Article by Glynne Davies on The Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP)

Article by Glynne Davies, of Oliver Fisher Solicitors, explaining the way the Separated Parents Information Programmes work.

PIP or SPIP? A Rose By Any Other Name

Tags: Parenting, SPIP, PIP, Conflict, Child Welfare, Children, Separation, Divorce

March 2014


Somewhere along the line the PIP (Parenting Information Programme) became the SPIP (Separated Parents Information Programme). CAFCASS has never managed to give it a catchy title, but through partnership organisations, has been delivering successful programmes to separated parents who end up in court proceedings since 2009.

The SPIP is a Contact Activity, delivered on behalf of DFE.  According to Mike Coote from CAFCASS: “There are currently 39 SPIP providers delivering this service.  Service in London is delivered through an order processing unit from April 2013, to ensure easy, local and prompt service delivery.  There is a standard SPIP programme nationwide, and the training for providers, course materials, and handbook for parents are all provided through the team.  Responsibility for provider payment, quality and innovation also rest with the team.  This is a major early intervention programme, and is currently delivered to in excess of 18,000 participants annually, a figure which is still increasing in some areas.  Feedback from participants is positive.  Our aims are to consolidate practice, maintain and improve take up of services and develop links to mediation and out of court resolution.  Outcome research by Liz Trinder was published in Summer 2011[1] and we are following through the recommendations.  The programme is now revised and links to Behaviour Modelling Training (Getting it Right for Children –GIRFC) are being put into action as the expected next step for all SPIP participants.  There is a current programme of training for SPIP providers underway under the title of Masterclasses.  These are run jointly with providers and focus on aspects of best practice defined through a peer assessment of services undertaken in 2012.  During 2013-14 in conjunction with the DfE and MoJ we are launching a non-court pathway to SPIP – the Dispute Resolution SPIP.”

The rationale in the name change was perhaps in part to dispel the myth that the PIP purported to teach parents how to parent their children. Perhaps someone thought that putting an S in front of PIP would make it more palatable. However, a rose by any other name, be it PIP, or SPIP, still smells of coercion to those ordered to attend a 4 hour course with 8 or 9 other equally reluctant parents (a deliberate mixture of mums and dads, resident and non-resident parents, but never in the same group as the ex). Understandably, parents arrive with feelings ranging from mild indignation to downright outrage. The body language on arrival is very telling: lots of crossed arms and legs, heads down, watches checked every few seconds, phones at the ready.

In reality it would be unreasonable to expect anything else. Although it is possible for people to volunteer to attend a SPIP, in reality the overwhelming majority are sent on a court order. Words such as “insulted” and “offended” are quite common in the first few minutes of the programme. Having placed their faith in the court system to provide resolution, applicants and respondents alike instead find themselves diverted onto a course that sounds like it’s for “bad” parents. For some this is the first time they’ve been in a learning environment since they left school, and like school, the only consolation they have is the knowledge that sometime, somewhere, their ex will be subjected to a similar course, nursing the same sense of injustice.

So: what can someone expect at a SPIP?

The course itself is in four parts, each lasting approximately one hour. There is a book to go with the programme crammed full with helpful information and useful contacts to reinforce the messages. Still sounds like school? But this is not school. Presenters make it clear from the outset that they are not officers of the court, and they don’t mark the parents’ work or evaluate their performances. They do, however, challenge the assumption (fondly held by many parents) that all that has to change is that their ex has to stop being so difficult!

Section 1 looks at separation as a journey that someone never wanted or expected to go on. It is a process; not an event and thus has a beginning, a middle and an end. For some (the minority) the journey is akin to a trouble-free trip up the motorway on a clear day when the roads are empty. For others (the majority) it is more like the experience of Steve Martin in “Planes Trains and Automobiles”, where every turn leads to frustration. For many parents this is the first time they have been able to look dispassionately and objectively at the experience of separation with others who understand what they’re going through. By the end of the first session there has been a palpable thaw in the room; there is now a working group instead of a disparate selection of “single parents”.

Section 2 looks at the impact of separation on children. The parents watch a DVD made by young people that follows a family with three children over period of 6 months while they try to come to terms with separation. It’s not extreme or X rated; in fact at first glance it seems quite anodyne. But as the story unfolds, parents hear about some of the common concerns faced by children of separating/separated families: anxiety about where they will live and how their schooling might be affected; fear of losing contact with one parent; frustration that separation does not bring an end to the conflict; guilt at wanting to have their own lives, and feeling responsible for the well-being of their unhappy parents. The group is asked to make suggestions as to how the parents in the DVD “could do better”. The session ends with the parents reflecting on their skills as parents, and being challenged to think of one small change they could make that would make a positive difference for their child.

Section 3 looks at effective communication. The parents study a scenario of another separating family, and learn some practical techniques for negotiating: reducing stress using physiological exercises, taking a time out, active listening and sticking to the point. Without exception the problems of the fictitious families are easily solved (usually within 30 seconds!), and parents quickly come to appreciate that the key to a solution is often wanting to find one.  By the end of this section the parents accept that although they will never control the behaviour of their ex, they can control their own responses and that this can change the course of the conversation. The session ends by asking the parents to project into the future and consider what they want their children to be saying about this time in their lives……and what they don’t want them to be saying.

Section 4 looks at the emotional fall-out of separation for all members of the family. The loss of the expectation that a relationship will last is akin to a bereavement, characterised by stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. As with an actual bereavement, it takes time to work through the stages (on average about two years) and the parents are asked to think about what support networks they can access for themselves and for their children while they come to terms with the loss. This can be within their own familial/social circles, or from external/professional sources such as counselling or mediation. A second DVD provides a brief overview of the Government’s website that shows the communication skills learned in section 3 put into action in bite sized chunks, and is available as an on-line tool for parents who want to know “where to go next”. (This is the behaviour modelling training mentioned by Mike Coote above.)

Despite the initial resistance, the vast majority of SPIP attenders engage fully, behave reasonably and display tolerance and sympathy for each other’s plight. Obviously every now and then there is a parent more entrenched than most, but for the vast majority a SPIP provides respite from the corrosive effects of chronic conflict, and a window of opportunity for change. However bad it seems now, it can get better; small steps lead to big changes and everyone has internal resources to improve the future for themselves, their children, and their (separated) family.

[1] Building Bridges? An evaluation of the costs and effectiveness of the Separated Parents Information Programme

Author Information

Glynne Davies, Oliver Fisher Solicitors

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