Family courts: the elephant in the room
Anonymous Guest Blog
I used to wonder why mothers and their children who have experienced domestic violence seemed to have a horrendous experience when the family courts became involved. I could not understand why perpetrators of abuse were getting contact based on their needs, and changes in residency were granted in favour of them. I could not understand how rights of contact were more important than the risk of continued violence, why mothers’ allegations were repeatedly ignored or why they fell silent when they entered the family court domain.
It was only through my personal experience of the family court, and the impact this had on my family members, that I understood. The experience opened my eyes to an institution which I was led to believe was set up to protect victims, support parents and their children and ensure that decisions were safe, that they were in a child’s best interests.
Instead, I’ve found that family courts are a deeply flawed archaic system set up by men for men. Discrimination against women is institutionalised. They are not fit for purpose.
I became an unwitting observer of how the police, CAFCASS, social workers, solicitors, barristers, the family courts and, most notably, the judiciary handle contact and residency, and how outdated and out of touch they are. I found a system that rewards perpetrators of abuse; one that is deeply flawed, traumatic and victimising, focused on profit. It is sexist: its philosophy of ‘gender-blindness’ actually means men’s needs and maleness are the normative and needs specific to women are not taken into account. So when it comes to addressing the fact that domestic violence is disproportionately violence of men against women, in family courts a gender-neutral stance is taken, whereby gender-based violence is seen as mutual and equal (Macdonald 2017).
Two thirds of child custody cases involve allegations of domestic abuse or violence (Birchall & Choudrhy 2018). Abusive fathers are twice more likely to seek custody than non-abusive men (Bancroft 2018). This is routinely ignored as there is a preconceived idea that the majority of women lie or have brainwashed or programmed their children to denigrate the other parent (Gardner 2002, Meier 2013). This is known as Parent Alienation Syndrome. It has become an underpinning component of decision making in the family court arena: all reports of abuse are false (Goldstein 2017, Goldstein 2017a, Meier 2013, Saunders et al. 2011).
“The willingness to pathologize capable mothers even extends to mothers’ “warm, involved” parenting—which they assert can powerfully fuel alienation in a child”. (Johnson et al.,2005, p.208: Kelly and Johnson 2001 cited in Meier 2013)
“...virtually any loving parenting by the mother can be labelled a form of “alienation” Meier (2013)
Parent Alienation Syndrome seeks to remove the importance of the unique role of the mother/child bond and seeks to justify the behaviour of the father by neutralizing and undermining the seriousness or validity of allegations of abuse (Meier). The outcome is to remove the child from their mother and break the bond, to place the child with the alleged abuser and deny a normal relationship with the primary attachment figure (their mother) (Goldstein 2017).
This strange remedy paralyses victims, who are scared to raise allegations of domestic abuse in family courts for fear of retribution from the courts through unsafe contact and change of residency. Consequently, courts enable perpetrators of abuse to use the court system to continue this abuse, putting mothers and their children at risk. Embedded ideologies marginalise safeguarding issues (Macdonald 2017)
Family courts as they stand are prejudiced, stigmatizing, victimising and traumatising. They replicate the inequalities of society by treating mothers differently. The statement of the father has more bearing on the case than the statement of the mother. In a reflection of society’s scrutiny of mothers, there is less pressure on men than on women to ‘prove’ their parenting skills. If the relationship between mother and father breaks down, the mother is scrutinised, and the onus is on her to ensure the relationship with the father continues regardless of consequences.
Thus, women are made to feel like criminals for trying to protect their children. Any action they take is seen as trying to thwart contact – alienation. Humiliation and disbelief are routine, as is coercion to force contact.
These approaches destroy family life and fail to protect the child. For the mother, the experience often leads to PTSD and other long-term negative effects on her physical and mental well-being. For the child, it is an Adverse Childhood Experience and the effects are lifelong. There is no recourse and no accountability. But this is seen as an inevitable consequence for which the mother is usually blamed, even when the decision to go to court was a necessary one: “What do you expect when you go to court over a child custody dispute? That’s the risk you take!”
Just as no one is accountable for the long-term detriment to parents’ and children’s mental health, no one in the family courts is accountable for unsafe decisions. You can complain about a Judge’s attitude, whether they swear or if they fall asleep, but you can’t complain about dubious unsafe decision making. Fiction becomes fact, affecting judgements made further on in the process. As Macdonald found in her research, CAFCASS routinely ignore historical evidence and demonstrate poor investigation. Parental Alienation Syndrome stops any further investigation into allegations of domestic abuse and post contact abuse.
Family courts are in denial of the fact that domestic violence is disproportionately violence of men against women and if you abuse the parent, you abuse the child. Family courts cannot accept that the court system is being used as a haven for perpetrators of abuse.
Family courts must reform to better support women and their children. Domestic violence allegations must be thoroughly investigated, and victims supported. They have a right to feel and be safe. They need to urgently implement a zero-tolerance approach to domestic abuse and violence by urgently addressing this. A child is not a package. Best interests should not be determined based on contact and residency because an abusive father demands this. If a child’s welfare is paramount, contact at all costs does not fit into the equation of promoting a relationship. A child has a right to a non-abusive relationship with a non-abusive father.
Unless the family courts change how they treat women and children, then perpetrators of domestic violence will go unpunished and the risk they pose to women and their children will continue.
Bancroft L (2018): Misconceptions About the Family Courts: www.lundybancroft.com/child-custody-justice/misconceptions-about-the-family-courts
Birchall J & Professor S Choudhry supported by P Nicholson-Pallett in: Women’s Aid: (2018). “What About My Right Not to be Abused?” Domestic Abuse, Human Rights and the Family Courts.
Gardner R.A (2002) Parent Alienation Syndrome vs. Parent Alienation: Which diagnosis Should Evaluators Use in Child Custody Disputes? The American Journal of Family Therapy, 30(2), 93-115
Goldstein B (2017) Widely Anticipated Article Confirms Court Mistreatment of Protective Mothers: NOMAS Task group on Child Custody (National Organization for Men Against Sexism) www.stopabusecampaign.org
Goldstein B (2017a) Parent Alienation Syndrome: The Hoax that Hurts Children. NOMAS Task Group on Child Custody : accessed 6th June 2018:www.nomas.org/parent-alienation-syndrome.
Macdonald G.S (2017) Domestic Violence and Private Family Court Proceedings: Promoting Child Welfare or Promoting Contact? Dept. of Social Sciences, University of Bath.
Meier J.S (2013) Parent Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: A Research Review . National Oniline Resource Center on Violence Against Women. https://vawnet.org/sites/default/files/materials/files/2016-09/AR_PASUpdate.pdf