‘I don’t live now. I exist’: Mother of boys killed by abusive father begs government to overhaul family courts

Domestic abuse charities call for no more preventable child deaths as a result of unsafe child contact 

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Sunday 01 November 2020 16:01 GMT
Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, told The Independent it is calling for the ‘pro-contact’ culture to be changed in the family courts in light of Claire Throssell’s experiences
Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, told The Independent it is calling for the ‘pro-contact’ culture to be changed in the family courts in light of Claire Throssell’s experiences (Claire Throssell)

“He took away their future and took away my future too,” Claire Throssell tells The Independent. “I don’t live now. I exist. I will carry what has happened to me forever. The abuse doesn’t stay with the perpetrator. It stays with the victim.”

The 48-year-old, whose two sons were murdered by her abusive ex-husband after the family courts granted him unsupervised access, has urged the government to urgently overhaul laws around child custody.

Her demands are echoed by leading domestic abuse charities which are calling for the House of Lords to make key changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure there are no more preventable child deaths as a result of unsafe child contact with a domestic abuser.

Ms Throssell, who lives in South Yorkshire, said she had initially encouraged her sons Jack and Paul to spend time with their father after they broke up but the sons decided they did not want to see him after months of hearings. Nevertheless, the courts ruled Darren Sykes, her abusive ex-husband, would be allowed to have five hours’ contact with his sons each week.

She said she wanted her abusive ex, who also died in the fire, to have supervised contact with their children due to him having perpetrated a lengthy campaign of physical and psychological abuse against her during their 16-year marriage.

“But the court granted him unsupervised contact,” Ms Throsell, whose 12-year-old and 9-year-old sons were killed six years ago in October 2014, adds. “It took him just 15 minutes to kill them. He took the two boys up to the attic in the house and lit 14 fires. He had barricaded the attic. We had only been divorced by two weeks but we had been separated eight months by then. Throughout all this, the boys’ wishes and feelings had been ignored and lost by the courts.”

Ms Throssell argued children have “no rights or voices” in the “humiliating and barbaric” family court system – adding her ex-partner had been allowed to insult her across the courtroom while they were going through their child custody battle.

“I was sat four seats away from him in a board room,” she adds. “That is what constituted as a family court. When the fireman cradled Jack in his arms and he was dying, he said: ‘My dad did this and he did it on purpose.’ That was taken as his dying testimony. That is why I fight for children’s voices to be heard in amongst bitterness and fighting in the family courts.”

Claire Throssell’s sons Paul and Jack (Claire Throssell)

Ms Throssell said Jack, who had 56 per cent third-degree burns, fought for five days in hospital before dying after her ex-husband set fire to the house. Her other son Paul died in her arms after he was rescued from the inferno.

“Paul’s blue eyes turned grey,” she recalls. “He just smiled and slipped away. I was holding him so tight in my arms. His hair was wet from my tears. But the police took him off me. They said: ‘You can’t touch him anymore he is a crime scene’.”

Ms Throssell said when she first met her ex, he would send a rose to her work every day for two weeks asking her to go out with him as she had not initially wanted to be in a relationship with him.

“Looking back that was love bombing and stalking,” she reflects. “Perpetrators don’t have it written across their foreheads. They will charm people and people will think what a wonderful person. They are hidden monsters. Domestic abuse is a silent killer. It has got no respecter of class or age. There is always a part of you that is destroyed. They murder you as a person because you are never the same person afterwards. You end up looking in the mirror and not recognising the person looking back at you.”

Ms Throssell said her ex-husband would ring her 40 times a day to check where she was and what she was doing and would also open her mail and go through her phone. The stalking and intimidation continued after she left him – with him sending messages to her family and slashing her car tyres.

Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, told The Independent it is calling for the “pro-contact” culture to be changed in the family courts in light of Ms Throssell’s experiences.

The charity has put forward an amendment to the domestic abuse bill which would alter the Children Act 1989 so children’s safety is prioritised in cases where children are at risk of suffering harm from domestic abuse.

Almost half of 7,628 domestic abuse survivors Women’s Aid supported with children had support needs around child 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.

Nicki Norman, the charity’s acting chief executive, said: “Since our campaign and first petition were launched in 2016, we have seen real changes in the family court response to domestic abuse. These include new guidance for judges in making decisions about child contact in domestic abuse cases, a commitment to a ban on abusers cross-examining victims in the family courts, and a major Ministry of Justice review of the family courts led by an expert panel.  

“I was proud to sit on this panel, which has already led to key changes to stop abusers continuing harm in the courts – including a guarantee that survivors can access ‘special measures’, such as screens, separate entrances and exits, and separate waiting areas.

“But I know women and children going through the family courts continue to experience harm. Survivors continue to tell us that their abusers use the family courts as a weapon of coercive control, and that unsafe decisions impact their children’s safety and welfare.”

London’s victims commissioner recently told The Independent family courts are responsible for “state-sanctioned abuse” of domestic abuse victims as they allow violent parents to torment their ex-partners through the legal process.

Claire Waxman said the family courts have emboldened domestic abusers to “continue cycles of abuse, including control, unwanted contact and harassment”.

Frontline service providers warned domestic abusers use the family courts to continue terrorising their ex-partners - with domestic abuse allegations routinely dismissed and abusive ex-partners given access to their children.

A 2016 study by Women’s Aid revealed the cases of 19 children in 12 families who were all intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. All of the perpetrators were male and fathers to the children they killed.

The perpetrators all had access to their children via formal or informal child contact arrangements – with more than half of the custody provisions having been ordered through the courts.

The Independent previously revealed thousands of domestic abusers are preying on their victims during meetings with their children ordered by the family courts – with women experiencing coercive control and physical and even sexual assault from their exes when children are collected or dropped off.

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