MPs call for law change after Rotherham grooming gang rapist given chance to meet victim's son

Sammy Woodhouse said similar cases are 'happening all over the country and it needs to stop'

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 28 November 2018 15:57
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Sammy Woodhouse expresses shock at Rotherham council decision to allow rapist rights to child

MPs are calling for the government to change laws giving rapists the right to access children born to their victims, after a Rotherham grooming survivor revealed her “perverse” case.

The shadow policing minister Louise Haigh and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion are among those demanding that abusers are prevented from causing more harm to their victims.

It came after Sammy Woodhouse revealed that the man who raped her as part of a grooming gang was told he could apply for parental rights over her son, while serving a 35-year prison sentence.

“Rotherham council invited him to apply for parental rights over my child, even though it was proven in court that he was a danger to myself and another children,” she said.

Ms Champion said ministers could sign off new guidance “that makes it crystal clear that any rapist, any abuser, anyone that is an ongoing risk to a child, does not have the right to comment on their future”.

“They could do that today but they don’t,” she told the BBC. “They sort of shove it out to the councils to make their interpretations and then just sit back and go: ‘Oh well, it’s up to the councils, they interpreted it wrong.’”

Fellow Labour MP Ms Haigh is campaigning for the change to be enforced through amendments to the Children Act 1989.

“As it stands, the law allows any man to apply through courts for access or visitation rights to their children,” she told The Independent.

Rotherham grooming ring: seven men convicted of sexually exploiting vulnerable teenage girls

“A convicted rapist can apply to the court, and the victim and their children will have to attend and in theory they can be cross-examined and have to relive and replay the whole experience and the trauma all over again.”

Ms Haigh is calling for the law to be changed for convicted rapists, but women’s activists pointed to low conviction rates and argued that a systematic overhaul of family court processes was needed.

Ms Woodhouse, now aged 33, said she would be setting up a petition for the campaign, and that her case was one of many.

“This is happening all over the country and it needs to stop,” she added. “Children are being removed, being given to rapists and murders, for their families to have access.

“Rape victims are also having to go to support centres to share access and see the men that raped them … women and children are being put at direct risk.”

The law currently states that fathers who are not married to a child’s mother or named on their birth certificate can acquire parental responsibility through court applications.

Even fathers without parental responsibility must be informed of some family court proceedings, such as orders appointing a guardian, but councils can apply for exemptions to the rule.

The Ministry of Justice said the council in question should have applied for that exemption given the harm posed by the father, but the council said it had followed the rules.

Brothers Arshid, Basharat and Bannaras Hussain (left to right, top), and Karen MacGregor, Shelley Davies and Qurban Ali (left to right, bottom), were sentenced to a combined 103 years in prison

Ms Woodhouse, who waived her right to lifetime anonymity to expose the Rotherham scandal, became pregnant at the age of 15.

Arshid “Mad Ash” Hussain, who is 10 years older than Ms Woodhouse, was later jailed for 23 offences including rape and assault on victims as young as 11.

He is not named on the birth certificate of Ms Woodhouse’s son and has never had parental responsibility for him under its legal definition.

But Hussain was listed as a respondent in court proceedings instigated by Rotherham Council last year.

Officials informed him that he could seek visits from his son and promised to keep him informed of all future proceedings, The Times reported.

At a family court hearing early last year, Ms Woodhouse was told that Hussain would be allowed to attend court and seek legal representation.

He chose not to take part in proceedings but would have been entitled to request visitation rights or for his son to be given into the custody of his relatives.

Victims’ commissioner Baroness Newlove, said it was a “perverse situation”.

“A victim of the worst sexual violence faced the prospect of continuing to be abused by her perpetrator, this time via the family courts,” she added.

“I believe that where a child has been conceived by rape the presumption of joint parental rights should be abolished.”

Sarah Green, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said there were “systemic problems” with the way family courts take rape and domestic abuse into account.

“You get women who have been abused being protected in the criminal courts, but the next week they can be in the family court and there’s no recognition of the criminal process,” she told The Independent.

“The family courts, appallingly, will commonly treat sexual violence as irrelevant, whether there are convictions or not … you can’t make a tiny amendment to fix it, you have to look at social workers, family courts, how they work, how they behave, resources. It’s a structural issue.”

A spokesperson for the NSPCC said councils should always put the needs of a child first, adding: “We need to understand if this is a one-off failure or a system-wide problem that needs to be addressed, so no other survivor and their child have to go through the same trauma.”

A government spokesperson said relevant departments and Rotherham Council “will work urgently to understand and address the failings in this case”.

He added: “Local authorities can apply to courts to request permission not to notify parents without parental responsibility about care proceedings, and courts should consider the potential harm to the child and mother when making this decision.”

A Rotherham Council spokesperson said it could not disclose information relating to family court proceedings heard in private.

“Like all councils we must comply with legal requirements, including practice directions, and that would include giving notice of proceedings to parents with or without formal parental responsibility,” a statement said.

“Cases before the family court are emotive and arouse strong feelings amongst those affected. We do understand that the legal requirements can cause upset to those involved and so we welcome a debate around this issue, which applies across England and Wales.”

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