Abusers and pedophiles have been allowed contact with their victims under UK law for years. The Family Courts have usually been the culprit, and often ally, to abusers for this very reason.
Fathers are using the Family Courts as their last resort to control partners, using the concept of “parental alienation.” Parental alienation is the act of one parent turning the child against the other without good reason (BBC, 2023). In this case, it is often the abuser claiming the mother is turning the children against him unfairly.
The University of Manchester Study
The University of Manchester came out recently with a study that revealed that all 45 mothers in their study had a health condition either worsened or caused by family court proceedings, such as heart attacks, miscarriages, and suicidal ideation (The University of Manchester, 2023). The study also found that for 43 out of 45 mothers, contact with the fathers was allowed by the courts. Moreover, and even more shocking, 43 out of 45 fathers were allowed contact with their children, even if they had child sexual abuse allegations. The 39 out of the whole 45 mothers, in the study, accused their partner of domestic abuse and would have the “parental alienation” argument thrown back at them to force custody rights.
It is dangerous for the law to allow this, as women have died because the courts have allowed these men to continue contact (BBC, 2023). The abuse can’t stop while the abuser is still in the picture. Allowing contact results in opportunities for manipulation, and forces the mother to comply with the abuser's demands.
Charlotte Proudman told The Guardian that she had met a mother who had survived domestic abuse, but “the family court ordered child contact with her abuser, and the father began using the children to exert control over her and play mind games” (The Guardian, March 2023).
Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, states that the use of parental alienation was used by abusers to “deflect from their own abusive behaviour” (BBC, 2023).
Coercive control was only legally recognised as a criminalised type of domestic abuse in 2015. Only 6 months on, and the police had only made arrests on these grounds in 8 out of 22 forces across England and Wales, despite an incredible 62 reports of it since the law came into action (The Guardian, 2016). So, it is not that surprising that the judicial system is slow to catch up on this type of abuse, and how to find a solution to it.
Domestic Abuse Statistics in the UK
In my own time, I have worked in a women’s refuge, where I witnessed, first-hand, how these women had to navigate a court system, like the family court, to protect themselves and their children from further harm. I saw so many strong women crumble at the idea that their abuser would try to take their children away, through court, or through alienation, where she would come to the office in tears because the father had turned their daughter against her.
And, of course, there is another side to the argument. In many cases, a female abuser would still get a lenient look when it comes to child custody, and would be socially believed to be the victim instead of the man. Yet, the abuse rate shows a huge gender gap, where, according to Mankind, a charity that serves to support and signpost male victims of domestic violence, 1 in 6-7 men will be abused by their partner, compared to 1 in 4 women who will be a victim of domestic abuse in their lifetime (Mankind Initiative, June 2023). Additionally, the data does not specify if the abusers’ in these statistics are men or men and women, but 92% of perpetrators and defendants in criminal cases of domestic abuse are men (Women’s Aid, 2022).
When it comes to family court, the study calls for more awareness in the law of this issue around domestic violence. According to CAADA in 2014, “62% of children living with domestic abuse are directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others” (NCDV, 2022). In addition, since the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 came into act in 2022, children who are witnesses, or living in a household that has domestic abuse going on, are deemed victims too (CPS, 2022).
A Gendered Issue?
Of course, not all the men who use parental alienation in a legal argument are actually abusers, but it is a trend that has sprung up to deflect abusers’ behaviour, as found in the aforementioned recent University of Manchester study. If a father worries their children have been turned against them by an abusive ex-partner, or by the mother without good reason, he has every right to go to court and do what is best for his children.
It is important to understand how society will treat victims of domestic abuse. A lot of men feel they cannot come forward due to the backlash and disbelief that they would ‘let a woman hurt them’. Women also face a lot of victim-blaming, equally. Victims of domestic abuse do not always come forward, and for the ones that do, their trauma, it appears, is not taken into account in family court proceedings.
Additionally, recent government data found that 70% of rape victims dropped their cases during proceedings, so something needs to improve in courts to help victims feel listened to and supported (The Guardian, May 2023). Especially with the growing distrust in the police and justice system currently, as shown with the findings in the Metropolitan police corruption case.
The new study will open up a discussion over more trauma-informed approaches to family courts, and a greater understanding of domestic abuse and all its variations to hurt people. Moreover, this study’s impact will, hopefully, lead to a future where the justice system will allow an equal playing field for both parties.
Edited by: Anwen Venn
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