We are lobbying for the Bill to: recognise that domestic abuse victims are mostly women; provide vital resources so women and children can escape; extend all protections and resources to immigrant women and women with disabilities.
We are going backwards. The number of reported rapes that result in convictions has long been alarmingly low. But the state of rape prosecutions in England and Wales is now an outrage and a national shame. The number of people prosecuted and convicted is at its lowest on record, while reported cases have risen sharply. Prosecutions more than halved from 5,190 in 2016-17 to only 2,102 in 2019-20. Meanwhile, the police recorded 55,130 rapes, up from 41,616 three years earlier.
Campaigners and the victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, say this effectively amounts to decriminalisation. The Crown Prosecution Service notes that the police are referring fewer cases. But they have made clear their concerns that the CPS has moved to a more risk-averse approach. Though the service insists it has not changed tack, the drop in prosecutions coincided with advice from senior CPS figures to specialist rape prosecutors to “put a touch on the tiller” and take a proportion of “weak cases out of the system”, amid criticism of the low conviction rate. That rate has indeed now risen. But the total number of convictions dropped, from 2,991 to 1,439. More rapists are free in the community.Advertisement
While the CPS blueprint for improvements has some sensible recommendations, such as training specialist prosecutors to understand tactics employed by offenders and victim behaviour, they are insufficient, and the five-year timescale too leisurely. The government’s review into the handling of rape in the criminal justice system should adopt recommendations made by Northern Ireland’s Gillen review, including legal representation for complainants and providing the jury with guidance on rape myths in every trial.
Above all, we need leaders to show that women’s safety is a priority. Women’s ability to control and protect their own bodies is regressing across the globe. The attack on reproductive rights has gone hand in hand with damage to the most fundamental right to physical safety. It is not only long-established laws and policies but also relatively recent advances that face challenge. In part, this is a backlash against hard-won progress. It also reflects the role that misogyny has played in the rise of the populist right, though it is hardly unique to it. Poland is threatening to leave a treaty aimed at preventing violence against women – at a time when the pandemic has seen domestic violence soar worldwide – after President Andrzej Duda narrowly won re-election with a socially conservative and homophobic campaign. In the US, the justice department rewrote its definition of domestic violence last year, producing much more restrictive terms that disregard elements such as psychological abuse.
But rightwing governments are not the only culprits. In 2017, France passed a landmark street harassment law, and Emmanuel Macron urged other countries to make women’s rights a “great global cause”. Yet the president’s new justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, is an outspoken opponent of the street harassment law and the #MeToo movement, and Mr Macron has appointed a man accused of rape as interior minister. An appeals court in Paris has told prosecutors to reopen their probe into Gérald Darmanin, who denies any wrongdoing; a judge had dismissed the case against him after a preliminary investigation was dropped.
Complacency and banal political or bureaucratic imperatives can damage women’s lives just as ideologically driven campaigns can. This is a particularly dangerous period, where the impact of the pandemic absorbs attention that might be paid to other issues, and the economic crisis makes people more vulnerable to abuse.
Yet thousands have marched in Warsaw and other Polish cities, outraged by their government’s plan to withdraw from the treaty. Protesters took to the streets in France over Mr Macron’s appointments. And this month the CPS and police were forced to drop the “digital strip search” policy that had made women in England and Wales divulge all their mobile phone data, following sustained campaigning and a legal challenge from two complainants. It is enraging to be forced to refight the same old battles, yet progress can and is being made. Women have every right to despair, but are refusing to do so. There is too much work to be done.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) rejected a coroner’s call to act to prevent benefit claimants taking their own lives, following the suicide of a young woman who had told her work coach that she intended to kill herself.
Documents released this week under the Freedom of Information Act show that DWP dismissed both the coroner’s plea to take action, and the findings of an inquest jury which had concluded that a jobcentre’s failings had contributed to the death of 31-year-old Faiza Ahmed (pictured), from Limehouse, east London.
But the documents have also led to fresh allegations of institutional racism and have again exposed the cruelty and harshness of DWP’s benefit sanctions regime.
