Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Why Contact Arrangements and Domestic Violence can be Lethal

'Contact plans for separating parents are unveiled' - Children's rights to maintain contact with both parents following separation or divorce are to be strengthened under government proposals.

Under the plans, family courts in England and Wales must assume the child's welfare is best served by remaining involved with both parents

That last sentence sends a chill through my heart in terms of families who have lived through and escaped domestic violence and abuse (DVA). 

Why?  Because it  already seems that the system does not prioritise the needs and safety of the children and that proving they are at risk from continued contact with their abusive father is an uphill battle.  The NSPCC quotes the following from Bristol Women's Aid,

Between 1994 and 2004, 29 children in 13 families were killed during contact (or in one case residence) arrangements in England and Wales. Ten of these children were killed in the last two years.Saunders, H. (2004) 29 child homicides: lessons still to be learnt on domestic violence and child protection. Bristol: Women’s Aid Federation of England (WAFE).

What we also know is that abusive men use child contact visits and hearings as a way to gain access to the woman who has dared to leave them and to be able to continue to abuse them and the children.  So many women told me that their ex-partner had shown no interest at all in children during their relationship but now was fighting to see them. 

When families try to, or succeed, in fleeing the abuser that is the most dangerous time in terms of them being harmed and killed, just take a look in the daily papers, although you will have to look hard though as they don't highlight this.  This is when the abusers are most desperate and often see child contact as a way to get some control back and keep the woman tied to them so they can still control and abuse them, or worse carry out their long held threat to kill them.

I have supported so many women who bravely turn up at court hearings which go on over a period of YEARS, they face their abuser, endure smirks, looks and even overt threats to try to keep their children safe.  The saddest thing is a legal system which means a woman has to be able to prove a) that the abuse took place and b) that she and the children were affected by it and c) that they remain at risk. 

When much of the abuse the woman and children experience is mental and emotional it is hard to prove, when physical assaults and rapes have not been reported they are hard to prove retrospectively.   Psychiatric assessments are often undertaken but these are brief and are not able to fully take into account the effects the DVA may have had on the woman or child's mental health over the years as it has yet to be proven in the court arena.

I saw so many families who had fled the abuse, been through the difficulties of homelessness and communal refuge life only to then spend years being re-traumatised by regular court hearings, exposure to the abuser and his family and friends and not able to start the work of leaving the abuse behind.  The children either knew there was another hearing, or sensed it, and would experience anxieties and fear about what it could mean and this often affected their behaviour, eating, sleeping, bed wetting, soiling and ability to concentrate at school.  Imagine knowing that today your Mum has to go on her own and see the man who hurt you all so badly, will she be safe, will she come back, will the Judge decide you do have to start seeing him?

The proposed change in the law will play into the hands of clever legal professionals fighting on behalf of abusive fathers as it strenghtens the case for them have contact.  Children and women will be put at greater risk of harm and re-traumatisation and reduced  capacity for Legal Aid and the capacity of the Children & Family Courts Advisory & Support Service (CAFCASS) will only make matters worse.

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