Do No Harm – Lisa Longstaff

DO NO HARM Seminar 11 September 2018, House of Commons

LISA LONGSTAFF, Women Against Rape

Domestic violence is now one of the key reasons for State intervention, and separation of the child from mother.

We face two key problems in family proceedings:

1.Women are routinely disbelieved; and if they are believed, the professionals blame mother for causing “significant harm” to the child who has witnessed violence.

2.Children are disbelieved, or their fears and concerns about their father ignored.

They also remove children from mothers if they decide there’s a “risk of future significant emotional harm” – nebulous, and sometimes spurious.  In one case, we saw two children  taken from a mum for adoption even though her rapist was in jail.

Defining witnessing violence as significant harm is written into law and must be changed.  Often they find other reasons to remove too, such as poverty or mental health. And it’s shocking how many of these children are placed with a violent father. BUT, little or no account is taken of the harm to both mother and child of removal

Removing children who witnessed domestic violence was successfully challenged in a remarkable New York legal action in 2004, in a case called Nicholson v Williams. Leading experts on DV testified on the harm to children of witnessing DV, and the harm of removing children from the non-violent parent.  They testified that many factors influence whether there was harm and the degree of harm.  Things like: level of violence, age, & other stresses. But most children were resilient once they escaped the violent situation into a safe stable environment with a loved one.  And even when witnessing violence did harm them, removing the child from the non-violent parent was found more harmful, more traumatic.   One expert testified that ‘removal under such circumstances is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound’.

Removals can make a child terrified for the mum’s safety, or they may blame themselves for this separation from mum.   The judge ruled that children should no longer be removed for witnessing domestic violence, and it changed the legal landscape.

Other potential harms of removing a child from mothers of course include:

– placing the child with a violent father;

– a care home, where children can suffer appalling violence as we’ve heard from the survivors from Rotherham to Shirley Oaks.

– or a foster system – and I have met plenty of survivors abused by foster fathers. (A study in the US found 80% of foster care failed and the children’s Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was double the rate among Iraq War veterans.)

WAR has campaigned for over 10 years to establish it’s very rare for women to lie about rape or DV, miniscule compared actual violence, 90% of which is never prosecuted.  But in family courts, the clock is turned back 30 years, even falling behind standards in criminal trials.  The secrecy of family courts has protected them from public scrutiny.  Sexism, racism, and class bias is rife among judges, social workers and CAFCASS – a lot of them are women.

2017 Regulations to treat victims as vulnerable witnesses are often ignored.  Research by Queen Mary University found 24% of domestic violence victims in family courts were cross-examined by their attacker.   And a single judge rules on whether the violence you describe is a fact, or fiction.

Children’s reports of abuse are often dismissed as lies, or a result of “parental alienation” by the mother.  Recent CAFCASS guidance announced that children may be taken from mothers who alienate the father.This is the influence of the fathers’ lobby. Families Need Fathers is a charity which publicly dismisses most women’s allegations of domestic violence as false, and just ‘a motorway to obtaining legal aid’. In 1994 they were criticised in Parliament for advocating kidnapping the child or if not, killing the mother, in order to get ‘justice’ for fathers.  But last year CAFCASS and NSPCC spoke at their conference, which LAW and others picketed.

Parental alienation was the theory of American psychiatrist Richard Alan Gardner.  Twenty years ago Gardner testified 3 teenage boys were lying and had been brainwashed by their mother to say their father was violent to them and the judge ordered visits to continue, threatening to jail the mum if she didn’t enforce it. One of the boys committed suicide, but Gardner was unrepentant.   Despite being widely discredited, case law rolled out his sexist views as fact in family law across America – and now it’s here. Many kids are forced to live with or visit fathers despite criminal convictions, police records, and testimonies of teachers and social workers.

Fighting back

Grassroots mothers’ movements are growing – our SNS network, and Mothers Unite UK with over 500 members, have each documented experiences showing the pattern of fathers using family courts to continue abuse and control over mother and child, after they left him.  Charities have documented child murders following forced contact and won back legal aid for some mothers.

In Parliament, a coalition of women MPs debated family law in July. Some said they had heard from hundreds of their women constituents, who condemned CAFCASS and social workers. But the MPs didn’t condemn them, they called for training for social workers and CAFCASS and a review of the new regulations for witnesses.  Neither women MPs nor charities have made a comprehensive case for mothers and children, with violence syphoned off from class and race.

The government has promised changes to family courts in their new Domestic Violence Bill this autumn – let’s campaign together for what we need it to say. Mothers must together make demands of charities and MPs.

It’s urgent to end the harm to children of wrongful separations, and to women – who are still being murdered at a rate of two every week by their partners and ex-partners.