Presumption of no child contact with an abusive parent
Between 2005 and 2015 19 children and 2 women in 12 families were killed by abusive fathers during child contact. The Ministry of Justice published the Harm Report in June 2020, which assessed the risk of harm caused to parents and children in family law proceedings.
The report showed the systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse in the family courts, leaving parent and child survivors suffering harm. The report also highlighted the ‘pro-contact’ culture in the family courts even in cases of domestic abuse. We believe the insidious culture prevents the family courts from properly assessing the harm that contact with a perpetrator of domestic abuse can have on a child’s well-being and safety, which leads to unsafe contact decisions.
Child contact with an abusive parent has been a fraught issue for the family courts however it is not a difficult decision for Right to Equality. Women and children have suffered gravely as a result of contact orders made by the family courts. Court-ordered contact in an abusive familial environment has resulted in perpetrators being allowed contact with vulnerable children. Evidence shows the long-lasting impact of domestic abuse on survivor’s lives.
The current family law presumption of contact with both parents should not apply in cases where domestic abuse has been found to have taken place. Instead, we support a presumption of no child contact in cases where domestic abuse is a relevant factor. We believe domestic abuse is harmful to victims and the family courts are failing women and children by ordering unsafe contact. After the publication of the Harm Report, the government pledged to consult on whether the presumption of contact with both parents should change in cases of domestic abuse. More than two years since the report, the government has done nothing. We cannot sit back and wait for change, we must act now.
The family court found that Kate Griffiths MP had been raped whilst asleep, abused, and coercively controlled by her ex-husband and former MP. As well as abusing his wife, the perpetrator was also found to have shouted “shut the fuck up” to their newborn baby. Despite findings of serious abuse, the family court allowed direct supervised contact with the child and ordered that Ms Griffiths MP share the costs of supervised contact. Kate Griffiths MP is a victim of domestic abuse, however, she became a victim of something else: the ‘pro-contact’ culture in the family courts and post-separation financial control. Dr Proudman successfully appealed the decision. There is now a strong presumption against a victim financially subsiding a perpetrator’s child contact costs.
One of the most common litigation tactics that abusers use is accusations of parental alienation. Parental alienation has become a strategy used by abusive parents to silence, threaten and blame victims of domestic abuse who are trying to protect their children from unsafe contact. There have been many cases in which, despite domestic abuse having been found, the victim is ordered by the Judge that they must not ‘alienate’ the child from their other parent, the perpetrator themselves. In Channel 4’s Dispatches, Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered, Julia told her story of finding out the father of her children was a convicted paedophile. Julia thought her case was black and white and she had faith in the family court. But when accused of parental alienation, Julia was exposed to the harsh realities of the family justice system.
BAME women are particularly vulnerable when going through the family courts as they often feel tremendous social and cultural pressure to reconcile and agree contact.
It is a known fact that allegations of domestic abuse are routinely minimised. Far too often women, and their children are re-traumatised, re-victimised and failed by the family justice system. There is no winning or losing for victims in the family court. It is simply damage limitation. According to Dr Adrienne Barnett, an advisor at Right to Equality, both children and domestic abuse victims are being “silenced and forced into unsafe contact with perpetrators of abuse.”
Right to Equality believes it is time for the family court to end the cultural norm that abusive parents have a right to parental involvement. We believe that contact with abusive parents can cause adult and child survivor’s serious harm. We will continue to campaign, lobby and gather evidence to ensure no more women and children lose their lives at the hands of abusive parents.