Domestic Abuse Bill – Lords Report stage – 8 March

BRIEFING: Presumption of contact/unsupervised contact, “parental alienation” and other amendments

We urge you to SUPPORT Amendment 42:
Proceedings under the Children Act – Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb.                                  

This amendment would change the presumption of contact and prohibit unsupervised contact when there has been domestic abuse.

Presumption of contact

The presumption of contact pervades the whole court process and is used by abusive fathers to insist on unsupervised access and even residence of their children, with deeply harmful and even lethal consequences.  The Harm Review found a pattern of “sexism, racism and class bias” against mothers and children in the family courts, which operate behind closed doors thus escaping the discipline of public scrutiny.  It confirmed that the presumption of contact:

“. . . has led to a ‘pro contact culture’ reflected in case law and promoted by all professionals . . .  [which] results in a pattern of minimisation and disbelief of allegations of domestic abuse and child sexual abuse.”   “[T]he dominance of contact [is seen] as excluding other welfare considerations, including the child’s need for protection from abuse, or the child’s wishes and feelings [our emphasis].”

The presumption of contact results in children’s wishes being ignored or dismissed as a sign of “parental alienation”.  It is based on the assumption that mothers are liars, that children have no experiences or will of their own, and that safety is not an issue.  The Review found a pattern of bias as court professionals gave weight to the views of any child who wanted contact with a father, but dismissed the views of those who did not.  Children are forced into contact with domestic abuse perpetrators despite clearly saying they are afraid of them and do not want to see them.  Children who do not want to see their fathers are being put into foster care, separated from siblings and/or given to other family members to force them into contact – as the London Victims Commissioner said: this is state sanctioned child abuse.

We strongly disagree with Baroness Butler Sloss who claimed that these issues should be left to judges.   The Harm Review has shown that judges’ sexism and other biases are part of the problem, otherwise the family courts would not have been criticised so comprehensively.  Parliament must take responsibility and ensure the courts protect victims not perpetrators.


Unsupervised contact:

This amendment would prohibit unsupervised contact if the (parent) had been charged with a domestic abuse offence or was involved in ongoing criminal proceedings for a domestic abuse offence, and also pending a fact-finding hearing or has been found to have committed domestic abuse in a previous fact-finding hearing, or has a criminal conviction for a domestic abuse offence.

The issue of unsupervised contact is crucial as it is contact that enables abusers to continue their reign of terror over women and children.  It is not in the interest of children to have contact with a father who abuses them or their mother.  Such contact is terrifying and potentially lethal.  In the cases of 69 children killed (mostly by fathers) which the Sunday Mirror examined, there was a history of violence in every case (mostly domestic violence but also sexual abuse, child abuse or other violence) which was known to the authorities (police, Children’s Services, family courts) and yet the perpetrators were allowed unsupervised contact or even residence of the children.  For example, the father who murdered Claire Throssell’s two sons by setting fire to an attic he had lured them into was able to do so because he had unsupervised contact.  Virtually all the children in the Women’s Aid 19 Child Homicides were murdered in the course of unsupervised contact (in one or two cases the child/ren actually lived with their father). 

If there is to be contact, there should be a presumption of supervised contact, especially when court proceedings are just beginning and findings on domestic abuse have not been made. 

We urge you to OPPOSE amendment 2:

Baroness Meyer, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Baroness Altmann, The Earl of Lytton.  Including in the definition of domestic abusebehaviour deliberately designed to damage the relationship between a child of the parent and the other parent’, would open the way for violent fathers to allege ‘parental alienation’ or to claim that mothers or children who report domestic violence, especially sexual violence, are actually domestic abusers!  This amendment describes parental alienation but without calling it that, and is potentially dangerous to women and children whom the Bill aims to protect.

‘Parental alienation’ originated in the 1980s from discredited US psychiatrist Richard Gardner who defended paedophilia and forced children into contact with violent fathers.  It was promoted in the US by lawyers who benefited financially from representing misogynist men.  It is widely regarded as junk science among academics and researchers

The Harm Review found that:

… an allegation of ‘parental alienation’ meant that the parent who is the subject of the allegation will be treated as an ‘alienator’, rather than as a protective parent with well-founded fears around abduction or violence.

We urge you to SUPPORT the following:

Amendment 4 to bring the relationship between a disabled person and their carer within the definition of “personally connected”.

Amendment 33 “Prohibition of cross-examination in person: victims of offences”

Amendment 41 Orders under section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989

Amendment 43 “Confidentiality of refuge addresses”

Amendments 45, 46 and 47 Controlling or coercive behaviour” and “Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”

Amendment 50 “Reasonable force in domestic abuse cases”

Amendment 51 “Defence for victims of domestic abuse who commit an offence”

Amendment 67 “Victims of domestic abuse: data-sharing for immigration purposes”

Amendment 70 “Victims of domestic abuse: leave to remain and the destitution domestic violence concession (DDVC)”

Amendment 71 “Evidence of domestic abuse for the purposes of legal aid: restriction of fees”

Amendment 72 “Benefit cap: domestic abuse”

Amendment 91 to ensure that statutory guidance issued alongside the Domestic Abuse Bill takes into account any violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy adopted by the Government, so that efforts to prevent and address domestic abuse are linked to integrated and coordinated responses to tackle VAWG.

Recourse to public funds for domestic abuse survivors

We hope an amendment will be introduced to end the exclusion of migrant women from much needed resources to escape domestic abuse, which must be available to all women, regardless of immigration status.

ALSO: The Domestic Abuse Bill must not be allowed to pass without acknowledging that overwhelmingly victims of domestic abuse are women and their attackers are men.  A gender-neutral law undermines potential benefits of the Bill for women’s and children’s safety.  It could make women’s access to justice and protection even more remote, as men could falsely call the police on women, take our children and get us evicted, with state backing. What a travesty for a Domestic Abuse Bill!  

We would be glad to discuss any of these issues with you. 

Lisa Longstaff                                      Anne Neale

Women Against Rape                         Support Not Separation

This Briefing is from Women Against Rape (WAR) and Support Not Separation Coalition.

Since 1976 WAR has provided advocacy and information in individual cases and campaigns for justice, asylum, protection and compensation. It has won changes in the law such as getting rape in marriage recognised as a crime. WAR is active in the Support Not Separation Coalition (co-ordinated by Legal Action for Women), which includes organisations of single mothers, women of colour, women with disabilities, rape survivors, breastfeeding advocates, psychotherapists, men and social workers. We defend mothers and children against unwarranted separation and the devaluing of the mother-child relationship. We are in contact with hundreds of mothers and other primary carers, and children, family law professionals, organisations and concerned individuals.

The context of this Bill is the increasing public and parliamentary concern about family courts enabling abusive fathers to continue their reign of terror against women and children. Family court bias against mothers and children was confirmed in a recent MOJ Harm Review and has serious and even lethal consequences. Most couples reach amicable arrangements as any caring father knows that children need their mother. It is the uncaring and violent men who are most likely to pursue women through the courts as their priority is not the welfare of the children but the fury at losing control over their ex-partners. They use the family courts to intimidate and bully by asserting their demands, and to avoid prosecution in the criminal court.