Among other crucial findings of the Ministry of Justice’s Harm Report (2020), was the extremely negative impact om mothers and children of the “pro-contact” culture which has dominated family court since the “presumption of contact” was introduced into law in 2014. The MOJ said that the presumption of contact must be reviewed, together with the use of allegations of “parental alienation” used by abusive fathers insisting on contact with children despite their history of abuse and violence. It set up the Presumption Review, which is not due to report until the end of 2023, over three years since the Harm Report was published. It’s signficant and not at all hopeful for real change that the Advisory Group to the Review has NO women’s groups on it but does include Families Need Fathers, a misogynist mens’ group which is embedded in the family courts and promotes the presumption of contact and “parental alienation” . . . It’s urgent that they are not allowed to determine the findings of the Review.
The following groups attended a workshop run by the Presumption Review Team in December 2022 and this is the evidence we gave.
Disabled Mothers’ Rights Campaign (part of WinVisible) brings disabled mothers together to defend our rights to have and keep our children. We are fighting to stop the cruelty and discrimination we face from council social services and the family courts taking our children away.
Legal Action for Women (founded in 1982), co-ordinates Support Not Separation (SNS) an international coalition whose members are committed to ending the unjust and arbitrary separation of children from mothers/families. We are in contact with hundreds of mothers across England and Wales; we run monthly collective self-help meetings where mothers share their experiences and hold a monthly protest outside the central family court in London, to demand an end to secret hearings.
Women Against Rape is among the oldest women’s anti-rape organisations in the UK. We are multi-racial and we campaign for justice for survivors of sexual/domestic violence, including asylum seekers. We won the criminalisation of rape in marriage in 1991 after a 15-year campaign and have helped set legal case precedents such as the first private prosecution for rape in England and Wales. We’re an active member of SNS.
The Harm Review found a pattern of “sexism, racism and class bias” against mothers and children in the family courts and said 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.” This endangers and traumatises children and thus contradicts the spirit of the Children Act 1989 which prioritises the welfare of the child. Children need love and care, not violent fathers.|
- In most relationships, mothers are the primary carers and protectors of children. But when the relationship breaks down, mothers and fathers are treated as if their caring work and involvement with the children has been equal. Nothing could be further from the truth. The crucial bond between mother and child, which begins during pregnancy and continues through breastfeeding and the caring work that mainly mothers do, is summarily dismissed as unimportant. This is deeply damaging to children.
- Mothers are invariably much worse off financially than fathers after separation and are disadvantaged in family court. Even if they have a legal aid lawyer they are confronted with KCs which fathers can afford. The claim that fathers are worse off than mothers in court is a lie. Many more women are unable to leave violent relationships because they have no independent money – all made much worse by current cost of living crisis
- Professionals treat any father who wants to pursue contact with his children as “good enough” while mothers are held to a much higher standard. They don’t consider that caring fathers are usually those who make amicable arrangements with mothers when a relationship breaks down, and never come to the attention of children’s services or the family courts.
- Fathers who pursue mothers through the courts are often motivated not by concern for the children but by fury that the women and children have escaped their control.
- When presumption of contact was introduced in 2014 it was in response to militant lobbying by misogynist fathers’ groups in particular Families Need Fathers. They deny domestic violence exists falsely claiming “in most cases, the abuse is actually mutual and reciprocal abuse”. They have relied on presumption to use the family courts to perpetuate their coercive control over mothers and children. This is even more true if the mother is a woman of colour and/or immigrant and the father is white British, or wealthier…
- Fathers’ groups are now embedded in the family court system, including with past and present Presidents of the Fam Division and with CAFCASS (witness the FNF conference where both spoke very recently) and president saying how close he is to FNF.
- Presumption cannot be separated from the default argument used by men accused of domestic violence who make allegations of “parental alienation” against mothers in order to avoid persecution and get women to drop their charges.
