This week, I got to work on an incredibly important yet often unreported story around the family court system in the UK. It’s an issue I’ve spent a lot of time researching and I have met a number of people who have been involved with the system in some form or other; I’ve heard some truly shocking stories.
As a journalist, I believe in giving a voice to those people who don’t get heard and these are some of them.
A survivor of domestic abuse says she wouldn’t have left her violent husband had she known how badly she’d be treated in the family courts.
Louise – not her real name – left her husband in 2018 after years of mental and physical abuse. Since then she’s been stalked, harassed and taken through the family court system repeatedly.
“I unleashed a monster, if I’m being honest, leaving is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, I understand now why women stay because it’s really, really hard. The lies he’s told, the manipulation, the abuse of the children”.
Despite her being classed as a high-risk victim of domestic abuse, and a number of police reports, Louise didn’t qualify for legal aid. She’s spent £20,000 trying to protect her children, the abuse she suffered has been documented in court, but her case was just seen as a marriage breakdown; her abuser was even allowed to cross examine her in court.
Louise says the past two years have been a nightmare: “Leaving is far scarier than staying. I feel like I was more in control when I was with him, even though the abuse was horrendous, but this, I don’t know where he is, what he’s upto, he tells lies, he keeps taking me to court for his failings and he gets away with it.
“I have evidence of abuse, I have evidence of where the contact order’s been broken, safeguarding concerns have been raised, they haven’t been recognised. It is heart breaking, absolutely heart breaking yet a judge has told me that I’ve got to send my children there this weekend. They’ve to sleep in toddler beds. It’s dirty, it smells, he emotionally abuses them. It’s painful and yet he gets away with it. The system needs to change and it’s about time the Government looked at how bad it is.
“Victims are just being abused by the system. The services have been shocking, I just feel so failed by all the services and the family courts. I feel like I’ve dealt myself a life sentence. You aren’t protected, you are more vulnerable when you leave. I’m scared for the safety of me and my children.
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Louise’s story isn’t rare. In fact, campaigners, charities and victims of domestic abuse say that unless changes are made to family courts women and children will continue to be put at risk. They highlight a culture that fails to protect victims with some calling it state sanctioned abuse.
A government review last summer found that the court’s contact at all costs culture, alongside a failure to co-ordinate with other courts and organisations dealing with domestic abuse and a lack of resources were a danger to victims and their children.
The new domestic abuse bill will put an end to perpetrators being able to cross-examine their victims and for the first-time special measures such as screens and video evidence will be used. But it stops short of looking at problems around contact at all costs.
Campaigners say that unless amendments are made to the bill, opportunities will be missed to safeguard victims and their children. A women’s Aid report in 2017 found that since 2005, 19 children have died as a result of unsafe contact arrangements with a parent who was a known abuser.
Claire Waxman is the Independent victim’s commissioner for London she says while there are a lot of improvements in the Domestic Abuse Bill, it is disappointing to see things missing. She wants people to lobby their MPs for amendments as the Bill enters the final stages of parliament before becoming law, she said: “In its current form, the Bill isn’t strong enough or robust enough to protect victims of domestic abuse and their children who are going through family court proceedings”.
“What we hear from victims and survivors on a regular basis is that their allegations of abuse are being minimised or dismissed or they’re being encouraged by their legal counsel not to mention the abuse for fear of recrimination. Many of them are told that if you go down this road of talking about domestic abuse, there’s a chance you will lose your children, so they’re very much silenced through family court proceedings.
Victoria Hudson from Cumbria has spent the past few years lobbying the Government to review unsafe contact orders and to introduce evidence-based systems in the family courts in cases where children have been removed, she says many people are shocked when they enter the family court system:
“It’s an issue that once you’re in the system, you’re stuck in it possibly until your child is 18 and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. At the minute we have the Harms Report that the Ministry of Justice did with Women’s Aid. The Harms panel recognised that victims of domestic abuse and their children have been harmed by the family court but there has been nothing put in place by the government to put redress on these cases.
“It’s a horrendous thought process that women are not going to be leaving abusive relationships where the possibility of violence, rape or even murder is high. The fact that women might be choosing to stay rather than go through the system and lose their children or have their children alone with the perpetrator shows how horrendous the family court system is and how pressing it is that we get these changes.
“We don’t have anyone trained in domestic abuse in family courts. Family courts usually ask for a psychology report or for people with parental alienation backgrounds, that has got nothing to do with domestic abuse. I really think specialist domestic abuse trained individuals do need to be part of the court system.
“The Government needs to put something in place for redress on the cases where children have been failed which has been written in the Harms Report, these are thousands of children across the country that are now in unsafe contact arrangements or living with a perpetrator of abuse. We need them home safe”.
Louise says for her the past two years have been harder than she’d ever imagined and that it felt like she was completely alone: “I had absolutely no insight into what would happen. I thought I could take him on, on my own. It was terrifying. It felt like everyone was turning against me, all the authorities.
“I feel really sad, now I’m a single mum trying to manage four really damaged children because of what’s happened. That breaks my heart, because my big mistake has impacted on four children”.
If you need help get in touch with Women’s Aid https://www.womensaid.org.uk
You can also support their campaigns by writing to your MP.
Thanks for reading 🙂
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