What responsibilities do absent parents have after several years without contact with their children?

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The concept of a traditional family unit has changed over time and, in some situations, this can create problems. According to the Relationships Foundation’s report ‘The Cost of Family Failure Index’, the economic impact of family breakdown in 2016 was higher than the UK defence budget, totalling an astonishing £48 billion – a cost of £1,820 per taxpayer.

It’s a common misconception that once a parent has removed themselves from the family unit, they give up all rights relating to how their children are then raised. Even if a parent is absent for a prolonged period, they still have a right to influence these decisions. If the parent’s name is on the birth certificate, then they are deemed to have Parental Responsibility under the Children Act 1989.

What is Parental Responsibility?

Parental Responsibility is defined in law as being: “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”. This focuses on the parent’s duties and responsibilities regarding the upbringing of the child, rather than their ‘rights’ over them.

In practical terms, it means that anyone with Parental Responsibility has a say in any decisions made about the child’s education, health and wellbeing, which includes:

  • where the child goes to school
  • choosing, registering or changing the child’s name
  • consenting to some medical treatment
  • access to the child’s medical records
  • giving permission for the child to spend extended time abroad
  • representing the child in legal proceedings
  • the religious upbringing of the child.

However, Parental Responsibility does not grant any automatic contact rights to the child or the right to automatically know where the child is living.

Who has Parental Responsibility?

The birth mother automatically has Parental Responsibility. Married fathers also have Parental Responsibility, and do not lose that position if they divorce the child’s mother. Unmarried fathers, however, do not automatically get that right, nor do step-parents or grandparents.

Historically, the only way for an unmarried father to acquire Parental Responsibility was if they either married the mother or obtained a Parental Responsibility Order from the court. There are other ways of getting this privilege, such as being named as the resident parent or becoming the child’s guardian, but a PRO was the usual method.

In 2003, the law changed to allow unmarried fathers to be given Parental Responsibility if they are registered on the birth certificate. There is also the option to re-register the birth to include the father’s name.

The legislation doesn’t provide families with any emotional support if a parent suddenly reappears after a long absence. Equally, it doesn’t grant that absentee parent any specific ‘rights’ to make contact or have any major influence in the child’s life, outside of the individual clauses laid out by law. The biggest conflict usually centres around contact which, in most cases, needs to be determined either through mediation or through a court order.

Regardless of whether a parent is absent for six months or six years, the bottom line is that the expectations of both the mother and the father in relation to their parental responsibility do not change. In most cases, contact is the primary, and the most contentious, issue. However, with help from a family law expert or mediator, resolutions can be achieved. The welfare of the child is the number one priority throughout the process and both the Courts and any legal representatives will always ensure that their interests are put first.