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'Contact at all costs' Campaign

Review of how family courts protect children and parents in cases involving domestic abuse and serious offences

Families Need Fathers seeks to provide balance on the Victoria Derbyshire Show

A number of organisations have lobbied MPs to persuade them to back a campaign for an independent review of how family courts protect children and parents in cases involving domestic abuse and serious offences. The campaign's focus appears to be the suggestion that courts are making orders for 'contact at all costs', following the deaths of four children over the last four years or so who were killed by fathers on contact. The Victoria Derbyshire Show earlier this month in which we took part (this episode can be viewed here until 13th June 2019) was based on this premise, whilst ignoring incidents of children killed by mothers, including those on contact. It was also the basis of a letter from 123 MPs calling for an independent review.

Most of our service users will know that the suggestion of 'contact at all costs' is far from the truth and certainly not based on any evidence. Our experience tells us that is is precisely the opposite.

It would have been understandable if the campaign called for a full investigation of what went wrong in the specific cases or the case that was highlighed in the media recently where convicted rapist was able to apply for contact with the child he fathered through that rape. It is extremely unlikely that a court would have granted any such access, but clearly it is distressing and in itself abusive if a convicted rapist is able to commence proceedings involving their victim in relation to child contact. It is currently a matter of law that a biological parent can make an application to court. To remove that right, the law would need to be changed. However, many of the campaigners involved have stretched the argument to include not just proven convictions for serious crime and domestic abuse, but also untested allegations against fathers and issues that are not relevant to whether contact with the ex-partner might be beneficial and in the interest of the child. A number of these campaigners appear to be women's rights activists, and they have chosen to ignore both untested and proven cases involving allegations against mothers, thus presenting a one-sided, gendered perspective. In then suggesting, without any evidence, that courts are granting 'contact at all costs' they propagate a baseless allegation, some would say lies, that do not help in the process of ensuring sensible legislation that works in the interests of children.

What is often ignored is that child killings are more likely to be at the hands of mothers (or their partners who are not the biological parents of the children). Involved biological parents are likely to be a source of protection and support in the vast majority of separated families. Many of the most frightful cases that we read about involve people with chaotic lives (mothers and/or fathers) with a range of problems. In seeking to address those difficulties, any changes in guidance or legislation must ensure that the obstacles are not put in the way of the vast majority of children with ordinary parents who no longer live together and/or whose relationships have deteriorated during separation.

Neverthless, the newly appointed minister responsible for family courts, Paul Maynard MP, has agreed a panel of experts carrying out a review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences. The review is to report back in three months and is to include a public call for evidence on how the system can be improved. No further details are curently available about this consultation. We have written to the minister to ask for a meeting to discuss this. We will let you know when we have further information.

Meanwhile we would encourage people to contact their MPs to bring some balance to the debate. You should use examples of your personal experiences and may wish to consider points made below on FNF's position on this. You can also see in the letter to MPs whether your MP signed the letter that was organised by Louise Haigh MP who represents the Sheffield Heeley constituency and is the Shadow Policing and Crime Minister. If you wish to also share your experiences with her she can be contacted at Louise.Haigh.MP@parliament.uk. Please feel free to share with us any responses you receive (admin@fnf.org.uk), we will not disclose your identifiable details (should we use your information) without your consent. You can find details of your MP online. Women's Rights organisations have also written to David Gauke MP calling for an independent review. We agree with some of the points made and not others. We will be contacting the Minister with our perspective on this and making relevant submissions.

   

Those who are behind this campaign have called for greater transparency of decisions made in family courts. That is something we have in common and welcome those calls. We would also support a substantive independent review of family courts if (a) it was totally independent (b) the terms of reference included sources of risk whilst in the care of either parent (c) looked into the protective effect of both parents being involved in children's lives after separation, (d) considered any negative impact on the majority of children whose parents have separated of any changes in legislation or regulation and (e) looked into the prevelance and nature of false allegations and exaggeration in family courts by either parent, how these are dealt with and the impact these have on the process e.g. delay and above all, for children retaining their beneficial relationships with both their parents. Such a review could not be carried out in three months and would require a commitment to thorough research and consultation with both individuals and all relevant stakeholder groups including FNF.

