In child custody scenarios, it is not automatically the case that a parent who has perpetrated domestic abuse against the other will be refused contact with the child. Though laws around this have shifted, abusive partners are still viewed as having the right to a family life and seen as having the potential to be ‘good enough’ parents.
2016 research from Women’s Aid looked at 19 child homicides which had been perpetrated between 2005 and 2015 by fathers who had separated from mothers and had previously committed domestic abuse. The research found that courts often failed to recognise risk factors in such cases and that they also did not routinely consider domestic abuse perpetrated against mothers as dangerous to children. According to the report, an enhanced understanding of the ‘power and control dynamics’ of domestic abuse is needed by family courts, as well as an appreciation that separation itself is often a risk factor for violence against children. With access to mothers limited, an abusive former partner may begin to enact violence and control over children with whom he is legally permitted to interact.
The position of Women’s Aid is that children witnessing domestic violence in the home are themselves victims of emotional abuse. This does not necessarily mean that the child witnesses incidents directly, but that they are aware (even subconsciously) of the abuse that is unfolding. They too are probably being manipulated by the perpetrator, which makes them victims as well as their abused parent. Other studies have also recognised this, and seek to establish a greater understanding of domestic abuse as child abuse.
As we know, domestic abuse of any sort isn’t just limited to singular instances of physical violence; domestic abuse typically unfolds in the form of a regime which is controlled and manipulated by the perpetrator. All those living in the house with the perpetrator will be affected by that regime in some way, and unless they are another adult who is jointly perpetrating the regime with the abuser (say an abuser’s parent who joins in the abuse of his partner), those others will probably victims of abuse themselves.
In short, domestic abuse is child abuse. Evidence of this abuse should be enough for courts to refuse to grant contact between children and abusive parents. But unfortunately it’s not. So here are some compelling reasons why domestic abuse should stop abusive ex-partners from seeing their children.
Child contact is used to continue partner abuse
The charity Safe Lives has found that in a third of cases where children are cited as the ongoing reason for contact between victim and ex-partner, the abusive partner uses those contact arrangements as an opportunity to continue the abuse of the victim.
Abusive partners often use contact as a means to frighten their ex – deliberately bringing children back late or not looking after them properly. They can manipulate children into saying malicious things to the victim and can convince victims into believing that the child does not love them. Additionally, pick-up and drop off routines for children present opportunities for abusers to directly harass their exes.
The law presumes that it is in the best interests of the child for them to have contact with both parents, but for abusive partners, children are frequently seen as merely conduits through which they can enact further terror on their partner. And yet, despite prevailing myths, family courts are not at all biased towards women. In fact, they are so biased towards the principle of equal custody that often they ignore abusive behaviour. Women who have been abused are sometimes viewed as manipulators who are trying to use their partner’s history of violence as a means to separate them from their children.
This is not only inaccurate, but it is a cruel manipulation of the facts we have. It is abusive former partners who use children to perpetuate abuse and misery – not their victims. Anyone using their children as a tool for blackmail, manipulation and cruelty should not be allowed access to them.
Abusive former partners can also abuse children
The fact that at least fifty UK children have been killed during contact with abusive parents after parental separation speaks volumes and should convince us that abuse is a crime that unequivocally harms children, even if it solely appears it be directed against their mothers.
In fact, when we have so much research and so many years of study that examine how abuse works, it is worrying that courts instead tend to be guided by archaic notions of domestic violence when settling custody cases. Abuse is not just physical; coercive control is a key aspect of pretty much every abusive situation. Children witnessing this kind of abuse will undoubtedly be experiencing it themselves. Even if abuse towards the children never becomes physical, this doesn’t matter; emotional and controlling abuse is still abuse.
And of course, even if an abuser seemed like a ‘good dad’ while he was abusing his partner, this is simply a sign that the abuser is a master of control. They were able to present well externally while inflicting fear and terror inside their own home. This kind of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality is certainly not one that should be inflicted on children.
And fathers who have never physically abused their children can begin to do so. To act as though the physical abuse will be confined to the mother almost implies that it is the mother who triggers the abuse, rather than accepting that the abusive partner is abusive in and of themselves.
Allowing abusive partners contact with children sends the signal that we don’t take abuse seriously enough
Saying that abusive partners can still be good parents is contradictory. We know that they have harmed someone they were supposed to love and care about; they can do the same to their children.
When we grant abusive partners access to their children, we send women the message that the pain they have suffered is not serious enough, or is somehow only their issue – and not the issue of their children. We place more importance on the ‘rights’ of someone who has hurt others than we do on the rights of women and children to live lives free from fear.
And what that does is to tell us that it is men, and not women and children who matter in society.
We need to change this status quo now.