Domestic Abuse Survivors Have Said Their Children Are Put At Risk By Family Courts. The Government Is Asking For Their Stories.
One survivor, who would prefer an independent inquiry, told BuzzFeed News: "We currently have a system that does not protect victims and children but favours perpetrators, and that has been clearly evidenced time and time again."
The government is asking survivors of domestic abuse to share their experiences of family court, in a bid to examine whether children involved in these cases are being put at risk.
The review, which launched a call for evidence on Friday, July 19, will examine what risk there is to children who maintain a relationship with a parent who has a history of abusive behaviour, including where judges issue court orders mandating both parents maintain contact.
It will also consider the use of "barring orders" — court orders that can prevent abusive parents from making further court applications — that often retraumatise their victims, and look at how family courts handle a range of offences, including rape, child abuse, assault, sexual assault, murder, and other violent crimes.
Survivors of domestic abuse told BuzzFeed News last year that a complete overhaul of the family courts was needed, and that they felt being forced to maintain contact with violent ex-partners put their own safety and that of their children at risk.
A woman, whom we have called Rachael, told BuzzFeed News she was taken to court by her ex-partner, who had a string of previous convictions for violence against women and men. He was jailed for attacking her while she was pregnant, but later took her to court because he wanted access to their child.
"He is extremely violent," she told BuzzFeed News. "He does cocaine and other drugs socially. He was abusive at home, had no patience with [my child], but he wanted me to give him contact."
The court ruled in her ex's favour, which Rachael said put both her and her child's safety at risk. She told BuzzFeed News that she believes her partner only took her to court as a way of exercising control over her.
The judge granted Rachel's violent former partner supervised contact with her child, and ordered that he should be told which school their child was attending — even after Rachael had moved house to protect herself.
"They're not interested in the actual child," she said. "Even when we were together he wasn't interested. It's about coercion and taking control."
Last year a report from the charity Women's Aid and Queen Mary University of London found that harmful attitudes towards domestic abuse survivors from lawyers, the judiciary, and employees of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service were leading to women being discriminated against in the family court, which was putting children at risk as a result.
Two-thirds of survivors who took part in the survey reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards their child or children, while almost two in five survivors said their abusive ex-partner had also been physically abusive, yet many were still awarded contact.
The domestic abuse bill, which was introduced to Parliament this week, bans abusive ex-partners from cross-examining their victims in family court, but there are fears that Theresa May's flagship piece of legislation may never make it on to the statute books.
The latest review looks at what else needs to change in order to protect survivors of domestic abuse and their children.
However, Sammy Woodhouse, a survivor of the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal, told BuzzFeed News that the government should not be calling for evidence itself, but should allow an independent body to investigate problems with the court system. She has been campaigning for changes to the family court system since her rapist was offered a role in her son's life.
"The government need to do an independent inquiry with the family courts as myself and others have told them face-to-face and in writing," she told BuzzFeed News.
"Of course anyone that’s had experiences of the courts need to [respond], and many laws and changes need to be made. We currently have a system that does not protect victims and children but favours perpetrators, and that has been clearly evidenced time and time again."
However, she said she had little faith that the government would act on its findings. "It needs to be independent," she added. "I feel they're just doing this to make it look like they're acting."
Justice minister Paul Maynard said: "Domestic abuse destroys lives, which is why survivors and their children must have every confidence that they will be protected in the family courts.
"Just this week we introduced legislation that will ban abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts, and throughout our review we will be engaging with victims across the country to make sure we are doing all we can to protect them further."
Other group have welcomed the review, with Women's Aid saying that the "public call for evidence is a crucial part of this process".
Adina Claire, acting co–chief executive of Women’s Aid who is on the panel for the review, told BuzzFeed News: “Reforming the family court response to domestic abuse remains a top priority for the survivors we work with. Women and children experiencing domestic abuse continue to be revictimised and retraumatised by their experiences in the family courts, where the understanding and response to domestic abuse remains a serious concern."
In a statement, Liz Thompson, director of external relations of SafeLives, said: "We’d also like to see an end to unsupervised contact during criminal court proceedings once there is a charge with a domestic abuse element, and better coordination between civil, family and criminal court processes to increase people’s safety and allow them to live the lives they want after abuse has happened."
The Labour MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion, who sits on the domestic abuse bill committee, told BuzzFeed News: "It’s right the government is involving the views of survivors in this review.
"Children need better protections from abusive parents manipulating the family courts system as a tool of power and control. Such abuse can continue for years and prevents children from living normal lives."
Shadow policing minister Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, added: "The family court system has failed survivors of domestic abuse and their children time and time again.
"Systemic changes are desperately needed to protect the vulnerable and I hope as many survivors as possible tell the review their experiences to make that change happen."