Walking away from bairns should be shameful, so why isn’t it?
Rhona Cunningham wonders why so many parents are allowed to walk away from their kids without a backward glance
I was in a mum’s house today, accompanying a support worker on a home visit. The mum moved in just before Christmas and borrowed a table top cooker from us to make her Christmas dinner. She has three bairns, and once they go to school in the morning, if she has nowhere to go, she goes to bed and stays there till they come home. She says it's cosy, and it saves money on the heating.
There’s no carpet in the living room, only a few pieces of well-used furniture and a bucket on the floor to catch the metronomic drips from a leak in the roof. The mum is looking forward to our volunteers coming in March to paint the walls, maybe then she can get a carpet laid. Until then the tension with the downstairs neighbour, who is pretty miffed at the noise three kids can make on the wooden floor, will continue. "But what can I do?" she asks.
Her kids are involved in all sorts of things. The youngest of the three girls is in the majorettes but not at a competitive level as her mum can't afford any extra costs like outfits or travel to competitions. The local leisure centre has been a godsend, and the friends she has made at Fife Gingerbread groups are a life saver. She is about to sign up to become a volunteer and explore hospitality at a local open day as a possible route for employment.
Culturally we need to start the conversation about the legal and moral obligation to provide for children. Walking away should be shameful.
The mum smiles as she talks of depression. She speaks of fears that her children would be taken from her if she was honest about how much they take care of each other around the house. It’s not uncommon for the bairns to do some cooking and shopping when she can’t bring herself to get out of bed.
Despite this bleak picture, it’s clear that the mum is a cheery, friendly person, but she describes herself as having no confidence at all. Yet only a few years ago she moved 500 miles away from her family and friends – just her and the three girls – so her bairns could grow up in streets that aren't overrun by gangs and are knife free. She says her children are happy here – they like the freedom.
No sign of the bairns dad though. No emotional support, no financial support, no contact. The subject of any form of maintenance from him is not even on her radar. Not even an option. “There’s no point – I won’t get anything”.
As far as this mum is concerned she is solely responsible for the love, care and provision of her bairns. She is responsible for the roof over their head, the clothes on their back and the food on the table. The sad thing is; her attitude towards maintenance is accurate. She is spot on.
As the system stands it is stacked in favour of the absent parent walking away; that can't be fair or just…can it? Right now, she is the one with the label – lone parent with three bairns. She’s the one that receives scowls and judgements from passers-by. She’s the one that is assessed for benefits and she’s the one frightened that the system will take her bairns from her.
Culturally we need to start the conversation about the legal and moral obligation to provide for children. Walking away should be shameful. Bairns should come first. So for the sake of the thousands of parents and their bairns that are living in this situation, we need to start that conversation right now. Are you up for it?
Rhona Cunningham is strategic manager of Fife Gingerbread. It is currently examining the effectiveness of the statutory services that are designed to ensure child maintenance is paid by absent parents.