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How separated fathers can maintain contact

Tags: divorce, fathers, separation, non-resident dads, separated fathers, shared parenting, child contact, applying for contact
Content Types: Tips and Advice Legal

A recent story about a mother who went into hiding with her son has raised an interesting issue about child contact when parents split up.

Rebecca Minnock, a 35-year-old mother from Somerset, went into hiding with her three-year-old son Ethan after a court ruling that the boy would live with his father. Ms Minnock and Ethan’s father Roger Williams had separated in February 2012, a month after Ethan was born.

Ethan initially lived with his mother but a month after the original ruling Mr Williams successfully applied for contact. These arrangements broke down after a number of allegations were made by the mother but, in early 2015, a district judge rejected the allegations, saying they had been invented to make the father look bad.

Ethan’s living arrangements were then split between both parents until a child psychologist recommended that he live solely with his father and have only supervised contact with his mother. Rebecca was due to attend a hearing when she disappeared with Ethan, and went into hiding for two weeks.

No gender bias in family courts

This story has been widely reported by the press, not just because of the unusual circumstances under which mother and child went missing, but perhaps also because it seems striking that the father was granted sole residency in the first place. If this seems unusual, then it’s worth taking a look at how family courts handle child contact cases and why fathers so often end up as secondary carers.

While it may sometimes seem like separated dads get a raw deal, a recent study concluded that there is no gender bias against fathers in family courts. The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Warwick and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, reviewed historic case files from 2011. The researchers found that fathers applying for child contact had been “overwhelmingly successful” and that dads fared just as well as mums when making contact applications [1].

This, however, is an emotive issue, and some vocal fathers may still feel like the system is working against them. In asking separated parents for feedback about our services, such as Splitting Up? Put Kids First, we’ve come across many fathers who felt they had been treated unfairly:


“The systems are still very biased in favour of the mother and this should be addressed as it leaves fathers in a very weak position... The father’s role seems to be reduced to a weekend role”


“Culturally, socially, legally and practically mothers are still viewed as the 'primary' parent and fathers remain side-lined as the system works against the father and for the mother.”


“I have lost all faith in UK legislation regarding fathers’ rights.”


However, the report also highlighted concerns that sharing childcare equally may be a way of putting parents’ needs before the needs of children. While parents understandably want to be as involved as possible in their children’s upbringing, parental contact with children should reflect the needs of the child, not the rights of the parents.

A closer look at the figures in the Warwick University report gives a bit more insight into why some fathers feel like they are being treated unfairly. The report reveals that the proportion of claimants granted any kind of access to their children was 88%. The proportion being granted overnight contact was around 50%, with 38% of parents being granted limited or supervised contact and the remaining 12% given no access at the time of the initial application.

The success rate for mothers applying for contact orders was similar to that of fathers, supporting the conclusion that family courts are not discriminating against men, and that women applying for child contact are experiencing roughly equivalent success rates.

However, the report also offers information on who is initiating contact applications. 70% of all applications were made by fathers, and 30% by mothers. The most common type of application was made “in order to initiate or restart contact” and of these, a huge majority (96%) were made by men.

We know from research that fathers in primary caring roles are just as capable as mothers of developing good parenting qualities. They can be warm and nurturing and learn to understand baby’s needs in the same way as mothers [2].

However, research into early attachment has shown that babies usually rely on a primary carer during their first year and this is usually, though not always, the mother. Whoever that primary carer is, babies form a secure attachment through an instinctive, feelings-based relationship that forms the basis of their survival mechanism. This attachment is crucial to mental, physical and emotional development, and breaking an attachment in the name of fairness to parents can result in irreparable damage to a child’s long term development [3].

We also know that family courts are required to put children’s needs first and that mothers are more likely to be able to demonstrate that they are the primary attachment figure. When parents separate, their children – particularly if they are very young – will be placed with the parent with whom they have formed the strongest attachment.

Research by Modern Fatherhood shows the importance of the links between parents’ working hours and availability of care time. Particularly where young children are concerned, fathers are more likely to work full time than mothers, meaning mothers are more likely to have had more time to develop stronger and deeper attachments with their children [4].


So what can dads do?

Perhaps the most effective way for dads to address this issue is to work on developing attachment bonds so that the child can have a better chance of feeling secure in a shared contact arrangement, using contact time to strengthen the father-child relationship. As the child gets older, the likelihood of being able to live happily across two homes increases. And, while nobody goes into parenthood anticipating separation, developing a strong bond in the early years can protect against unfavourable rulings if a split happens.

Another recent study, which looked at the long-term prospects of separating families, said:


“Being a more involved dad (changing nappies, putting the child to bed, reading and playing with them) prior to separation… was linked to more frequent contact and increased overnight stays, particularly where the father had looked after the child by himself.”


“Our research shows that the more closely involved a dad is in the upbringing of his young child, the more likely he is to have regular contact in the event of a separation and that the sorts of activities a dad is involved with in the early years matter” [5].


This research, which looked at data from thousands of families, found that around 80% of single fathers whose children were aged three or below at the time of separation had some contact with their children. With older children, this figure increased to around 90%, as older children are more likely to have developed a bond with both parents. Children tend to bond with mothers more during their first year, and fathers in the second year [3].

Child contact is not about fairness to the parents, but the wellbeing of the child and establishing shared contact arrangements often needs to be a gradual process.

Our free parenting plan service, Splitting Up? Put Kids First, was created specifically to ensure that children’s needs are prioritised while communication between ex-partners is improved. Parents using this service can create and manage a childcare plan and develop the communication skills that allow them to function effectively as parents even after their own relationship has ended.




[2] Saturn, S. R. (2014). Flexibility of the father’s brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(27), 9671–9672.

[3] Leach, P (2013). Family Breakdown. Manchester: Unbound, pp. 18-19

[4] Poole, E, et al (2013a). Fathers’ involvement with children

[5] Nuffield Foundation (2015). Being a parent – before and after a split

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  • User-anonymous mikalis Flag

    "While it may sometimes seem like separated dads get a raw deal, a recent study concluded that there is no gender bias against fathers in family courts."?? I am sorry, but the person that posted this nonsense isn't living on the same planet as everyone else.

    Fri 7, Oct 2016 at 6:23pm