25 June: Oppose amendment proposed by Jess Phillips MP which would include children in the definition of victims of domestic abuse.
We are inundated with cases of mothers who’ve suffered domestic violence fighting in the family court to protect their children from abusive fathers. Based on our experience over many years, we are very concerned that this amendment, rather than protect children, would result in even more being taken from their mothers.
Since the Adoption and Children Act 2002 extended the definition of significant harm to include witnessing domestic violence, it has been used by social workers, CAFCASS, psychiatrists, and judges –- all of whom have been heavily influenced by the fathers’ lobby – as yet another reason to decide the mother is “unfit” and/or “unable to protect the children”. Little or nothing is done to get the perpetrators prosecuted and removed from the family home to protect the mother or children from abuse nor to provide support to recover. Instead, victims are punished and traumatised, starting with the children.
Given this deep-seated sexist bias, especially against single mothers on low incomes, who are often also women of colour and/or with disabilities, any change to legislation has to be considered in the real context of how it is likely to be implemented. If a child is treated as a victim separately from her/his mother, it is likely that again the mother will be blamed for causing her child to be a victim. Rather than allowing this amendment to increase the power of professionals to act against mothers, legislation which already exists –- Section 17 of the Children Act – must be implemented to give mothers resources to increase their power to escape violent situations and protect their children.
Professionals must be directed to prioritise protecting women and children, rather than take children away from mothers, siblings and extended family to be “cared for” by strangers. The shocking 44% increase in children being taken into foster care during Covid19 confirms the urgent need for resources to go to families and NOT to separation.
If this amendment is presented at Report Stage we urge you to vote against it.
Please contact us if you would like to discuss further.
Lisa Longstaff Anne Neale Women Against Rape Support Not Separation
See our other Briefings on the Bill further down this page
It’s a scandal. Away from scrutiny, courtrooms are failing mothers by not taking evidence of sexual assault seriously
When is rape, you know, real, proper rape? Shockingly, in our family courts, it seems it’s only when you put up a fight and have the injuries to show for it. Never mind that you might clearly not consent to sex but in the end submit, terrified of what might happen if you were to actively resist.
In one recently reported case in the family courts a woman had complained to the court that she was a victim of domestic violence and had been raped.
Judge Robin Tolson ruled that because the woman had taken “no physical steps” to stop the man from raping her, “this did not constitute rape”, and consequently ruled against her.
Legally speaking, this means that when it comes to that same judge deciding whether or not, say, it is safe for a father to have contact with his child, claims of sexual violence will not be taken into account. Because, in the eyes of the court, that rape simply didn’t happen.
The fact that the family law system in this country is hidden behind a veil of secrecy means that these offensively vintage attitudes to rape and domestic violence can persist in courts that tens of thousands of separating couples must pass through every year. And it raises the question: what other outrageously sexist decisions are being made by out-of-touch judges behind closed doors?
The woman in the above case was so horrified at the judge’s finding that she challenged it via appeal. Unlike in a normal family court hearing, appeals are heard in public, and findings can be openly reported.
It is only because of this tiny chink in the family justice system’s protective shield that we are able to glimpse inside Judge Tolson’s courtroom, and see such attitudes for what they are. The usual level of secrecy in the family courts stifles investigation and reporting of what goes on.
I am typically contacted several times a week by women who say family judges have not taken their evidence of domestic abuse seriously. These women, often mothers fearful of the man they say abused and sometimes raped them, are without question retraumatised by a system presided over by some judges who have simply not accepted a modern understanding of what is and is not domestic abuse or sexual assault.
Women point particularly to difficulties in proving coercive control, a dangerous pattern of abusive behaviour that can indicate a risk of homicide. Coercive control is now a criminal offence; but in family courts, I am repeatedly told, judges are reluctant to name it, even if they find that emotional and psychological abuse has occurred.
Not only that. Women say that judges can even agree domestic abuse has occurred but not consider it serious enough to protect the victim and child from what we now know to be its damaging continuing effects: an abusive ex can easily continue their controlling behaviour throughout many years of court-ordered contact with a child.
