Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
It is widely acknowledged and supported by German legislation that regular and healthy contact with both parents is important for the upbringing of children – especially after the separation of parents. The potential effects of lack of contact with the non-resident parent on children vary widely. While scientific studies show varying causality, clear negative effects of missing contact after separations can be seen in the educational performance of children, their self-esteem and ability to build healthy social relationships themselves. The latter can lead to a vicious cycle of not being able to maintain healthy relationships which is difficult to overcome. These negative impacts are being felt more broadly as the rate of separations and divorces rises throughout Germany and beyond, now at almost 43 percent. This challenge is greatest for the 23% of all separated parents who live in locations more than an hour drive away from each other (what has been termed “distance families”). Out of 8.1 million families in Germany with 12.9 million children below the age of 18, 1.6 million households are headed by single parents with at least one child, with most having a second parent living at a distance. The amount of single parent-headed households rose from 13.8% to 19.8% between 1996 and 2012. Of these households, most of which involve separated parents, an estimated 370,000 of these couples live a long distance apart. An estimated 20,000 additional “distance families” are created each year, often due to job relocation or the wish of one parent to move back to a home town where a social network of i.e. grandparents lives.
Studies show that the larger the distance is between parent´s locations, the less contact is maintained with children and the greater the chance that a relationship is abandoned. Overcoming distance is a severe challenge especially for parents with low incomes, who often are not able to afford hotels and travel, and who also struggle with what to do with their children when they are visiting, as they have no child-friendly environment to be with their kids and entrance fees for activities are often costly.
As the reality of familial arrangements has changed within Germany society, a variety of support services for single parents have been created throughout the past years – especially in the field of legal and psychological support. Yet the parent who does not live with the child(ren), is left out of the equation most of the times. Courts are eager to enforce child support payments and grant shared custody in most times. Yet no welfare support systems exist, which allow the parent living far away to master the everyday challenges of complying with their custody agreement. The psychological impacts on distant parents are significant, as they struggle with an identity as only a weekend parent. Just as much as their children, they face the challenge of regaining trust and being able to maintain and positively shape relationships.
Aggravating the sense of isolation that distant parents often feel is the fact that society has overall not yet adapted to the new situation of children from separated families and their parents. Institutions like schools and kindergardens still address all their letters in single copy to “dear parents,” with no acknowledgement or attempt to communicate with the non-resident parent. Additionally school requirements such as parent teacher conferences are offered on weekdays only, often only midweek, making it impossible for non-resident parents to participate. Even language is still stigmatizing, such as the term “separation kids” (Trennungskinder), single parents etc., used implying that a shared parenthood or two homes is not yet an accepted reality.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
“Whenever winter comes, my father cannot come see me anymore, as it is too cold to sleep in the car. Can’t you do something to allow him to come in winters, too?” Distance between families, where parents live separated and a long distance apart, is not only a logistical challenge, as Annette Habert soon realized after one of her pupils approached her asking for support. Long distance (>100km), especially in combinations with parents’ low incomes and children too young to travel by themselves are factors raising the barrier to maintaining regular relationships. There are severe effects: scientific research shows that without sustainable relationships with both parents, educational performance of children suffers, their self-esteem is harmed and their ability to build healthy social relationships themselves is severely affected – especially the latter leads to a vicious cycle which is to be overcome.
Annette realized that she needed to reach and empower her target group – visiting parents – through supporting them in fulfilling their role as a parent while living far away. Through building a nationwide network of voluntary hosts and usable playrooms she enables regular, stress-free visits and the experience of being embedded in a community with her model Flechtwerk 2+1. She uses this foundation to build a support system which includes professional counseling as well as peer coaching among visiting parents (mostly fathers) – opening the room to reinstall trust in relationships and a constructive view towards future developments. What is more, Annette directly works to change institutional practices in the court and the social welfare system around children with parents living separated in two homes, in the process working to change society’s perception towards them and their separated parents.