The findings showed that more than half of children from violent relationships did not want to continue seeing their fathers after their parents had separated, but three-quarters of them were forced to do so by the courts. Experts believe that continued contact with a violent father can harm already vulnerable children physically and emotionally.
"Children who have witnessed domestic violence suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, nightmares and extreme anxiety. If contact is forced on the child, they might not only be physically at risk from their father but also risk witnessing continuing domestic abuse to the mother," said Dr Lorraine Radford, senior lecturer in social policy at the Roehampton Institute in London, who is a specialist on contact issues with violent families.
"We are not looking at the rights of the father but the rights of the child. A child can only benefit from seeing his father if the contact is going to be non-abusive."
In the biggest study on contact and domestic violence in the UK - involving 130 parents and 200 children - three- quarters of the abused parents said that their partner's violence towards them was not considered a convincing enough reason for refusing contact with the children.
On contact visits to the father, one in 10 children had been sexually abused, two in 10 were physically assaulted and six in 10 were emotionally harmed.
Every year more than 150,000 children are caught up in the trauma of their parents' divorce or separation. Up to one third of these marriages fails because the man is violent towards his partner. When parents cannot agree contact arrangements for the children the case is referred to a family court where the judge decides what is in the best interest of the child. It is rare for the courts to deny a parent any contact.
"The courts work on the basis that parental separation is a deprivation for the child," says Mr Justice Wall, a member of the Lord Chancellor's advisory board on family law, speaking on Dispatches, to be televised tonight. "It involves the loss of one of the parents and therefore the child should, wherever possible, be compensated for that loss by contact with the absent parent, and accordingly the courts usually award contact in the vast majority of cases, unless there are cogent reasons against it."
Sarah Sayer, of Action for Mothers in Contact Action (Amica), an organisation that advises parents on contact problems and which conducted the study, said: "The findings show that the British courts' lack of concern for parents' fears about domestic violence has dire consequences."
The study also showed that one in three children was neglected by his or her father on contact visits and one in four was looked after by a father who was drunk. An example is Lauren, whose parents split up when she was aged five. Her father was awarded weekly visits, but after four years she persuaded the welfare officer to stop the contact. "It was like four years of torture. He had no food in the house, ever. He paid me no attention at all. He was either asleep in bed or he was watching TV on the couch. And he used to go to the pub all the time, so I never saw him," she said.
Dispatches is on Channel 4 at 9.30pm.
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