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The mothers who fight 4 justice

BBC News, UK, By Anna Browning, February 14, 2008

The Fathers 4 Justice campaign has hit the headlines over the last year - but what about the mothers who are forced out of their children's lives?

For women the issues are largely the same as for fathers - maybe it is difficulties with an estranged partner, perhaps court orders are continually ignored.

But for a mother the social stigma of losing her children runs deep and the label of "bad mother" is a bitter pill to swallow.

As a form of defence some simply keep quiet, and as Marian Jayawardene of Mothers Apart from their Children (Match) says, it has become a "much hidden" problem.

'Judged by society'

"Many of our members don't actually admit to people they meet that they have children," she said.

"It is different for mothers. They do share a lot of the problems fathers have, but it's a kind of double whammy. Not only are they separated from their family but they also face the judgement of society."

There are many reasons a mother loses "residency" of a child, says Ms Jayawardene.

"Sometimes what happens is that after a divorce or separation the mother starts off as the resident parent and then the children go off to dad on a contact visit and they are not returned.

"Also, now that there are more women in jobs, there are more dual career families it is more likely that the father will end up as the main carer.

"And sometimes it is down to illness, such as post-natal depression.

"Or it can simply be that the mother is in an impossible situation, in a relationship that is clearly coming to an end - often domestic violence is involved - and the father won't leave so she feels she has no choice but to leave, and it is not always possible to take the children with them."

What is recognised in some quarters, but not in law, is parental alienation syndrome - when one parent, usually the parent with residency, turns children against the other parent.

This, for both mothers and fathers, can lead to estrangement from their children which can run into years.

'Briefing tactics'

Mandy walked out, leaving her son and a daughter behind, more than seven years ago.

She said her husband had alienated the children from her "as punishment" in the months before she left.

Knowing the relationship was breaking down and she wanted to leave, she said he used the children to make her stay - getting them to chant at her "please stay".

"He worked from home and I was working outside the home, so he had the time to do that," she said. "He told them things like 'she's not your real mother', 'she doesn't love you'.

"It got to the point that if I went into a room he would take them out.

"I thought naively the only thing to do was to leave them and I would be able to sort it out through the courts."

But by the time the case came before a judge, it was considered too much of an upheaval to remove the children from their father, she said.

"I felt very cut off. I can remember meeting my children by chance in a local shopping centre and they completely ignored me and looked at me as if I was a complete stranger - and that is unbelievably painful."

'Left powerless'

Alison, 40, a mother of two sons aged 10 and eight, has appeared in court 29 times and spent £60,000 trying to see her children.

"I am a professionally-trained woman, and I have suffered as a consequence of that," she said. "If I had been a stay-at-home mother I wouldn't have faced this battle.

"My husband ran his own business so had the flexibility to have a family and career.

"At the time it was agreed that I would work part-time.

"But he then started citing this to the court as a reason why I didn't have the time or interest to look after the children.

"Now I have been completely eliminated from their life. I have been completely excluded from their every day life and I am powerless to do anything about it.

"I have also experienced abuse allegations, like many fathers, which was fundamentally untrue. Since then I have been trying to get them dismissed, which is nigh on impossible.

"As a woman I'm made to feel like a leper. You can see people wondering just what did this mother do to lose her children?"