Let’s be Safe not sorry –
Dr Ravi Thiara and Dr Christine Harrison Centre for the Study of Safety and Wellbeing University of Warwick 2016
Commissioned by: Women’s aid.org UK– until women and children are safe
The Supporting campaign for ‘safer child contact’ raises Key issues with research on child contact and domestic violence. This report recommends taking into accordance the issues of violence against the mother in making child custody and contact orders in family courts. It further recommends the voice of the child be heard by Judicial officers in making such determinations-
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. (Lord Justice Wall, 2006: 9).
Existing research provides strong evidence that in making arrangements for child contact when there is a history of domestic violence, the current workings of the Family Justice System support a pro-contact approach that neglects the safety needs of children and women, and the impact on them of previous or continuing domestic violence.
In the UK there have been conflicting developments in safeguarding children and women. It is widely acknowledged that, whilst criminal justice responses have improved, the law, policy and practice in relation to child contact arrangements following parental separation remain dominated by models that marginalise the impact of domestic violence. Studies reveal that concerns about children’s safety and the effects of men’s violence are routinely overlooked, in voluntary as well as court ordered arrangements.
This frequently exposes children and women to further violence, causes them significant harm, and prevents their recovery. For a substantial number of children, the privileging of men’s rights to contact over children’s welfare negatively affects every aspect of their wellbeing and development. The individual and societal costs are unacceptable.
Indeed, it has proved inordinately difficult to improve safety, with serious implications for the health and development of children and their mothers. This promotion of fathers’ involvement in children’s lives at the expense of safety considerations (MacDonald, 2014) has perpetuated what Thiara and Humphreys (2015) describe as the ‘absent presence’ of violent men in the lives of children and women. More than anything, the presumption that contact is beneficial for children, unless proven otherwise, has been shown to be incredibly harmful for some children (Women’s Aid, 2016). The UK is a signatory of the Istanbul Convention (see www.humanrights.ch/en/standards/cetreaties/violence-against-women).
This extends the commitments of European countries in combating domestic violence and its impact on children and women. Article 31 of the Convention requires member countries to strengthen legislation relating to visitation (contact) and custody (residence). Quite specifically, the Convention establishes an expectation that incidents of violence against the non-abusive parent will be taken into account by judicial authorities when determining arrangements for children i.e. contact orders should not be issued without taking into account the impact of domestic violence on children and women, and no arrangements should be made which jeopardise the rights and safety of a child or mother. This highlights a further contradiction in the UK government’s stance; although the UK is a signatory to the Convention, it has not yet been ratified.
It is also possible that the few gains made in addressing domestic violence within the Family Justice System may be undermined by recent legal changes – the introduction of the Child Arrangements Order, emphasis on shared parenting and legal aid cuts. The emphasis on shared parenting in the Children and Families Act 2014 (based on a presumption about the involvement of both parents) further elevates risk for children whose fathers have been abusive and distorts the principle that the child’s welfare is paramount. Research from Australia about similar reforms there supports this concern about the philosophy of shared parenting (Bagshaw et al., 2011).
Around three million, or one quarter of children in the UK are affected by parental separation (Hunt and Macleod, 2008). Although the majority (85%) of separated parents resolve contact arrangements by agreement (Hunt and MacLeod, 2008), the Family Justice System is used when voluntary agreement cannot be reached, or when issues of safety and wellbeing are raised (Wasoff, 2007; Trinder, 2013). Even so, it cannot be assumed that where contact arrangements are agreed between parents without court involvement, domestic violence is not an issue. A high proportion of the 10-15% of separations that lead to court applications for contact involve domestic violence (Aris and Harrison, 2007), and there have been longstanding concerns about whether
Even so, it cannot be assumed that where contact arrangements are agreed between parents without court involvement, domestic violence is not an issue. A high proportion of the 10-15% of separations that lead to court applications for contact involve domestic violence (Aris and Harrison, 2007), and there have been longstanding concerns about whether maintaining contact in these circumstances truly serves children’s interests. As early as 2000, Sturge and Glaser Experts’ Report (2000) emphasised that promoting contact with the non-resident parent has to be carefully weighed against the potential harm caused by exposure to violence.
There is now a substantial knowledge base highlighting concerns about children’s and women’s safety and wellbeing with regard to contact in the context of domestic violence, which contrasts with current government thinking about promoting the involvement of both 1 Sturge and Glaser (2000) viewed beneficial contact as being to:
Help build or maintain a meaningful and beneficial relationship.
Provide a foundation for the healthy emotional growth of the child.
Allow the child, family and parent to share cultural and historical knowledge and information (particularly relevant to black and minority ethnic (BME) families, see Radford et al., 1997).
Allow parent and child to repair difficult relationships.
This review of research focuses on the safety and wellbeing of children when having contact, whilst also acknowledging that this is related to the safety of women. It identifies major messages from research about what is needed to ensure that child contact arrangements are safe, beneficial and informed by children views.
The report: Examines the implications of the presumption of contact that underpins the current legal process and the risks this poses for children’s safety and wellbeing;
Identifies what is required to improve the safety and wellbeing of children when arrangements for child contact are made where there is a history of domestic violence;
Makes recommendations for changes that are urgently needed.
S a f e n o t s o r r y-
Evidence about domestic violence, with its widespread damaging effects on children and women, fundamentally challenges the pro-contact philosophy dominating the family courts. In addition, knowledge that domestic violence begins and/or escalates in pregnancy (Mezey and Bewley, 1997; Lewis and Drife, 2005), that abuse impairs women’s ability to look after children or that a central aspect of domestic violence is an attack on mothering and the mother-child relationship (Bancroft and Silverman, 2002; Lewis and Drife, 2005; Thiara and Breslin, 2006; Radford and Hester, 2006; Lapierre, 2008) also has to be taken into account when considering the continuing role of abusive men in children’s lives. A further dimension of concerns that the family courts operate on the basis of a presumption of contact, is that children’s voices are not properly heard within the court arena and that they are marginalised in professional practices and assessments (Morrison, 2009; Caffrey, 2013). This is not only a major worry to women, but is evident in the small body of research with children themselves.
Like women’s experiences, it is easy for children and young people’s voices to become lost in the process of determining contact.
-Domestic violence and its impact on children before and after parental separation.
Children’s experiences are closely related to those of their mothers (Mullender et al., 2002; Lapierre, 2008) and domestic violence is a major source of adversity for substantial numbers of children who witness violence, get caught up in it, or suffer because they and their mothers are constantly afraid (Mullender et al., 2002). Children may be exposed to perpetual criticism of their mother, or suffer as a result of economic deprivation and social isolation that is frequently an aspect of domestic violence. Recent research (Katz, 2015) underlines the extent to which such coercive control of the mother can negatively affect children. They may also experience frequent moves of home and school and sources of support may be lost, including significant family relationships and friendships. Although those working in the Family Justice System often differentiate between direct and indirect violence, this can seriously underestimate the harm caused to children and young people. Even those who are indirect witnesses are likely to be aware of domestic violence (Parkinson and Humphreys, 1998; Mullender et al., 2002; Morrison, 2009), and they will undoubtedly be affected if it has eroded their mother’s ability to care for Any discussion about child contact must be contextualised within the knowledge base on children’s experiences of domestic violence (Coy et al., 2012:10).
Entire study –