Abusive men using child contact as way to carry on subjecting women to domestic abuse

‘We are also aware of instances where women have suffered physical and sexual assault from their abuser when children are being picked up or dropped off,’ says campaigner

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Sunday 13 October 2019 17:34 BST
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Charities say the family court needs to reassess its procedure
Charities say the family court needs to reassess its procedure

Thousands of domestic abusers are preying on their victims during meetings with their children ordered by the family courts, The Independent can reveal.

Women are being subjected to coercive control, and physical and even sexual assault from their ex-partners when children are being picked up or dropped off.

Campaigners say abusers also carry on terrorising their victims during child custody battles in the family courts and harassing them via emails, and report the problem is getting worse.

Julian Watkins, senior research analyst at Safe Lives, said: “We started collecting data on this issue over the last couple of years because domestic abuse services and the survivors they support were increasingly telling us it is a problem.”

The domestic abuse charity has found abusive former partners use childcare arrangements to carry on targeting their victims in around a third of cases where children were cited as the reason for ongoing contact.

Parents can face fines or even jail sentences if they do not make sure their child sees an ex-partner on a supervised or unsupervised visit when court-ordered contact is in place.

Angela* said the post-separation abuse her ex-husband has subjected her to has been even worse than the actual relationship.

The 43-year-old domestic abuse survivor, who had one child with her former spouse, said she suffered emotional, financial and online abuse from him while they were together.

She said: “He was very aggressive towards me. It was an insidious thing. All of a sudden I realised I had no control over my life. I was basically a slave. Anytime I had an opinion that was different to him, he got angry. if I left a toy out, he went into a rage. I would be back terrified hiding in the flat with the child because he would be on the rampage and skulking around and ready to blow.

“My money wasn’t my own. My thoughts weren’t my own. I had to check in with him on everything. He was living off me but if I went out and bought a lipstick I was a really bad person. He borrowed thousands of pounds that I never got back. He is very angry with the world. The world is against him. It’s all a conspiracy. Women are out to get him. We are all b*****s. We are all trying to trick the courts.

“Part of the issue was my ex was using drugs and doing so in proximity of the child. I didn’t know he was taking drugs until very far into the relationship. He would leave lighters strewn around the room and weed out. With a toddler that is unacceptable. He would leave doors and windows open.”

She said her ex would send emails every few days threatening to get the authorities to take her child away after she left him. He was initially only allowed supervised contact with their child due to his drug use but is now allowed to have unsupervised contact.

“When he was in the home, he didn’t bother with our child but as soon we broke up, access was the most important thing in his life,” Angela recalled. “He would turn up late to contact with our child. He wouldn’t change his nappy. Later, when he was older, he would let him wet himself. He had to do a handover with staff at contact centres when the visits were supervised and he would get aggressive with them.”

She said they have a contact book where they write notes to each other about practical issues but he has used this to write abusive messages to her.

Becky*, another woman who was subjected to coercive control by her ex-partner, said he now has custody of their young child and has used childcare arrangements to continue the abuse.

The 47-year-old said: “After I left him, he put her in his car and said he wanted one last bit of time with her on his own and never gave her back. I drove four hours to see her on Mother’s Day for a meeting the court had scheduled, but he said ‘You are not going to see her’ and drove home. He was shouting at me and laughing. He mainly abuses me through emails – mostly he says I am crazy and a bad mum. He doesn’t think that, he says it because he knows it will affect me. She cries when it’s time to go back to him at the end of visits.”

Anne Neale, of Legal Action for Women, said: “Men have been empowered by the family courts being more in their favour to pursue more cases and be more adversarial than they used to be

“This creates a climate in which men feel more emboldened to harass women through the courts and continue exerting controlling behaviour through the courts. It is also linked to the wider fact that women are increasingly speaking out about abuse wherever it takes place, including through the family courts.”

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The campaigner, who supports women going through family courts, argued the presumption in law that it is in the best interests of the child to have contact with both parents “enables” the family courts to override a man’s history of violence towards both the mother and children.

The warning comes after more than 120 MPs wrote to the government in May demanding an inquiry into how family courts in England and Wales deal with victims of domestic abuse.

Lisa Longstaff, a campaigner who is part of the Support Not Separation Coalition, said abusive ex-partners use contact as an opportunity to often verbally and sometimes physically abuse the mother.

She said: “They continue exerting coercive or controlling behaviour with the pretext of making arrangements or cause problems such as making the mother travel long distances, or not returning the child at the agreed time.

“Violent men also continue to exert control over ex-partners and their children through the family court, enabled by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), social workers and judges who routinely dismiss rape and domestic violence as either false or irrelevant to a child’s welfare. This is confirmed by official figures: 70 to 90 per cent of cases in the family court involve domestic violence or abuse, yet only one per cent of contact applications from fathers are refused altogether.

“Mothers who report rape or domestic violence are not only disbelieved and their children forced into contact with fathers they may be terrified of, they risk losing the children they are trying to protect. For spelling out the dangers the children face, mothers are accused of ‘parental alienation’ or of causing ‘emotional harm’ by ‘poisoning’ the children against the father.”

Sandra Horley CBE, of national domestic abuse charity Refuge, argued the way family courts deal with child contact cases involving domestic abuse places women and children at risk and called for “urgent reform” to ensure their protection is prioritised.

Refuge, the largest provider of specialist domestic violence services in the UK, is calling for a reversal of the legal presumption child contact in cases of domestic abuse is always in the best interests of a child.

She added: “All too often, violent partners are using child access meetings to continue their abuse. We see cases where violent partners fail to collect or drop off children at the agreed time, causing some women to fear the perpetrator has kidnapped their children, and disrupting women’s lives – causing them to miss work or cancel plans. Shockingly, we are also aware of instances where women have suffered physical and sexual assault from their abuser when children are being picked up or dropped off.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “No child or parent should ever be in danger because of a partner’s access to their child, which is why we are reviewing the family court system to make sure they’re protected.

“We have also introduced legislation to ban abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts and throughout our review we have engaged survivors across the country to ensure we are doing everything we can to safeguard them further.”

Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service did not want to comment when approached.

*The names of the women in this article have been changed to protect their identity

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