The presumption of contact or pro-contact culture is the belief that children benefit from having contact with both of their parents. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that, far too often, the presumption of contact that is prioritised in family court proceedings can have catastrophic consequences for survivors of domestic abuse and children. In a recently released documentary, the BBC investigated how the family court system truly treats survivors of domestic abuse and their children- and the findings are harrowing.
Mothers forced to flee.
“If I’d stayed in England, I would be dead, and my children in care. It was state-sanctioned abuse”.
“It’s like we are hunted by the family courts, and our abusers”.
One part of the documentary discussed the stories of four mothers compelled to escape to Northern Cyprus because the family courts forced their children to remain in contact with their abusive fathers. Under the law in England and Wales, removing your child to another country without the permission of the left behind parent is illegal. Despite this knowledge, these mothers fled the country, leaving behind their jobs, family, and any stability left in their lives because the system made to protect them failed them. One mother described the story of her family being warned not to contact or help her, or they’d face the risk of being arrested. This documentary makes clear that the courts punish women who are trying to protect themselves and their children.
The Manchester University study of 45 mothers.
“The power that a court can exert over a person is delicious to domestic abuse perpetrators” – Jess Phillips MP
“75 of the 77 children were forced into contact by the family court with the fathers they had reported for abuse. Including those with sex-abuse convictions”
Research conducted by a team led by the University of Manchester spoke to the 45 mothers of 77 children, all of whom reported experiencing abuse. Perhaps the most alarming finding of the study was that 75 out of 77 children were forced into contact with fathers they had reported for abuse, even in cases involving sex-abuse convictions. The repercussions of this forced contact are heartbreaking. Survivors of abuse and their children are left to deal with the psychological trauma of being handed back to their abusers, often leading to severe emotional distress, suicidal ideation, and even physical health problems.
Mothers who died due to family court proceedings.
“Her child has been handed over to a convicted sex offender”.
“Suicidal ideation, autoimmune conditions, cancer. Women who reported that they’d had a miscarriage due to the stress and trauma of court-related proceedings”.
Five mothers who went through the traumatising family court process met tragic ends. One mother took her own life, another refused to seek medical help after her medical records were read out in court and ultimately succumbed to a preventable illness, another suffered a heart attack inside the court building and later passed away.
In one harrowing case, a mother who had been subjected to years of abuse lost custody of her child to her former partner, a convicted child rapist. Shockingly, the family court was aware of the father’s criminal record but still handed over the child, leading to unimaginable fear and suffering for the mother. Tragically, after a period of ill health, she also passed away.
Conclusion: The Call for Urgent Reform
The stories of these mothers and their children paint a horrifying picture of a system that has failed to protect them. The presumption of contact in cases involving domestic abuse must be reformed immediately. As Jess Phillips MP rightly argues, it is up to the government to legislate that contact should be earned and not given to abusers.