"There should be no assumption of child contact for perpetrators of domestic abuse"

“There should be no assumption of child contact for perpetrators of domestic abuse”

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, on the findings from Women’s Aid’s joint research with Cafcass on domestic abuse in the family courts and its impact on children.

Who gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deciding whether a child should have contact with both parents?

When faced with that question, I don’t think many people would answer “a father who has perpetrated domestic abuse against the child’s mother”. Yet the most worrying finding of today’s research by Cafcass, in partnership with Women’s Aid, is that in many cases, that’s exactly what is happening.

In 44% of contact applications where domestic abuse was alleged, contact was ordered at the first hearing. At this stage, risk assessment and safety concerns are considered by the court but it is not until a later stage that a full section 7 report may be produced, which gives a more detailed picture of issues relating to the child’s welfare. It is shocking that only five “finding of fact” hearings, which can be ordered to try to establish whether or not domestic abuse has taken place and its impact on the child and mother, were ordered out of a sample of 216 cases.

This all adds up to an alleged perpetrator getting the benefit of the doubt in far too many cases, without proper consideration of the risks to the child – despite the fact that the family courts are theoretically bound to put the child’s welfare above all other considerations – or, indeed, the mother.

The research throws light on some of the possible ways in which these premature decisions are being justified. For example, unsupervised contact – which was granted in nearly a quarter (23%) of cases after only one hearing – was generally granted when it had already been taking place before the hearing. There is a real danger here that “agreement” to contact is being assumed by professionals who may have very little understanding of coercive control, when in reality the mother’s agreement has very little to do with genuine, free and informed consent.

The same concern applies with the court-ordered contact itself. The Cafcass data records that 89% of these early, relatively uninformed decisions were made “with consent” of the mother. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of domestic abuse, and the coercive control at its centre, to realise that this consent may well not be freely given. Judging from the almost total absence of “finding of fact” hearings, assumptions are far, far too common.

Women’s Aid absolutely does not argue that no father who is alleged to have abused his child’s mother should ever have contact with that child. What we do argue – and indeed what the remit of the family courts clearly states – is that no parent’s desire for contact overrides a child’s wellbeing or safety. Nor should it override a mother’s right to a life free from abuse.

The picture this research paints is one of courts reluctant to investigate allegations of domestic abuse, too ready to make judgements without sufficient knowledge, either of domestic abuse more generally, or even of the specific case before them.

The “benefit of the doubt” is nowhere near good enough. There should be no assumption of child contact for perpetrators of domestic abuse.

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