“Abuse does not end when a relationship ends” When perpetrators use family proceedings and child contact arrangements to continue to control and abuse.

“Abuse does not end when a relationship ends”

When perpetrators use family proceedings and child contact arrangements to continue to control and abuse.

Today is a breakthrough for recognising the harm and damage that survivors of domestic abuse, and their children, have experienced in the family courts. Women’s Aid launched the Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives in 2016 after survivors told us that their number one priority was the safety of the family court system.

Written by Lucy Hadley, Campaigns & Policy Manager at Women’s Aid 

Published: 25th June 2020

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Abuse does not end when a relationship ends – perpetrators use family proceedings and child contact arrangements to continue to control and abuse.

This can have devastating consequences; we launched the campaign with the report, Nineteen Child Homicides, which uncovered the tragic deaths of 19 children killed in circumstances related to unsafe child contact between 2005 and 2015. Two of these children were Jack and Paul, the boys of the inspirational Claire Throssell who has never stopped campaigning to ensure that “no more parents should have to hold their children in their arms as they die knowing it’s at the hands of the other parent – someone who should love and cherish them.”

But horrifically that is what has continued to happen. Last year the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show found that that since the publication of our research, another two children have lost their lives in these circumstances. The report of the expert panel, who have been reviewing the family court response to domestic abuse over the past year, is a landmark step forward for us at Women’s Aid and for thousands of survivors who have spoken up for change.

The panel have found ‘systemic’ issues in how the courts respond to domestic abuse and keep children safe. They state clearly that the courts have a ‘pro-contact’ culture – a deeply held commitment to maintaining contact between a child and both parents. They find that this leads to a culture of routinely minimising and ignoring allegations of domestic abuse. Essentially, a ‘culture of disbelief’ of domestic abuse. This culture stops the court from properly assessing the harm that contact with a perpetrator of domestic abuse can have on a child’s wellbeing and safety, and leads to unsafe contact decisions. Since joining Women’s Aid I have lost count of the numbers of women who have told us about the harrowing experience of having to facilitate contact with their abuser, which they know is unsafe and which has long term, traumatic impacts on their children.

Importantly, the report also establishes that women are facing intersecting, structural forms of discrimination – including sexism and racism – which undermines their safety and access to justice in the family courts. This approach in the family courts re-traumatises survivors, who already faced severe and structural barriers to leaving an abuser.

“Women tell us they have been harassed and attacked on the grounds of the family courts, and traumatised by their perpetrator cross-examining them in court. But too often professionals in the family justice system fail to identify coercive control, and hold damaging victim-blaming stereotypes and myths which stop them from providing a safe and effective response.”

This welcome report must now deliver change. Responding to the expert panels’ comprehensive recommendations for change, the government has published an implementation plan. At Women’s Aid we are pleased to the see that the domestic abuse bill will now include a guarantee of special protection measures in the family courts; our research with Queen Mary University of London in 2018 found that 61% of survivors had no access to basic protection measures like separate entrances and exits in the family courts.

“But this is just the start of the changes we need.”

The government must commit to ending the presumption of parental involvement in cases of domestic abuse through the bill. The presumption is dangerous and without reform we know women children will continue to face harm.

The panel’s recommendations for changing the culture of the family courts altogether are also crucial. Fundamental reform of how child contact is arranged is required – one which prioritises safety, trauma, listening to children’s voices and investigative approach to understanding a child’s welfare. Only then will children finally be put first in the family courts.

Today has shown that our campaigning works. Together we are a powerful force for change. Your support is vital in holding the government to account and getting policy makers to listen. Join us, and help end domestic abuse for good. Click here to become a Campaign Champion.

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