PRESS RELEASE: Re government announcement to review the family courts

Why another review when all the facts are known? Where are the resources for mothers and children?

We welcome the government’s announcement that the family courts must do more to protect victims of domestic violence, and that the presumption that a child’s contact with both parents is in her/his best interest may be ended. About time. But why wait for another review when all the evidence is there? Why is the report gender neutral when mothers are the carers and men the perpetrators? And where are the resources for mothers and children to escape? Without these there will be no meaningful changes for women and children.

The “expert-led review” into how the family courts handle domestic abuse already reported that victims are being put at unnecessary risk. But despite the fact that 63% of respondents to the review were women, the report perpetuates the “gender neutral” presentation of domestic violence, thus hiding the fact that it’s overwhelmingly women who suffer violence from men who perpetrate it.  Of some 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse a year aged 16 to 74, two thirds are women. This was proven again during the Covid19 lockdown as the number of women reporting violence skyrocketed (domestic murders doubled in the first three weeks and calls to the Met Police have risen by a third.  MPs have told us that most of the emails they get are from desperate mothers struggling to protect their children.

For years, we have been working with mothers who’ve suffered rape and domestic violence and are overwhelmingly low income, single mothers, women of colour and/or who have a disability. What they report, and what we have seen from our own experience, is a family court process which is deeply sexist, racist, class-biased and discriminatory in other ways. While millions are spent on taking children into care, women and children are deprived of the benefits, housing and other resources they need for their protection. Section 17 of the Children Act, which entitles mothers to resources to keep children within the family, is not implemented. CAFCASS, social workers, psychiatrists and judges are guilty of taking children from mothers who are victims of domestic violence and backing fathers’ false claims that mothers “alienate” the children by reporting their violence, especially sexual violence.

Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape says: “The Domestic Abuse Bill must recognise that mothers are the carers and men the abusers. To be gender neutral allows violent fathers to hide and continue their reign of terror over women and children, and to get the backing of misogynistic and racist courts. The junk science of "parental alienation" used to dismiss mothers and children who report abuse must be dropped. Mothers must get the financial support they need to protect their children.

We are calling on the government to urgently:

  1. Abolish the presumption that it’s always in children’s best interest to have contact with both parents. This presumption is continually used to over-ride any history of rape and/or domestic violence, or lack of care/involvement by fathers. Introduced in 2014 after intensive lobbying by fathers’ groups who deny domestic violence, it has opened the way for allegations of “parental alienation” against mothers who report a history of domestic violence, and especially when they report fathers’ sexual or other violence against children.
  • Review all cases currently in the family court where children are being forced into unsupervised contact with abusive fathers based on the presumption of contact, as well as historic cases where children have been taken from mothers who tried to protect them from violence. For the welfare of children to be paramount, their safety and the safety of the mother, who is usually the primary carer, must be prioritised over fathers’ contact. Fathers who are violent to their children, to mothers, to former or present partners should not have contact with children, especially unsupervised contact. Thousands of children are being harmed physically and psychologically, and even murdered, by being coerced to see fathers they are terrified of.
  • Ensure the Domestic Abuse Bill makes clear that domestic violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women. Maintaining the law’s gender neutrality allows men to disguise their violence, endangering women and children’s lives.
  • Urgently investigate how much racism, class bias, disability discrimination and other prejudices affect decision making at every level throughout the family court process, including the disproportionate number of children of colour in “care” and taken from mothers with disabilities, especially those with learning disabilities.

Two recent cases: Just this week, despite a judge finding that the father had strangled the mother on at least two occasions, thrown her to the floor and stomped repeatedly on her face (as well as being violent to his sister as a child), she ordered the father to have unsupervised contact with his children and also disclosed to him the mother’s address in a refuge. In another case, a judge ordered a BAME mother who is shielding due to Covid19 to take her children to contact, ignoring her shielding letter and forcing her to choose between endangering her life (and her children’s) or being in contempt of court.

For details of other cases see here.