Angie can remember every moment of the day she went to the family court for the first time. She was nervous: She knew she would need to give detailed testimony against the man who had physically abused and mentally tortured her for years – while he sat across from her in the very same room. After being forced in and out of women's refuge shelters eight times with her 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, she doubted that her ex-husband had called her to court out of a genuine desire to win custody of their children. Instead, she suspected he used each trip as a way to exert control and instil fear.
"It wasn't in a courtroom – it was just a normal room," Angie told BuzzFeed News. "He was sat so close to me around a table. It was horrific. I was terrified. You couldn't be any more afraid of someone as I was of him. At one point, I got up to go to the toilet. Suddenly, he appeared from nowhere, and the next thing I knew, he had his hands around my throat and was strangling me. After a few minutes of me trying to scream, a man heard my cries and came out of the room to pull him away from me."
Angie's abusive ex-partner was allowed to freely follow her out of the courtroom unaccompanied, despite the family court being repeatedly told that he had a history of violent behaviour. Her story is symptomatic of a broken system in the UK in which victims of domestic violence – and their children – are often put at further risk by being placed in unsafe or intimidating positions with violent ex-partners.
In a new national campaign, Child First, launched by Women's Aid on Wednesday, the domestic violence charity calls on the judicial system to introduce protection measures for abuse survivors so people like Angie and her children are not put in danger in family courts.
"Survivors frequently speak to us about how traumatised they are with family court process," Polly Neate, chief executive of Women's Aid, told BuzzFeed News. "If you're intimidated by a partner, it's difficult to effectively and properly advocate for your child. You can come across hostile when you're just fearful. For children, expressing that they don't want to see an abusive parent in front of them isn't easy."
Neate said there is a "misguided belief" within the family courts and among judges that, because a relationship has ended, so has the domestic abuse. She said that under the current family courts process, there is often a situation in which survivors of violence and their children can be victimised by their abusers all over again, even after separation. It is common for victims of domestic abuse to be cross-examined by the perpetrator. As a result, the family court is "used as an area where abuse is continued".
However, the HM Courts & Tribunals Service says protective measures are in place across all courtrooms. A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: "Protective measures are put in place whenever a court or tribunal is aware that an individual involved in a case may be violent. This can include separate waiting areas and additional security. Parties can also ask to give their evidence behind a screen or via video link.
"Further work is underway to ensure consistency across all courts and tribunals for handling cases where there is a risk of physical or verbal abuse to staff, judiciary and other court users."
The Child First campaign also calls on the family courts and the government to put children's safety back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary. Women's Aid said 19 children (in the UK over the last ten years) were intentionally killed by a parent who was a known perpetrator of domestic abuse, and that the killings were made possible through unsafe child-contact arrangements, formal and informal, half of which were ordered through the courts.
A part of the problem, the charity said, stems from a prevailing myth that women are "making up" abuse and obstructing the father's access to their children. Although there is policy in place to protect victims of domestic violence, Women's Aid said the drive to allow contact with both parents is overriding the obligation to put children's needs first, and often children are put back in the care of violent adults.
For years, the issue of fully protecting victims of domestic violence in family courts has been hammered home by charities and survivors. Women's Aid stresses the need for family courts to adopt some of the "simple" measures criminal courts have in place, most of which do not cost anything. Those include: having somebody accompany perpetuators and victims to and from the courtroom; taking victims through different entrances and exits at staggered times; and having a separate room available to separate victims from abusers, or having a screen or video call-in option for when the victim is giving testimony.
Eleven years after Angie's abusive ex-husband attempted to strangle her, she is dismayed the family courts haven't implemented these changes to ensure victims are protected.
"I can't actually believe they still sit victims of domestic violence with the abusers together. No one realises how afraid we are, or how serious it is – they think it's normal people coming into court trying to get access to children. There is no screen in place, no police – they don't know what it's like to be so afraid of someone and have your life threatened simply by being in the same room as them. Why would they not keep him separate?
Despite cross-party support for effective changes to be made to support survivors of domestic violence, not all MPs are convinced the issue is being taken seriously. Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, who has personal experience of working alongside domestic violence survivors, said there is a "deep misunderstanding" of the family court system and stresses the urgency for family courts to put the victims and their children first.
"Being in a family courtroom is one of the most horrifying experiences survivors of domestic violence go through," Phillips told BuzzFeed News. "Often, a woman has to justify everything that has happened to her to a judge who decides whether she can keep her children or not."
"No one is arguing men shouldn't have access to their children," she added. "In my experience, women are not in the family court for malicious intent – they are there to keep their children safe. And it's my very strong opinion that you're not a good father if you abuse your wife. I don't care if you take them to the seaside every weekend, or you're the sweetest dad. You relinquish your parental right if you commit domestic violence."
Phillips said that when the perpetrator is allowed contact with their victim it gives them another chance at "controlling" her, and stressed the need for women to have access to "specialist and good" legal advice. She said the court system can be seen to be "colluding with perpetuators of violence" unless there is a willingness from the judicial system to make changes.
"Very few legislators understand family court," she said. "I understand there's a safeguarding issue, but family courts are private, secretive, and very few in parliament have had interaction with them. You don't see TV dramas about family court; it's not headline news. Most people wouldn't even know where they are in their local areas."
Phillips spoke of an incident in which a woman at a family court in Birmingham was made to sit at a table with her abusive ex-partner and recount detailed testimony of his abuse. After several visits to the court, Phillips said, the ex-partner later murdered the woman at her home.
"Some women are made to go on parenting programmes, having to prove they should have their children taken from them," the MP said. "What we say to women is: You're being beaten up; you're not keeping your children safe."
More than a decade on, Angie is still fearful of her ex-partner. She stresses that although the family courts think they are making victims' lives better, she believes that they're often making them worse.
"I left him 13 years ago, and I still can't bare the thought of him," she said. "That feeling never leaves you. Even now, my daughter gets anxiety attacks because of him, and my son has a number of personal issues from those years. I hate thinking about it, because I think it's my fault."
Rossalyn Warren is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Rossalyn Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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