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Women escaping abusive relationships are often punished by the family courts for raising concerns about the abuse they and their children have suffered at the hands of the children’s father. Family court personnel lack understanding about domestic abuse and fail to recognise the dynamics of abuse. Women who speak about abuse are accused of being hostile and alienating their children from the father. Under UK law there is a presumption of contact as children are believed to fare better if they have both parents in their lives.
Domestic abuse is very difficult to prove as the abuse occurs behind closed doors so there is little or no evidence and particularly no evidence that the family courts will accept. Mothers are at a great disadvantage as they are disbelieved and ignored.
As abusers are usually great liars, are self-assured and manipulative; they can appear very likeable so the courts assume that the mother is exaggerating the abuse and so ignore or minimise her evidence that he is a danger to her and her children. The courts also assume that if a woman has been abused, she cannot be a good mother. They also have the idea that just because the man abused her, he won’t abuse the children and can still be a good father. Courts are also places where victim blaming is rife and where the father’s rights are given priority over the children’s and mother’s rights to safety.
Because the abuse is minimised or ignored, any mother who reports domestic abuse to herself or her children is at risk of losing her children as residence can be transferred to the father. Even if she does get to keep residence, she will have to make the children available for contact with the father, thus putting both herself and her children at risk of further harm. Sometimes the courts will order that the contact takes place at a contact centre but these are expensive and the courts expect contact to move on to unsupervised very quickly.
Once contact is established, the abusive father can continue his manipulation and emotional damage to the children and often use contact as way to continue to control and abuse the mother. The children are also in greater danger from physical abuse when the mother can no longer protect them during unsupervised contact.
If the abusive father gets residency, they often block contact with the mother and allow the children to believe that the mother has deserted them and no longer loves them. This emotional abuse has a very detrimental effect on the mother-child bond and can leave the children feeling abandoned and blaming their mother.
Children who witness domestic abuse feel frightened, insecure and confused. They keep their feelings and fears to themselves, trying to keep their violent home life secret. Children can be resilient and learn to cope with the abuse but the physical, emotional, and psychological effects can affect them severely for the rest of their lives. The stress that children living with abuse suffer is continuous leading to withdrawal, tantrums, vandalism, problems at school, bed-wetting and nightmares, drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders and physical problems such as headaches, asthma, and eczema. Children can blame themselves for the abuse or become withdrawn with communication problems.
Children are most affected by abuse during contact and handovers, without the little protection that their mother could give them when the family was together. In recent years, 19 children from 12 families have been killed on contact visits, half of which were court ordered. Contact and residence orders by the court are meant to be based on the “best interest of the child.” Family courts cannot make the best decisions for children with abusive fathers as they are ignorant and there is a strong gender bias in court. The victim blaming and blatant disbelief and minimisation of the concerns of mothers puts many women and children in danger of abuse, violence and death. Once the court order is made, nobody follows up to check that contact is working and that all parties are safe from harm. No court personnel or their advisors are accountable for harm to these women and children.
When 1 in 4 women are subjected to domestic abuse and 2 women a week are killed by partners or former partners, why do the courts not believe these mothers? The cost to the public of domestic abuse is around £23 billion per year for criminal justice, health care, social care, and housing, which does not include costs that are difficult to determine. It is also estimated that every domestic abuse murder costs tax payers over £1 million with a total cost £112 million each year. The cost associated with children being forced into unsafe contact has yet to be determined.