Women’s Aid launches campaign to put child safety at heart of all family court decisions
‘Nineteen Child Homicides’ report published by charity
The national domestic abuse charity Women's Aid has launched a major new campaign, 'Child First'. The campaign calls on the family courts and the Government to put the safety of children back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary. To coincide with the launch, the charity has published a report, 'Nineteen Child Homicides'.
Nineteen Child Homicides tells the stories of the cases of nineteen children who were intentionally killed by a parent who was also a perpetrator of domestic abuse, through unsafe child contact arrangements, informal and formal. The focus is on children, but in some of these cases, women were also killed. Whilst the blame for these killings lies with the perpetrators, the report concludes that these cases demonstrate failings that need to be addressed to ensure that the family court, Children and Family Court Advisory Service (Cafcass), children's social work and other bodies actively minimise the possibility of further harm to women and children. This study reviewed relevant Serious Case Reviews for England and Wales, published between January 2005 and August 2015 (inclusive). It uncovered details of 19 children in 12 families who were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse. All of the perpetrators were men and fathers to the children that they killed. All of the perpetrators had access to their children through formal or informal child contact arrangements. As well as 19 children killed, the perpetrators also attempted to kill two other children at the time of these homicides, and killed two mothers.
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid, said:
"There is a misguided belief within the family courts and among judges that, because a relationship has ended, so has the domestic abuse. Survivors frequently report to us that they and their children are re-victimised and traumatised by their abusers, even after separation, through the family court process. This trauma makes it extremely difficult for the non-abusive parent to advocate clearly and effectively for the safety of their child. In the criminal courts, there are protection measures in place to give victims fair access to justice. This is not the case in the family courts. For example, it is common for victims of domestic abuse to be cross-examined by the perpetrator. This must end.
"The desire by the family courts to treat parents in exactly the same way, and get cases over with quickly, blinds them to the consequences of unsafe child contact. As the report Nineteen Child Homicides shows, these consequences can be fatal. The culture of, 'contact with the child, no matter what', must end. Less than 1% of child contact applications are refused , but we know that domestic abuse features in around 70% of CAFCASS caseloads, and in 70-90% of cases going to the family courts . Clearly, the system is failing. The best interests of children should be the overriding principle of the family courts, but far too often this is simply not the case."
The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby responded to the report:
"I welcome the publication of the Nineteen Child Homicides'report by Women's Aid. This is a valuable report on an important issue which I take very seriously. I will consider the report with the care it deserves and identify the lessons that the judiciary can learn from it. I believe that other agencies in the family justice system may also benefit from the report and I look forward to discussing its conclusions with them and to taking joint action to address the findings of the report."
Claire Throssell, mother to Jack and Paul, both killed in 2014 by their father, said:
"No parent should have to hold their children and comfort them as they die, or be told that their child has been harmed in an act of revenge or rage. Having experienced the family court judicial process and its protocols, the tragic outcome that occurred - whilst court proceedings were still ongoing - exposes flaws and malpractice within family law.
"All too often children's voices are not heard or acted upon. Attending court is an emotional, frightening and at times a traumatic experience which nobody decides to initiate lightly - but does so to protect their children's physical and emotional wellbeing."
Women's Aid urges the government and family courts to undertake two key recommendations from Nineteen Child Homicides' in order to protect children and their non-abusive parent, and stop further avoidable child deaths. These form the two campaign asks of 'Child First':
1. Further avoidable child deaths must be prevented by putting children first in the family courts – as the legal framework and guidance states.
The government and courts must ensure that domestic abuse is identified and its impact fully considered by the family court judiciary. Child contact arrangement orders must put the best interests of the child(ren) first and protect the well-being of the parent the child is living with, in accordance with 'Practice direction 12 J Child arrangements & Contact order: Domestic violence and harm'. There is an urgent need for independent, national oversight into the implementation of Practice Direction 12J.
2. Make the family courts fit for purpose through the introduction of protection measures for survivors of domestic abuse.
Survivors of domestic abuse attending the family court must have access to protection measures, similar to those available in criminal courts. Survivors of domestic abuse should always have access to a separate waiting room or area, and judges must ensure there is time for the non-abusive parent to leave court safely before releasing the perpetrator.
Professor Evan Stark, Ph.D, MSW, Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University, said:
"Nineteen Child Homicides describes one devastating consequence of the Family Court's failure to make safety a priority in contact orders. But child deaths from unsafe contact are only the most tragic outcome of the huge gap that separates the justice for abused women and the failure of the Family Court to protect children and the non-abusive parent. Child First aims to close this gap."
Sarah Forster, family law barrister and Deputy District Judge, said:
"I am supporting Child First to help drive the culture change needed within the family courts to keep children safe. There must never again be a report such as Nineteen Child Homicides. Everyone within the family court system must work together to stop avoidable child deaths. It can, and must, be done."
John Bolch, solicitor, family law blogger and writer, said:
"As a former family lawyer with over 20 years of experience, and having seen all too many such tragedies reported, I wholeheartedly support this campaign."
Women's Aid notes the comment of Lord Justice Wall in 2006:
"It is, in my view, high time that the Family Justice System abandoned any reliance on the proposition that a man can have a history of violence to the mother of his children but, nonetheless, be a good father."
The report is here.