Paul Maynard MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary (Ministry of Justice)
28 May 2019
Dear Paul Maynard,
We write regarding the government review on “how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences” called in response to the investigation by Victoria Derbyshire and the letter from over 120 MPs. We welcome this about-turn following the Prime Minister’s initial refusal during PMQ.
For this review to be effective it must take evidence from mothers, children and family members with direct experience of domestic violence and those organisations supporting and/or campaigning with DV survivors. The Panel conducting it should include grassroots organisations which have a long track record and much experience of working in this area, such as our own; it should not be dominated by ‘experts’ intent on proving that the issue is ‘complicated’ or needs further ‘research’ which would have the effect of delaying change and maintaining the status quo.
As you will know, mothers interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire spoke bravely and articulately: from Clare Throssell describing the murder of her children by their father during unsupervised contact ordered by the courts, to the woman who said that ‘the family court abused me way more than my ex ever did’ – and he was a repeated rapist! For years mothers and their supporters have been raising the alarm, risking their lives and their liberty. Some have been jailed for refusing to be silenced and to hand over their children to violent men; others have gathered almost 200,000 signatures petitioning for change.
As anti-rape/DV organizations, which are members of the Support not Separation Coalition of (mainly women’s) organisations and concerned individuals, we confront such injustices all the time. We have been raising them in Parliament, where we launched the dossier Suffer the Little Children and their Mothers (January 2017) documenting many cases of rape and DV where children were forced into contact or given residence to violent fathers. In September 2018, SnS’s seminar in Parliament, Do No Harm, heard evidence from a distinguished panel of speakers who highlighted the trauma inflicted by the family court process on children and their mothers.
We know from our casework that rape and DV are not being treated as crimes of violence. All the evidence is there. Official figures show that 70-90% of cases in the family court involve domestic violence/abuse, yet only 1% of contact applications are refused altogether.
We attend SnS’s monthly self-help meetings at the Crossroads Women’s Centre where we are based. Through great collective effort we are enabling some mothers to keep their children and others to win them back, giving hope to all who come to us.
For years organisations of men who deny domestic violence have been allowed to set the agenda, and have had the support of many judges and of CAFCASS – the very service whose job it is to ensure the welfare of children. On 14 October 2017 CAFCASS was advertised by Families Need Fathers as the keynote speaker of its conference on ‘parental alienation’. CAFCASS has accepted and promoted ‘parental alienation’, the discredited theory of Dr Richard A Gardner, a US misogynist psychiatrist who dismissed domestic violence, defended paedophilia, and argued that children who objected to seeing violent fathers should be forced to have contact. Soon after he gave ‘expert’ evidence in a family case where the children were forced to have contact with their father, one of the two teenage sons committed suicide.
Organisations of DV deniers should not be part of this review. Their purpose is not the welfare of children and their primary carer and protector, almost always the mother, but the imposition of the patriarchal order with the violent father in charge.
The remit of the review is too narrow. It should include the following glaring injustices.
- Mothers who report rape or DV are not only disbelieved and their children forced into contact, they risk losing their children altogether as the family court may give residence to the father despite evidence of his violence, or blame the mother for ‘parental alienation’ which they claim without grounds, then say it may cause ‘emotional harm’ and take the children into care. Research published in 2017 in the US where mothers are facing similar injustices, found that the family courts only believe a mother’s claim of a child’s sexual abuse 1 out of 51 times (2%) and lose custody more than half the time (56%) when ‘parental alienation’ is mentioned! This is the most scandalous attack on women and children by violent men through the use of a state institution.
- The court’s bias against women is compounded by discrimination based on disability, race, nationality, age and of course income. Mothers are generally on lower incomes than fathers, including because we do much more unwaged caring work for children and others. Our economic disadvantage and/or poverty are at the heart of the sexism with which women are treated. Most of the women who come to us for help are single mums, many are women of colour, immigrant, have a disability, a mental health issue or a learning difficulty, or have a child with a disability, or were in care themselves and are assumed to be ‘unfit’ because of the traumatic experiences they suffered.
- Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 which should provide support for mothers and children to stay together, and additional support for disabled mothers under the Care Act 2014 are not being implemented. Instead millions are being spent taking children into care and profiteering by an increasingly privatised ‘child protection’ industry. The cruel and dangerous treatment of children by the family courts is being replicated by institutions across the board, especially against disabled children.
- The reason children who have not been harmed can be removed from their mothers, and thus subjected to the harm and trauma of separation, is that their relationship with their primary carer and protector, their mother, is devalued and even disregarded. There is an assumption that mothers are dispensable so that in taking the child there is no loss despite the bond of love between them. This attitude makes it possible to assert that any father, even a violent one, or even a ‘corporate parent’, is ‘good enough’ to replace the mother. A court in New York (2004, Nicholson v Williams) after hearing evidence from reputable trauma experts concluded that taking children from their mother causes more trauma to the child than witnessing DV. It is time the UK courts acknowledged that. Princes William and Harry have spoken of their unbearable pain as children when their mother died – children go through similar pain when they are wrenched from their mother by family court decisions.
- The biased conduct of ‘fact finding’ hearings by judges would not be tolerated in criminal courts. It has been hidden by the secrecy of the family courts which prevents public scrutiny.
- Controversial algorithms to be used for ‘child protection’ are being developed. This threatens to automate inequality, which a number of professionals and IT experts are beginning to raise. SnS’s open letter spells out the reasons for our grave concerns.
We look forward to your reply about the issues we raise. We are very anxious to let women in our network know how they can contribute their experiences to the review. It is urgent that this information as well as the names and qualifications of those who will be on the Panel conducting the review are made public.
Cristel Amiss, Black Women’s Rape Action Project
Lisa Longstaff, Women Against Rape firstname.lastname@example.org
on behalf of the Support not Separation Coalition, Crossroads Women’s Centre, 25 Wolsey Mews, London NW5 2DX
cc Shadow Policing Minister, Louise
 All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence Parliamentary Briefing, April 2016