Bias against mothers in family courts puts children at risk

The Guardian Wed 11 Mar 2020

Courts have indeed become increasingly willing to contemplate transferring children’s residence from ‘alienating mothers’ to their fathers, writes Jane Fortin

In her excellent article (There is a bias in family courts – but it’s not against men, 6 March) Sonia Sodha refers to the uphill battle faced by women who have suffered domestic abuse to be taken seriously in the family courts.

As she points out, there is a danger of abusive men simply silencing mothers and children who oppose contact arrangements, by using the counter allegation of parental alienation. This danger has increased since my letter to the Guardian was published over two years ago (Dangers of crackdown on parental alienation, 30 November 2017). I referred to research (Fortin, Hunt and Scanlon, 2012: Taking a longer view of contact) which suggests the courts should not assume that children reluctant to have contact have been brainwashed by the non-resident parent.

Today, regrettably, such assumptions seem to be on the rise. Indeed, as Sodha points out, the courts have become increasingly willing to contemplate transferring children’s residence from “alienating mothers” to their fathers. But if, when doing so, they fail to establish the real reason for a child’s resistance to contact, they may overlook abuse and/or domestic violence and, worse, they risk removing the child from a victimised mother and transferring him or her into the care of the abuser himself. A child at the receiving end of such an order might justifiably feel completely betrayed by the court system.
Jane Fortin
Emeritus professor of law, University of Sussex