- Allegations of “parental alienation” are junk science invented by a psychiatrist who defended paedophilia – now widely discredited including by MPs who refused to include it in Domestic Abuse Act and by the Home Office who refused to include it in Statutory Guidance to the Act. Despite this CAFCASS, social workers, psychiatrists and judges continue to “diagnose” parental alienation by mothers
- Presumption means courts can ignore, devalue or dismiss the reality of domestic violence that mothers face, which often becomes worse after separation, and puts fathers’ determination to continue their control over and above children’s wishes and safety, as well as women’s.
- Children who refuse to see their fathers, especially if they allege sexual abuse, are dismissed by professionals as having been manipulated, their views not listened to and forced into deeply traumatic and life-threatening contact with violent men. Some 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.
- Unsupervised contact can be very dangerous. In the cases of 69 children killed (mostly by fathers, we don’t know how many more are killed by step 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.
- When children live with fathers, presumption rarely works the same way and mothers are given much less contact than fathers in comparable situations eg: mothers made to pay for supervised contact even when they are on benefits; disabled mothers struggle with inaccessible contact centres or with transport to and from contact; fathers use having more money to ply children with gifts, technology etc as a way of convincing them they’re better off than with their mothers; etc
- Presumption must be abolished and start again by looking at what is really in children’s best interest and valuing and supporting the fundamental relationship between mother and child.
- Family courts must be open so that all this is open to public scrutiny. The mothers’ movement has won a partial opening of the courts – being piloted in 4 areas. We need a total opening so courts are transparent and accountable to the public.
- Mothers are entitled to a Care Income for the work of raising children
- 70-90% of family court cases involve domestic abuse but contact is denied in only 1% of cases.
- SNS research published in 2021, found that at least 76% of mothers had reported domestic violence. Nearly all were fighting over contact with their children. Over half had had their children taken from them. In 30% of cases the children were living with the abusive father; 44% of mothers had mental health issues exacerbated by family court, 19% had a physical disability and this was used against them. This research updates our 2017 Dossier Suffer the Little Children & their Mothers
- Disabled mothers are more than twice as likely to suffer domestic abuse than non-disabled.
- Disabled mothers are more likely to stay with their abusive partner as it is more difficult to leave and they are twice as likely to attempt suicide as their abuse is more severe and frequent than non-disabled.
- Suicide of women whose children have been taken from them, including by giving them to the father, are 5 times higher.
- Disabled mothers are not only subject to allegations of parental alienation but are likely to have their disability used against them and have allegations of Fabricated Induced Illness used against them making it easier to remove children from their care.
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).
Three examples of mothers and children SNS and WAR worked closely with who had been victims of domestic abuse (including rape):
- A mother in court for four years because the father of her youngest child, who had been violent to her and whom she had not seen for years, wanted a reference in order to foster children. He instigated contact proceedings with the child he had left when she was a baby. The child did not want contact with a man she didn’t know but was forced to see him, which caused her great distress. She was very upset that the mother she loved and trusted was enforcing contact against her will. (How can a mother explain to a child that she has to enforce contact or the local authority may take the child away?) It finally came out that, unbeknown to the mother who often worked nights, the man had repeatedly raped a step-child. After months of traumatic court appearances, the man was found guilty (in fact finding) of rape of his step-daughter and had to give up contact with the youngest child. The trauma this family has been put throw has been immense. Throughout the process they were convinced that because they had reported domestic and then sexual abuse, the mother would be accused of “parental alienation” and the younger child given to the rapist father. The local authority and the foster agency had dismissed the man’s violence against the mother but allowed him and his new partner to foster – how many children are being endangered in this way!
- A mother of three children who didn’t want to see their father because of his violence towards their mum, were in court for four years before the father dropped his claim because he wasn’t “winning”.
- A mother of two children who did not want to see their father, was in court for several years when eventually the court agreed that the children were now old enough (early teens) to make their own decision.