emotional support. The giving of advice is not part of their remit. The idea is to promote two things: firstly, a community of service users who will become self-supporting, encouraged by the active involvement of the charity’s volunteer “Buddies”. The intention is that any service user is free to join this self-help group.
However, we also envisage one-on-one buddying support in which service users whom we judge to be especially vulnerable are given a dedicated Buddy who will provide close-in support to that service user. Such Buddy’s will be required to be rather more experienced in the issues faced by our clients. In order make the Buddy Scheme happen we recognise that it has to be driven. To that end we have employed a part-time member of staff as a Buddy Coordinator. This was initially funded by a grant in 2019 from the NPTCVS/SCVS Regional Health, Social Care and Wellbeing Grants Schemes (just ending) and now from the Tudor Trust.
Whilst there is much justified hand-wringing over the male suicide rate, taking effective action to counter it is not easy. Men in mid-life are statistically the highest risk group for suicide, and this applies in Wales as it does in the rest of the UK. Divorce and separation have long been connected to a raised risk of suicide, and this elevation in risk is greater in men than in women (Samaritans and research literature). Here is what one non-resident father wrote in the Welsh Dads’ Survey, carried out by BPM in 2017, “I never stop thinking about taking my own life. There is NO help available. I just want to share my daughters’ lives, that’s all. I don’t want to be told I’m depressed. I know that. My life has become totally impossible. I never did anything wrong.…. I am completely alone and will almost certainly kill myself at some point…. Its only about when?“
There is no easy fix for the prevailing high suicide rates amongst men. However, BPM’s core services – and, even more so, the growing Buddy Scheme – is one contribution to reducing risk amongst the very highest risk group: unemployed men after parental separation.