London’s Independent Victims’ Commissioner, Claire Waxman, has today warned that the Family Courts system is putting the safety of children and survivors of abuse at risk, and that urgent
changes are needed in the Domestic Abuse Bill to protect them.
Claire Waxman has been joined by lawyers, domestic abuse charities and the UK’s leading children’s charity, and has cross-party support in the House of Lords, in calling for the Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill to be strengthened in order to ensure better protection in law for children and victims of abuse. It comes as the Bill moves to the committee stage in the House of Lords today (Monday).
Highlighting cases where children’s allegations of abuse have been ignored, the London Victims’ Commissioner is calling for an end to the “pro-contact culture” in the family courts, which continues to prioritise contact with an abusive parent over the safety and wishes of victims and children.
Claire Waxman, London’s Independent Victims’ Commissioner, said: “The Family Courts system is letting down children and survivors of abuse. I am deeply worried by the severe lack of understanding of domestic abuse and trauma in the courts, and the fact that courts persist in prioritising contact between a parent and child - even when there are cases of domestic and sexual abuse.
“Survivors and children are being put at risk due to this pro-contact culture. All too often we see cases where evidence of abuse by a parent is seen as insignificant or irrelevant to a child’s safety, and allegations of abuse towards a child are overlooked or often interpreted as a product of pressure from a parent. The Family Courts simply are not listening to the voices of children – the very people they are meant to be protecting.
“Pro-contact culture also means allegations of domestic abuse are being minimised and treated as irrelevant. Survivors of domestic abuse are being advised not to disclose abuse for fear of being accused of trying to alienate a child from the other parent. It is simply outrageous that survivors are expected to put abuse to one side in order to facilitate contact between parent and child. It is putting children and survivors at unnecessary risk and dismissing and diminishing very real threats to their safety. Rather than giving survivors of abuse and their children protection, the process in the Family Courts is instead putting them at risk and prolonging emotional harm and trauma.
“The Domestic Abuse Bill in its current form fails to protect children from the impact of domestic abuse and must be amended to remove the presumption of contact in order to provide better protection. Unsupervised contact should not be granted where Restraining Orders, Non-Molestation Orders or Protective Orders have been put in place against a parent. This Bill is a vital once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect survivors of domestic abuse, and the Government must ensure that protection extends to the Family Courts.”
Charlotte Proudman, Family Law Barrister, said: “As a family law barrister, in the vast majority of my private law children cases, the children’s voices are undermined and not heard by the court. Repeatedly, I hear Family Court Judges say that the child’s voice is not paramount and it is only one consideration in the welfare checklist. The child rarely if ever attends court hearings and hardly ever meets the Judge, they are completely distanced from the court proceedings to such an extent that children report feeling ignored and distressed when decisions are made which are against their wishes and feelings.
“Sadly, I have also seen countless cases where children have been vehemently opposed to contact with a parent, and in some cases have reported child abuse, but only for this to be ignored. In one case, a child gave evidence that the father had physically abused her. The father denied this and the Judge accepted the father’s evidence. The child was devastated and could not understand why the Judge didn’t believe her. The Judge made findings that the mother had alienated the child from the father instead of acknowledging the harm of the physical abuse. The child was then forced by the court to see her father against her wishes, which caused serious mental health problems for the child in the longer-term.
“In another case, a child alleged sexual abuse by one parent. But after a hearing the child’s allegations were dismissed as they were seen as an unreliable witness without any real reasons being given other than the child was very young when the allegations were made. Years later and the child is still repeating the allegations and requires intense therapeutic input. The court failed to fully assess the risk of abuse and as such left this child at risk of harm.
“Unfortunately, the Family Courts still take an approach that dates back to the 1970s where children are seen as unreliable witnesses of abuse or that they are being influenced by one parent to make allegations about the other parent, when more recent empirical evidence has proved this isn’t the case, and our understanding of the signs of abuse has improved. The Family Courts are failing to listen to the voices and experiences of children, to stick to a pro-contact approach.”
Photo by UK government, Wikimedia commons.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
“Children are often the forgotten victims of domestic abuse. The trauma they experience can last a lifetime, and unfortunately we know that the family court process can do further harm to their well-being.
“Based on our frontline experience of supporting children in families with domestic abuse, we are concerned that in some cases courts allow alleged perpetrators to have unsupervised contact.
“There is an urgent need to make the family court process safer for children and more responsive to their needs. We stand ready to work with the government and the courts system to achieve this.”