Research released by Women's Aid and Cafcass finds that 62% of applications to the family court about where a child should live or spend time feature allegations of domestic abuse.
The research highlights the significant impact on children who experience domestic abuse, with those in the sample exhibiting a range of responses to their experiences of domestic abuse and other harmful parental behaviours. Younger children received support at school to improve their attendance and help with socialisation, and older children received more specialist support, such as counselling.
Children were described in the case files as being “confused and upset”, of a “low mood”, and being “very uncomfortable” at school when other children are loud. In some cases featuring multiple risks the local authority was working with the children, who had been identified as ‘children in need’ or were on a child protection plan under the category of emotional harm. Children who had experienced domestic abuse often had strong views about contact with the abusive parent. Fathers were three times more likely to be the subject of domestic abuse allegations than mothers.
The research also shows the complexity of cases in which allegations of domestic abuse occur. 89% of cases with domestic abuse allegations also involved other safeguarding concerns such as substance abuse or mental health problems.
The data helps Cafcass and Women’s Aid build a picture of what happens in court in cases where domestic abuse features:
- Family Court Advisers recommended either indirect or no contact in over a quarter of cases where domestic abuse is alleged.
- Unsupervised contact was ordered at the first hearing in 23% of cases involving such allegations; 44% of cases at the same point had some sort of contact ordered.
- Where the order at the final hearing was known, it was less common for unsupervised contact to be ordered in cases featuring allegations of domestic abuse (39%) than cases without (48%).
- Where a domestic abuse allegation was made, supervised or supported contact was more likely to be ordered at the first and final hearing in cases, as was indirect or no contact.
- In the majority of cases featuring domestic abuse allegations where unsupervised contact was ordered, such contact had been taking place prior to the application to court.
Anthony Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of Cafcass said: “This research highlights the complexity for the courts faced with making a safe decision for children against a backdrop of disputed allegations and multiple safeguarding concerns.
“We have looked into those cases where unsupervised contact was ordered, as a further assurance to our work carried out during proceedings: we were satisfied that in each case action had been taken to manage risk relating to domestic abuse.
“In collaborating with Women’s Aid we hope others in the sector will follow, to take a joined-up approach to improving the services for victims of domestic abuse.”
Katie Ghose, Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Aid said: “Women and children who have made the courageous step to leave an abusive relationship must be made safer by the family courts, not be put in more danger. Our report, 19 Child Homicides, captured the stories of nineteen children, all intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. These killings were made possible through unsafe child contact arrangements, formal and informal; and most worryingly, over half of these arrangements were ordered through the courts.
“The research carried out with Cafcass helps build a picture of what is needed to ensure the future safety of women and children survivors of domestic abuse. We will continue to highlight the importance of judicial understanding of domestic abuse and coercive control which often continues long after a relationship has ended, and where the family courts are often a vehicle to perpetuate this abuse. Women's Aid is committed to working alongside Cafcass and the family judiciary to ensure all relevant professionals have the training and skills to keep children safe.”