It is a common complaint amongst separating and divorcing couples that one party restricts or refuses the other any contact with their children. But at the other end of the scale, it is becoming increasingly prevalent for parents who are estranged to completely stop seeing their children. So what happens if you find yourself in this situation are struggling to get your ex to commit to contact? Is there anything you can do?

Getting someone to have contact with their children when they are resistant to it can be a difficult issue to resolve, and there are many reasons behind it. Perhaps they want to maintain a relationship with the children, but are adamant that it should only be on their terms, seeking contact as and when it suits them. Or they are struggling with the separation, and see the children as a reminder of feelings they are trying hard to bury. Whatever the reason, it can lead to contact being sporadic and inconsistent with no certainty when contact will take place. Not only does this make it impossible for the resident parent to make any plans themselves, but they also have to witness the disappointment and insecurity that children may feel from not knowing when they will next see the other parent.

Importantly, even if a parent has no contact with their children, they still remain legally obligated to financially support their children. This can be via agreement or through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) who will make a child maintenance calculation. In addition, if the absent parent has parental responsibility for a child, even if they haven’t seen their children for years, this will not be removed, and their legal rights remain unaltered.

It can be extremely difficult to persuade a non-resident parent of the important role they play in their children’s lives, especially if it looks like they have little or no interest in maintaining a relationship with them. Add to that, no court will order or force someone to have contact with their child when they have no interest in doing so. But there are things you can do.

Consider mediation

If your ex wants to have a relationship with the children, then it may be possible to address the issue by talking it through with a mediator. If they are not open to this, perhaps a mutual friend or family member could speak with them. Explaining the difficulties that irregular contact can cause for the children and the resident parent, may help to bring about a change in behaviour. If your ex is prepared to open lines of communication, then hearing about the problems from a third party may help them see it benefits everyone to agree and stick to a schedule of contact.

It may be that having an independent person emphasising the importance of maintaining a relationship with the children by having regular contact, would have a positive effect.

Can the court force my ex to have contact with our child?

If mediation has failed, then either party can make an application to the court for a Child Arrangements Order. The court’s general view, except in exceptional circumstances, is that it is in the child’s best interests to maintain a relationship with both parents.

In this situation, the non-resident parent will either have to commit to a schedule of contact or face having their contact reduced to a level they can commit to. This is generally sufficient for the non-resident parent to understand the importance of keeping to the terms of an order, and its schedule and timings for contact.

That said, some parents have intransigent views and stubbornly refuse to see beyond their own feelings. In such cases, the court can only go so far, and the reality is that if a non-resident parent is adamant they do not wish to have contact with their children, then the court cannot and will not make an order forcing them to do so. The reason for this is that the court’s number one consideration is the child’s welfare, and it is highly unlikely to be considered in a child’s best interests to order contact when a refusing parent who will consistently let them down.

Trying to persuade a non-resident parent of the important role they play in the life of their children when they have no interest in it can be heart breaking. Yet it is still worth trying to discuss with them the detrimental impact that having no relationship with one parent can have. This can be done by discussing matters with an ex directly, via a mutual friend of a family member. Alternatively, some form of counselling can be considered if the non-resident parent is willing.

My ex hasn’t had contact for a while. How should I prepare the children?

If contact between your ex and the children fluctuates and they dip in and out of their lives, reintroducing contact should be handled carefully. Losing contact with a parent after divorce or a separation can be traumatic for a child, and they may harbour resentments, both toward the parent caring for them and the parent they rarely see. Here are some suggestions for a smooth reintroduction:

  • Make an effort to work collaboratively with your ex. Try to be flexible and prepare the children as best as you can for any potential no-shows
  • Have a clear plan in place that moulds contact around the child’s regular routine. This will ground them in certainty. For example, invite the non-resident parent to a swimming lesson or sporting event. Here, they can watch from the side lines without either party or the child feeling pressured. This example gives the resident parent the freedom of being looser with plans.
  • Begin with occasional visits, and when the non-resident parent becomes more consistent, move into longer sessions.
  • Depending on the length of time the non-resident parent has been absent and the ages of the children, think about whether the contact will need to be supervised.
  • Consider how information will be communicated to the non-resident parent on a long-term basis

It is extremely common for parents who have day-to-day care of their children to feel some level of resentment towards the absent parent. These feelings can make reuniting children and absent parents jarring and uncomfortable, not to mention the anger and frustration at having to bring up children alone. But if the absent parent has had a damascene moment and shown a desire to play an active role in their children’s lives, whilst this should be encouraged, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what the family has been through during their absence.

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