If it were “just” scores of women telling me that this is happening, then these allegations would be exactly that: allegations. However, I recently sat through days of evidence in a family court case involving claims of domestic abuse and a dispute around child contact arrangements. The judge in that case made it clear he is unlikely to publish a judgment, and it is therefore unlikely at this stage that he will agree to allow the media to publish any part of what went on in court.
But I can say that I emerged from that courtroom astonished, dismayed and alarmed for very similar reasons to those that prompted the woman described above to appeal against a different judge’s findings about what constitutes rape.
In the year ending March 2019, more than 58,000 allegations of rape were made to police in England and Wales. It is an uncomfortable fact that many women are forced to have sex without their consent within relationships. It may be inconvenient for a family law system that operates on the principle that children are better off having contact with both their parents to acknowledge this truth. But surely any judge who grasps the mechanisms and psychological effects of coercive control should understand that you don’t need to be physically forced, there don’t need to be bruises, and you don’t need to scream, in order for it to be rape.
This is 2020, not 1920. Society has moved on. So have the criminal courts, which are open to scrutiny and would be instantly challenged should any barrister or judge articulate such archaic attitudes. Unless you have the courage and the cash to go to appeal, however, the family courts are essentially unaccountable to the public they serve.
Thanks to one of the most senior judges in the land coming firmly down on the side of the woman in the Judge Tolson case, she won her appeal. But it may well feel like a hollow victory. She will now have to relive every aspect of her evidence of domestic abuse and sexual assault at a new fact-finding hearing. This will be in front of a different judge. But that court will, once again, sit in private. How can we – or she – know what attitudes to sexual violence lie in store for her there?
• Louise Tickle is a journalist who specialises in social affairs and family law
See quotes here and below from WAR SNS, and a mum called Becky who we helped get contact with her (then) baby after she was snatched by her father who she still lives with; Becky is fighting to get her back.
‘We are also aware of instances where women have suffered physical and sexual assault from their abuser when children are being picked up or dropped off,’ says campaigner
Thousands of domestic abusers are preying on their victims during meetings with their children ordered by the family courts, The Independent can reveal.
Women are being subjected to coercive control, and physical and even sexual assault from their ex-partners when children are being picked up or dropped off.
Campaigners say abusers also carry on terrorising their victims during child custody battles in the family courts and harassing them via emails, and report the problem is getting worse.
Julian Watkins, senior research analyst at Safe Lives, said: “We started collecting data on this issue over the last couple of years because domestic abuse services and the survivors they support were increasingly telling us it is a problem.”
The domestic abuse charity has found abusive former partners use childcare arrangements to carry on targeting their victims in around a third of cases where children were cited as the reason for ongoing contact.
Parents can face fines or even jail sentences if they do not make sure their child sees an ex-partner on a supervised or unsupervised visit when court-ordered contact is in place.
Angela* said the post-separation abuse her ex-husband has subjected her to has been even worse than the actual relationship.
The 43-year-old domestic abuse survivor, who had one child with her former spouse, said she suffered emotional, financial and online abuse from him while they were together.
She said: “He was very aggressive towards me. It was an insidious thing. All of a sudden I realised I had no control over my life. I was basically a slave. Anytime I had an opinion that was different to him, he got angry. if I left a toy out, he went into a rage. I would be back terrified hiding in the flat with the child because he would be on the rampage and skulking around and ready to blow.
“My money wasn’t my own. My thoughts weren’t my own. I had to check in with him on everything. He was living off me but if I went out and bought a lipstick I was a really bad person. He borrowed thousands of pounds that I never got back. He is very angry with the world. The world is against him. It’s all a conspiracy. Women are out to get him. We are all b*****s. We are all trying to trick the courts.
“Part of the issue was my ex was using drugs and doing so in proximity of the child. I didn’t know he was taking drugs until very far into the relationship. He would leave lighters strewn around the room and weed out. With a toddler that is unacceptable. He would leave doors and windows open.”
She said her ex would send emails every few days threatening to get the authorities to take her child away after she left him. He was initially only allowed supervised contact with their child due to his drug use but is now allowed to have unsupervised contact.
