Updated government guidance on child contact allowing ex partners to withhold agreed face-to-face and online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic has left parents and domestic violence services concerned the new policy will give abusers more opportunities to torment their victims.
The updated guidance, which was published on 23 September, says that parents who believe their child contact arrangements go against current government advice can now withhold that contact, even if the other parent disagrees with the decision.
The guidance states, “Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a [child arrangements order], but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the [child arrangements order] arrangements would be against current [Public Health England] advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.”
The document goes on to say that the opposing parent can make a submission to the Family Court after the decision to withhold contact has been enforced.
The guidance has concerned Legal Action for Women, a support service for victims of domestic abuse and discrimination, which also co-ordinates the Support Not Separation Coalition.
Speaking to Researching Reform, Anne Neale, who leads Legal Action for Women said, “Since the Covid lockdown started we know that abusive fathers who are sharing care of children or have residence of them have been using the excuse of the virus to stop children having contact with their mothers, and this Guideline will strengthen their hand.”
“Of course it’s important to protect children’s health but too often this has been used as an excuse to refuse to return children to their mother or to have contact with her. By the time a case is heard in the family court, the children could have been cut off from their mothers for a long time and the court cannot retrospectively insist on contact, so whatever time has gone by without contact, is lost,” she said.
The new policy has caused concern and confusion among separated parents and members of the public in the UK.
One woman posted on Facebook, “Unless the parent is shielding, there is no excuse. Unless there is a genuine health risk (and medical evidence should be required for this ‘risk’), it is abuse (emotional abuse and neglect). The pandemic could go on for months or years yet, who knows?”
TumTum* a researcher who specialises in adoption fraud said, “I’m living and seeing the consequences of what can happen when a child has been isolated from a parent’s care for years on end. They can be poorly for life, and as a mother that makes me very concerned.”
Laura Baxter*, a researcher and mother with family court experience who produced the first UK database looking at contact arrangements during the lockdown told Researching Reform, “This guidance is not particularly helpful and is open to misinterpretation and abuse, particularly by separated parents playing a tit-for-tat custody game.”
Some posters on social media took the view that the new guidance could lead to a flood of cases in the Family Court, already buckling under from a backlog of cases which has been aggravated by the pandemic, while also suggesting that a unilateral power to veto another parent could be vital if infection rates spike.
In a comment on Facebook, one man said, “I suspect there will be legal challenges to it and we may find that in certain circumstances it might be seen as fair, i.e. where there is a high R rate in an area, or where travel is restricted and the other parent cannot travel within local lockdown area. However, if both parents are local then there is unlikely to be that scenario unless the parent has Covid.”
The updated guidance comes after a court ruling for a public family law case which found that child welfare professionals had been wrong to deny a mother contact with her children while in care. The judgment also highlighted ongoing confusion within the the family justice system on the rules surrounding contact.
Parents on social media voiced their frustrations at what they felt was a contradictory set of guidelines, which could lead to disgruntled exes breaching court ordered agreements for contact.
One poster wrote, “I thought that contact was to continue unless one family is showing symptoms or has been around a person who has tested positive? People will now use this as a carte blanch to breach orders.”
A court experienced mother and lay advisor in the family courts said, “I see Covid used between parents to stop contact because parents they think the Covid regulations are law but it is only government guidelines and we need some proper clarification from the courts.”
Legal Action for Women now wants the guidance to be revised to ensure that it is not abused. “Preventing children having contact with their mothers is devastating for them (as well as their mothers) and this Guideline should be scrapped and replaced with one emphasising that Covid must not be an excuse to renege on court agreements by denying contact with children,” Neale said.
*The names of the women in this post have been changed to protect their identities.