Summary of Where We Stand on These Issues

1) FNF support the right of children to a full and free relationship with both their parents that will promote their welfare. These are set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which the UK has ratified but does not implement.

2) Domestic and child abuse can be a contra-indication to such a relationship. We do not deny that this occurs and that some of the perpetrators are male and/or the fathers of the children. We ask, however, that departures from the children's rights in the normal case should be for reasons that are relevant, proportionate, applied to both parents and properly evidenced/risk assessed in a balanced manner. (Monitoring Orders, suopervised contact, or other precautions may be judged appropriate in some cases.)

3) That allegations of abuse should be investigated with the speed and thoroughness that their gravity requires. This does not occur at present. There are miscarriages both ways, but there is more often an over-reaction to allegations. Courts and public authorities act in ways that seem safe. If a court awards contact wrongly and something goes awry - very occasionally tragically - the mistake becomes evident and public. Denying a child a relationship with a loved and loving father who has been falsely accused is distressing and damaging, but is invisible.

4) The best parent is generally both. But in the decision as to how parenting time should be arranged, a parent who is going to respect the rights of the children to the love and care of the other should be given more credit for this than at present. In any case, it should be determined on a child-appropriate timescale and based on evidence. An implacably hostile parent is an undesirable curse for a child.

5) Orders for contact should not be breached with impunity. At present they usually are. There are 6,000 applications a year to family courts for the enforcment of orders already made in the best interests of children. Just 60, 1%, resulted in enforcement action by the court! That is the court's own figures and totally damning.

6) Denying a child a relationship with one of their parents (and often the wider family that side) without good cause, and inducing a child to reject a relationship with a loved and loving parent, is clearly to be regarded as child abuse and treated as such.

7) There must be some form of punishment in consequence to any findings that allegations made were false or grossly exaggerated in order to undermine a relationship between a child and a parent.

8) Unjustified denial of parenting time or parental alienation should be criminalised and hence given the same status as other forms of child abuse that are every bit as harmful to children.

You may also wish to contact the Victoria Derbyshire Show (victoria@bbc.co.uk) and Radio 4's You and Yours programme (youandyour@bbc.co.uk) to suggest that they have special programmes devoted to issues such as:

  •  False allegations in Family Courts, which do great harm to adults and children alike and are rarely if ever punished
  •  Availability of legal aid in family courts to accusers but not to the accused
  •  The unacceptable (not child-appropriate) time it takes to get Child Arrangement Orders settled
  •  Failure by family courts to enforce their own orders, despite being made in the interests of children
  •  The making of orders for indirect contact only, on the false presumption that this will lead to a resumption of normal parenting relationships

For reference, given the recent publicity to this issue e.g. on the BBC Online we were disappointed that a gendered view of tragic cases was offered and attention was not drawn in the balancing case histories studied by the show that could have provided this.
For example:

- earlier this month the BBC reported on a case where a five year old boy was killed by his mother because she did not want the child to live with the father as determined by the court

- in February the BBC reported on a father whose ex-partner was jailed for coercive and controlling behaviour that nearly killed him - he did not leave her for fear she'd turn her abuse on the children and he'd lose access.

- Here's another recent case of interest showing that not only men can be perpetrators Mum hits dad around the head and escapes jail after dad pleads for her

Other more recent cases like this are currently going through the courts.

 

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FNF HSSF Kite Mark Award

Families Need Fathers has been awarded the Help and Support for Separated Families Kite Mark which is a new UK government accreditation scheme for organisations offering help to separated families.

Families Need Fathers work with a range of family law professionals, including Family Law Panel

 

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