“When he was in the home, he didn’t bother with our child but as soon we broke up, access was the most important thing in his life,” Angela recalled. “He would turn up late to contact with our child. He wouldn’t change his nappy. Later, when he was older, he would let him wet himself. He had to do a handover with staff at contact centres when the visits were supervised and he would get aggressive with them.”
She said they have a contact book where they write notes to each other about practical issues but he has used this to write abusive messages to her.
Becky*, another woman who was subjected to coercive control by her ex-partner, said he now has custody of their young child and has used childcare arrangements to continue the abuse.
The 47-year-old said: “After I left him, he put her in his car and said he wanted one last bit of time with her on his own and never gave her back. I drove four hours to see her on Mother’s Day for a meeting the court had scheduled, but he said ‘You are not going to see her’ and drove home. He was shouting at me and laughing. He mainly abuses me through emails – mostly he says I am crazy and a bad mum. He doesn’t think that, he says it because he knows it will affect me. She cries when it’s time to go back to him at the end of visits.”
Anne Neale, of Legal Action for Women, said: “Men have been empowered by the family courts being more in their favour to pursue more cases and be more adversarial than they used to be
“This creates a climate in which men feel more emboldened to harass women through the courts and continue exerting controlling behaviour through the courts. It is also linked to the wider fact that women are increasingly speaking out about abuse wherever it takes place, including through the family courts.”
The campaigner, who supports women going through family courts, argued the presumption in law that it is in the best interests of the child to have contact with both parents “enables” the family courts to override a man’s history of violence towards both the mother and children.
The warning comes after more than 120 MPs wrote to the government in May demanding an inquiry into how family courts in England and Wales deal with victims of domestic abuse.
Lisa Longstaff, a campaigner who is part of the Support Not Separation Coalition, said abusive ex-partners use contact as an opportunity to often verbally and sometimes physically abuse the mother.
She said: “They continue exerting coercive or controlling behaviour with the pretext of making arrangements or cause problems such as making the mother travel long distances, or not returning the child at the agreed time.
“Violent men also continue to exert control over ex-partners and their children through the family court, enabled by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), social workers and judges who routinely dismiss rape and domestic violence as either false or irrelevant to a child’s welfare. This is confirmed by official figures: 70 to 90 per cent of cases in the family court involve domestic violence or abuse, yet only one per cent of contact applications from fathers are refused altogether.
“Mothers who report rape or domestic violence are not only disbelieved and their children forced into contact with fathers they may be terrified of, they risk losing the children they are trying to protect. For spelling out the dangers the children face, mothers are accused of ‘parental alienation’ or of causing ‘emotional harm’ by ‘poisoning’ the children against the father.”
Sandra Horley CBE, of national domestic abuse charity Refuge, argued the way family courts deal with child contact cases involving domestic abuse places women and children at risk and called for “urgent reform” to ensure their protection is prioritised.
Refuge, the largest provider of specialist domestic violence services in the UK, is calling for a reversal of the legal presumption child contact in cases of domestic abuse is always in the best interests of a child.
She added: “All too often, violent partners are using child access meetings to continue their abuse. We see cases where violent partners fail to collect or drop off children at the agreed time, causing some women to fear the perpetrator has kidnapped their children, and disrupting women’s lives – causing them to miss work or cancel plans. Shockingly, we are also aware of instances where women have suffered physical and sexual assault from their abuser when children are being picked up or dropped off.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “No child or parent should ever be in danger because of a partner’s access to their child, which is why we are reviewing the family court system to make sure they’re protected.
“We have also introduced legislation to ban abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts and throughout our review we have engaged survivors across the country to ensure we are doing everything we can to safeguard them further.”
Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service did not want to comment when approached.
*The names of the women in this article have been changed to protect their identity
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
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
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.
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,
Join us tomorrow for this important seminar 6-8pm at the House of Commoms committee room 14 which will gather evidence of the harm caused by separating mothers from their children and forced adoption. WAR is on the speakers panel.