Family courts are failing women and children

Posted on September, 2023

The Family Courts are part of the justice system. In theory, they were set up to help families resolve disputes quickly and with minimum disruption to those involved, particularly children.

Unfortunately, as you may have seen in the news recently, the system can be twisted by perpetrators.

As reported by the BBC, "dozens" of children have been forced into having contact with fathers accused of abuse, and five mothers have died, one having a heart attack and others taking their own lives.

In every one of these cases, the fathers had used a disputed concept known as "parental alienation". This means the abusive father can say that the mother has turned the child against the father without good reason. This allows the father to push for access or contact when the mother believes the child is unsafe.

‘Parental alienation’ is widely disputed and lacks a sound evidence-base. Research has shown that abuse of children by a perpetrator is more likely when the relationship is ending and the husband/father is highly committed to continued dominance and control of the mother and children. Courts using this concept risk leaving survivors subject to abuse and re-traumatisation.

We have known for a long while that domestic abuse and family disputes can be mishandled within the Family Court.

The harrowing details revealed by the recent BBC investigation about the family court system illustrate key issues that we at RISE have been concerned about for some time. It is not rare for us to hear about children returning from access visits in states of extreme distress.

There is a lack of urgency in the review of court ordered child contact arrangements where the presumption of contact is routinely prioritised above the child’s best interests in cases of domestic abuse.

Last year RISE worked with 37 women active in family civil courts. 148 survivors were supported on Family Law related issues.

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner (DAC) national mapping research (2022) found that 74% of those surveyed in Sussex wanted Family Court Support and only 34% got this support.

A senior source at RISE said:, "I constantly see the courts placating and appeasing perpetrators, centring their rights to contact rather than focussing on what's best for the children. It feels like the courts are desperate not to rock the boat.”

RISE is deeply concerned that the child is not at the centre of what's happening for families within the family court systems - there needs to be something in place that explores what children do and don't want.

We support the @WomenAid #ChildFirst campaign which is working hard to bring the change that's needed.

If you are affected by this, RISE has the only dedicated Family and Civil Courts Advocate in Sussex. Contact us here to find out how to get support.

For more information on this issue see the latest report from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner

RISE Family Court