Britain’s family courts are the backdrop to some of the most traumatic and momentous events of people’s lives. From the removal of children from their birth parents to the denial of a parent’s desire to see their child – these are hard choices.
In the face of such familial destruction, there can only be one guiding principle. It was established in law via the Children Act 1989: that the best interests of the child must be paramount. Even where decisions are made outside the courts, professional conduct by social workers and others must also follow the same rule.
Yet, what today’s new research from charity Women’s Aid, where I am chief executive, shows is that somehow this principle has been eroded.
In cases of domestic violence – long recognised as just as damaging to children as direct abuse – it has been eroded to such an extent that children are being killed.
By uncovering the stories behind these children’s deaths, in the Nineteen Child Homicides report, we were able to identify a pattern.
We found that 19 children from 12 families had been killed in the past 10 years. Each of these children had died at the hands of a parent who was a known perpetrator of domestic abuse.
For seven of the 12 families, the perpetrator’s contact with the child had been ordered through the courts. Not understanding domestic abuse and the ongoing risk it presents, even when a relationship has ended, proved fatal.
Of course, the killings are of these children are the most extreme consequence of unsafe child contact. But the family court process is still traumatising for many who go through it.
Women’s Aid also spoke to survivors of the process. We found that 50 per cent had no access to protection measures (such as separate waiting rooms, and separate exit times) in family courts – something considered standard in criminal courts.
More worryingly, in 44 per cent of cases, contact was granted to the former partner when it was known that children had been directly abused by them.
Domestic abuse is an issue in at least 70 per cent of cases before the family courts. Yet only around one per cent of applications for contact are refused.
The principle of the child’s best interests has been fatally undermined. But it’s not the first time we have had to learn this lesson.
Twelve years ago, Women’s Aid published Twenty-nine Child Homicides, a report showing that in 13 families, children had been killed because a known perpetrator of domestic abuse had convinced the court of his right (because it is usually men) to continue as a parent.
At the time, Lord Justice Wall, the then President of the Family Division, stated: “It is, in my view, high time that the family justice system abandoned any reliance on the proposition that a man can have a history of violence to the mother of his children but, nonetheless, be a good father.”
And yet, more than a decade later, we’re in the same situation.
The report can be read here, there is a summery on page 15, all the ‘parents’ who murdered their children were men, in two cases the mother was killed as well.
To be fair to Neate, towards the end of the article, she does name the problem as male violence, and reiterate that a court bias in mothers’ favor is a myth; and who can blame her for modifying her writing for a (small-c) conservative audience?
To: Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP and District Judges
We are calling on the Government and family courts to ensure there are no further avoidable child deaths as a result of unsafe child contact with a perpetrator of domestic abuse. In order for this to happen the family courts must be a safe place for all the children and survivors of domestic abuse that are relying on them to protect them from further harm.
Two ways they can do this are by:
1. Ensuring that domestic abuse is identified and its impact fully considered by the family court judiciary and that child arrangements orders put the best interests of the child(ren) first and protect the well-being of the parent the child(ren) is living with, in accordance with Practice Direction 12 J Child Arrangements & Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm.
2. Ensuring survivors of domestic abuse attending the family court have access to protection measures, similar to those available in criminal courts. Survivors of domestic abuse should always have access to a separate waiting room or area and judges must ensure there are separate exit times from court to allow the survivor to leave safely.
Why is this important?
“No parent should have to hold their children and comfort them as they die, or be told that their child has been harmed in an act of revenge or rage. There are often many facets to one family’s breakdown, and all too often children’s voices are not heard or acted upon” (Claire Throssell, mother of Jack and Paul who were killed in October 2014 by their father after he was granted unsupervised contact with them by the family court).
Over 10 years, 19 children and 2 women have died as a result of unsafe child contact, formal or informal, with a parent who is also a perpetrator of domestic abuse. These deaths were avoidable. To protect children, the family courts must put children’s safety at the heart of any decisions they make about contact with a known perpetrator of domestic abuse.
Women’s Aid’s Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives campaign is calling on the Government and the family courts to protect the children that it has been set up to keep safe. Whilst only a minority of child contact cases, after the parents have separated, are taken to the family courts many of these cases involving domestic abuse result in contact decisions which do not put the children’s safety and best interests first. This can leave them, and their non-abusive, parent in considerable danger.
We need your help so please sign and share this petition widely to ensure that all child contact is safe and there are no further avoidable child deaths.
Visit the Women’s Aid website to find out more about this campaign: