Annette Habert understood that with changing family realities society needs to step in to create support systems focusing on enabling regular and healthy relationships between parents and their children in post-separation situations. Focusing her support on children whose parents live more than 100km apart, she builds a society-supported network of hosts and a strong community of solidaric families as a basis for change in institutional practices in judicial, welfare and education systems as well as a new societal awareness for the needs of children growing up with two homes.
The New Idea
“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.
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.
Annette Habert's strategy begins with addressing the daily challenges that parents who live a long way apart need to deal with: how to enable, organize and maintain a relationship with their children (especially those from 0-6) and both parents in order to prevent negative effects of parents’ separation.
The first strategic pillar of her work is service to parents who visit their children. The ”Daddy is coming” program mobilizes voluntary hosts to accommodate fathers or mothers who visit their children free of cost. Initiated as private initiative in late 2008, today a network of hosts in more than 500 cities throughout Germany allows thousands of overnight stays per year. The programs impact works in several ways; visiting parents are relieved financially – a fact not to be underestimated - but what is more, visiting parents also gain a sense of a strong community through people caring for them and supporting them in maintaining the regular relationship to their children, often monthly or bi-weekly. “I feel wanted,” a father said, “because the hosts are people who set out to support me in my situation.” The hosts themselves gain the experience of giving direct support to a community in need, and thus play an important role in spreading the message that society needs to pay attention to regular and healthy contact between parents and children, rather than to maintain in a discourse about the pros and cons of family models.
In addition to the national network of host families, Annette’s institution, Flechtwerk 2+1, also builds a network of “temporary playrooms”, which can easily be used by visiting parents and their children. The aim of the home and playroom combined strategy is to take stress off the visiting situation and to enable positive routines to develop between children and parents, which are important for relationship building and deepening. This by itself holds the potential to transform the experiences hundreds and thousands of visiting parents and their children have every month.
These pragmatic approaches to addressing pressing everyday challenges is the first major step to build a community of parents and their children and to allow all people involved to regain trust in their ability to maintain and constructively shape relationships. Recognizing the need for additional social-psychological support, Annette and Flechtwerk 2+1 offer targeted, short-term (up to 3 months) coaching to parents to identify the best next steps for them (which might be the participation in an existing counselling offer). As part of this effort, participants commit to a Code of Conduct on how they will maintain and shape relationships – e.g. committing themselves to be constructive and future-oriented rather than remaining stuck in patterns of grief and disappointment. Annette opens the doors to targeted problem solving, always following the goal of creating the best possible situation for children with two homes.
Besides the direct work with parents of Flechtwerk 2+1, Annette works to engage and reform institutional structures through networking and lobbying (primarily within government and within institutions such as courts, family lawyer associations, self-help groups and the like) activities.
In the future, Annette Habert wants to intensify her work with partners to implement system changes in legislation, which she sees are desperately needed.
Annette’s work has been recognized by different national awards already and she and her team as constantly working on strengthening the networks of peers and experts around them to further spread the ideas of Flechtwerk 2+1.
Annette herself had to deal with many existentially difficult situations in her life, shaping her to become a serial bridge builder and pragmatic problem solver. She early on learned how to think and act beyond given boundaries. Her upbringing nurtured her rootedness in humanity and the wish to be caring for others, but also in her constantly challenging the status quo. As a teenager she played a leadership role in the peace movement that sought allies and changes in East Germany.
Annette has a track record of creating new initiatives within and without institutions, shaping creative responses and solutions to social challenges all her life. Enabling unconventional encounters in order to allow relationships to foster, seems a guiding theme. She initiated an independent German relief effort at the height of the Bosnian War, which resulted in a lifetime of connections and engagement. Earlier in her career she launched an initiative called “ohneMacht” (“without power’) to help a community and affiliated environmental activists overcome their sense of frustration and helplessness at failing to prevent a runway from being built in the 1980’s. Working with the protestant church, Annette focused on the education of teachers and development of the exam curriculum, as well as with church asylum and refugees.
In 2008 she met a young boy of 8 years, Sven, who asked the question noted above. Sven’s question was the inspirational moment for “Mein Papa kommt”. Annette saw the need for the empowerment of the separated father in order to allow him to regain the relationship to his child and the mother on a readjusted basis. Being a single mother herself, who raised two kids, she knows the situation from her heart. “If we find a constructive approach to deal with the finiteness of relationships, commitment can be dared.” Annette believes that finding a remedy for a wound (which can also be a social wound) implies the responsibility to share this gain with other people who are affected by the same issue.