By Ian Maxwell, Families Need Fathers Scotland

Words matter.

They can release our thinking or they can trap it.

The blanket term “non-resident”parent is entrenched in common usage.

Family law changed to get rid of the terms “custody” and “access” more than 20 years ago. Referring to the allocation of parenting time with their children between separated parents the new terms “resident” and “contact” parent were felt to be less censorious and judgemental and carry less implication that one parent was more important than the other.

The emphasis, at least in the cases that end up in court, was intended to move towards joint parental responsibilities and the search for arrangements that would allow both parents to fulfil their responsibilities to their children.

But in reality as soon as one parent became “resident” the other became a “non-resident” alternative. Separated parents quickly learned that “resident” carries more status in the eyes of friends and family than “non-resident”. The Child Support Agency legislation adopted the term “non-resident” because it made their life easier and made non-resident parents feel worse.

Even though we dislike the term intensely we end up using it every day. Fathers – and mothers – who come to us for help starting thinking of themselves as “non-resident parents” instead of just parents. They often themselves underestimate the contribution they can continue to make in the lives of their children.

Partly that is because of the advice they get when they go to a solicitor when they can’t reach agreement with their former partner that reflects the amount and quality of parenting time they had with their children before separation. The solicitor will know which sheriffs regard every other weekend as more than enough and who will not take kindly to a dad whom asks for more.

That’s why the Fatherhood Institute research is so important. A data desert leads to a policy and practice desert.

If fathers – separated or not – disappear out of the data then they and their parenting become invisible and easy to dismiss, diminish and disparage. And the minimalist prejudices can be confirmed.

Policy makers, judges, statisticians and legislators alike should rise to the challenge of recognising the realities of parenting in modern Scotland.

One “non-resident” parent has his children with him up to 3 or 4 nights a week. Another see them every day but can’t take them overnight – housing benefit for younger fathers ignores their parenting responsibilities by insisting they share accommodation with other unrelated adults. Another has his kids every other weekend because he was told not to ask for more.

It’s not only a father’s issue. If the data is inaccurate for fathers it is also inaccurate for mothers.

Above all, it’s a children’s issue. Research from around the world shows that children do better in most areas of their lives with the involvement of both parents.

Now that changes in Scottish family law are being considered there is a chance to put some of these research findings into practice.

Ian Maxwell, Families Need Fathers Scotland