The issue of domestic abuse is ever present in the work of the Family Court. I have recently received and signed a petition that was set up by Women’s Aid to try to prevent proposed funding changes by the government. Under the new plans, rent money, which used to go straight to domestic violence refuges, will instead go to local authorities – effectively forcing refuges to compete for funding with other local services.
Experts warn that the government’s proposed changes could force over a third of current refuges to close. This would leave some victims of domestic violence with nowhere to go and could force them and their children into a position of returning to or remaining in their abusive relationship.
Napo was invited to contribute to a recently aired local TV news story about Family Courts, Cafcass and domestic abuse. The thrust of the programme was that children were being sent for unsupervised contact with parents (typically fathers) against whom there were allegations of domestic abuse.
Both Dean Rogers (AGS) and I spoke by phone at some length with the reporter responsible for the research during Napo AGM in October. From this conversation it appeared to me that, not all of the cases being researched involved unsupervised contact. In one case (at least) the child had a Cafcass Guardian appointed and a very high level of input was being provided with all contact supervised by Cafcass. This did not appear in the programme.
An interview was later filmed with Dean. He provided information about the care and vigilance taken by Cafcass practitioners in screening for and identifying cases in which there was domestic abuse. It is unfortunate that this was not included in the editing of the programme. The only part of his contribution that was aired was that, at times of high demand, high caseloads and a shortage of resources, it is possible that cases could be missed.
It is clear that we cannot afford to be complacent about this issue, though, and it is positive that Practice Rule 12J has been updated to better guide Courts as to when finding of fact hearings should be listed regarding domestic abuse.
Last year, Cafcass and Women’s Aid collaborated on research into the outcomes of applications for children to spend time with a parent in cases where domestic abuse had been alleged. The study used both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Domestic abuse had been alleged in almost two thirds of cases. Lucy Hadley from Women’s Aid gave a presentation at the family court section professional session of Napo’s AGM. She gave the following information:
Fathers were much more likely to be the subjects of allegations than mothers. Physical abuse was recorded most often within the sample, followed by coercive control and sexual abuse. Allegations included post-separation abuse.
In 55% of cases where domestic abuse was alleged, it co-existed with other harms – children living in families with other complex needs including parental mental health needs, substance misuse and emotional abuse of the child. The outcomes were as follows:
At first hearing, where domestic abuse was alleged:
Work after first hearing – FCA recommendations in cases where domestic abuse was alleged:
The presumption of contact remains although there was evidence of risk of harm to children. The research highlights that the issues are highly complex and worthy of further work. Dr Gillian Macdonald also gave a presentation at our professional slot of AGM. Her research showed that, although FCAs often discuss issues of domestic abuse with children, their views tend not to be included in Section 7 reports. She found a strong emphasis on ‘rebuilding father/child relationships’ and re-establishing direct contact in the future, regardless of potential risks and children’s fears
National Vice-Chair – Family Court Section