Press Release: Domestic Abuse Bill at risk of being hijacked by misogynist lobby attempting to criminalise victims.
The Domestic Abuse Bill starts its Committee stage in the House of Lords today (see our briefing here) amid growing concerns that domestic violence deniers who are embedded in the family court process are attempting to undermine it. They are pressing for “parental alienation” to be included in the definition of domestic abuse. Including “parental alienation” would open the way for victims, whom this Bill aims to protect, to be criminalised and domestic violence decriminalised. Women who report violence, especially the sexual abuse of children, not only could have their children taken away (which already happens with increasing regularity) but could be prosecuted as perpetrators of domestic abuse!
We urge parliamentarians, especially women, to speak out in defence of women’s and children’s safety and refuse this patriarchal attempt to turn the clock back to a time when domestic violence and rape in marriage were a man’s right. (Rape has already been de facto decriminalised as the prosecution rate for rape is 1.5%!)
This attack on women who are refusing to remain silent in order to protect their children goes hand in hand with pressure to keep the Bill “gender neutral” – that is, to hide that victims of domestic abuse are overwhelmingly women and their attackers men. A gender-neutral law would undermine potential benefits, making women’s access to justice and protection even more remote.
This Bill is being debated at a time of increasing public and parliamentary concern about family courts enabling and even encouraging abusive fathers to continue their reign of terror against women and children. The Ministry of Justice’s Harm Review found a pattern of “sexism, racism and class bias” against mothers and children in the family courts, which operate behind closed doors and so escape the discipline of public scrutiny.
This bias against women’s and children’s safety and its “pro contact culture” – that is the claim that it is in the interest of children to have contact with fathers despite their record of violence towards women and children – has had serious and even lethal consequences.
An appeal hearing just concluded in the High Court of four conjoined cases of women victims of domestic abuse dismissed in the lower family courts. Judgement is expected not only on the individual cases but on ways to improve how such cases are dealt with. But can the judges be trusted to deliver an unbiased judgement?
Parental alienation” is NOT a form of domestic abuse but a misogynist tactic used by domestic abusers to continue their reign of terror over women and children. It originated in the 1980s from discredited US psychiatrist Richard Gardner who defended paedophilia and forced children into contact with violent fathers. It has no accepted definition and is widely regarded as junk science among academics and researchers. It was promoted in the US by lawyers who benefited financially from representing misogynist men.
The Ministry of Justice’s Harm Review found: “… an allegation of ‘parental alienation’ meant that the parent who is the subject of the allegation will be treated as an ‘alienator’, rather than as a protective parent with well-founded fears around abduction or violence.”
From our own research we know that mothers attempting to protect their children (and themselves) from domestic violence are frequently being accused of “parental alienation” not only by fathers but by judges and CAFCASS, the very organisation created to represent children. It is fast becoming the default argument of domestic abuse deniers against any woman who raises safety concerns and any child who refuses to have contact with a violent father.
Over the past 10 years a militant lobby of fathers’ groups (in particular Families Need Fathers, FNF) has become embedded in the family court system. FNF denies the extent of men’s domestic abuse against women, claiming that “in most cases, actually, the abuse is actually mutual and reciprocal abuse. And it is usually in these situations that the worst domestic violence incidents . . . happen.” This is a big lie but repeated often enough, especially by people in positions of power like judges and CAFCASS, it becomes accepted against all evidence.
Proof of the fathers’ lobby undue influence is confirmed by the fact that five men’s groups are among CAFCASS stakeholders, yet only two women’s groups are and no mothers’ groups. From this position, domestic violence deniers have derailed CAFCASS perspective and decisions – both under its former CEO, Anthony Douglas, and under the current CEO, Jacky Tiotto, who recently addressed FNF national conference and spoke warmly about FNF’s contributions (21 Nov 2020). Further proof is CAFCASS’s response to the sexism and other criticisms in the MOJ’s Harm Report: CAFCASS’s internal Advisory Board set up to review its “performance” includes FNF! Domestic violence deniers put in charge of judging domestic violence.
The fathers’ lobby also has undue influence over the President of the Family Court, Sir Andrew McFarlane, casting doubt on his suitability to head the family court and to judge the appeal that has been put to him. As the keynote speaker at FNF’s conference, he said that he was “. . . pleased to be supporting FNF, since becoming president and indeed for a long time before I've had good relations with those groups in the Midlands and now nationally, we meet regularly . . . I find that I'm in agreement with very much of what is said by . . . representatives of FNF who come to visit me.”
It is also urgent that the Bill should put a duty on the government and local authorities to make resources (principally money and housing) available for women to escape domestic abuse WITH their children, including by prioritising implementation of Section 17 of the Children Act. No mother should be forced to choose between staying with an abuser or having her children taken into care. No child should be subjected to the life-long trauma of separation from a mother who is often their first protector and put in the hands of violent fathers or an uncaring “corporate parent”. There must be resources to keep mothers and children together and S17 was aimed at that but is hardly ever implemented.
Since 1976 WAR has provided advocacy and information in individual cases and campaigns for justice, asylum, protection and compensation. It has won changes in the law such as getting rape in marriage recognised as a crime. WAR is active in the Support Not Separation Coalition (co-ordinated by Legal Action for Women), which includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, women with disabilities, rape survivors, breastfeeding advocates, psychotherapists, men and social workers. We defend mothers and children against unwarranted separation and the devaluing of the mother-child relationship. We are in contact with hundreds of mothers and other primary carers, and children, family law professionals, organisations and concerned individuals.