The eight-day inquest led to a narrative verdict by the jury, which concluded that failures by DWP, London Ambulance Service and the Metropolitan police all contributed to his sister’s death on 7 November 2014.
The coroner, Mary Hassell, produced a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report – a step taken by coroners when they think individuals or organisations can take action to prevent further deaths – and sent it to the police, ambulance service and DWP.
Their responses have only been released for the first time this week following a series of freedom of information requests by DNS.
The Judicial Office said this week that the PFD report into Ahmed’s death was not previously published on the website of the chief coroner due to an “administrative oversight”.
The report was written in January 2016, just a few months after DNS had revealed the existence of another PFD, also written by Mary Hassell, following the suicide of Michael O’Sullivan, from north London.
That PFD, which concluded that O’Sullivan’s death was triggered by the decision to wrongly find him fit for work, had led to the prime minister twice being questioned over DWP’s failings in the House of Commons.
Now, with the documents released this week, that pressure on DWP should increase again.
The documents show that, when responding to the PFD report written by Mary Hassell at the end of Faiza Ahmed’s inquest, DWP dismissed both the jury’s findings and the coroner’s call for action.
The inquest in January 2016 had lasted eight days.
It heard that Faiza had a history of mental distress and became suicidal during two days in November 2014, after reporting an attempted rape in her home.
The inquest heard of failings by the police officers who visited her after she reported the attempted rape early on 6 November, and further failings of the force and the ambulance service after she called for an ambulance the next afternoon and said she wanted to kill herself.
She took her own life shortly after the emergency services left her flat that afternoon.
But earlier that day – as described by the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone, who covered the inquest in January 2016 – she had visited Poplar jobcentre to explain why she was three days late to sign on for jobseeker’s allowance.
A statement from her brother, read out at the inquest, described how Faiza had previously been sanctioned by the jobcentre for turning up late and missing appointments, and lived with the constant fear of being sanctioned, and the understanding that DWP did not believe her when she said she had depression.
Mohammed told DNS this week that Faiza had been sanctioned at least once and was “regularly threatened” with further sanctions.
He said this had a “horrible” impact on her. “Whenever we saw her, she was absolutely broken from it,” he said. “She was scared, worried and upset.
“She was a strong, independent person but she knew that if she was sanctioned, she would have nothing.
“As much as we were there to help her, both financially and emotionally, she wanted to do things for herself, so she was too proud to ask for anything.”
He said DWP’s sanctions regime was “horrific” and was based on “threats and intimidation”.
When Faiza arrived at the jobcentre on 7 November, she was given a form by the work coach to explain her failure to sign on for jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) on time.
She wrote on the form that, between 4 and 7 November, she had been “busy trying to kill myself, drinking non-stop”. She left the moment she handed over the form.
After she had gone, the work coach discussed what she had written with a manager, but they decided not to contact the emergency services.
DWP’s “six-point plan” says its staff should summon emergency help if a claimant declares an attempt to kill themselves and is “distressed, at serious risk or in immediate danger”.
But that action was not taken. Instead, the inquest heard, someone at the jobcentre made an urgent referral to the community mental health team, but not until five days later. By that time, Faiza had been dead for nearly five days.
In its response to the PFD, DWP said: “In this case, based on the information he had, the Work Coach made a judgement that there was no immediate risk to her safety.”
DWP said this information was the form she had completed and her attendance at the jobcentre so she could continue receiving her JSA.
DWP claimed that its processes “were followed both diligently and correctly”, and that its staff “took the necessary steps to invoke the agreed processes that would manage the risk appropriately”, which was “based on the evidence that staff were presented with”.
It added: “It is not our view that any opportunity to engage with any other organisations was missed.”
It said its approach was “under continual review and development”, and the only action it would take would be to issue a reminder to all DWP staff about its existing guidance on suicidal ideation, the same guidance which had failed to save Faiza Ahmed from taking her own life.
It is not known whether, or in what form, this reminder was issued.
Faiza’s brother, Mohammed, an officer with London Fire Brigade, told DNS this week that he had been very close to his sister, and remembering how she was treated still makes him angry, nearly six years after she died.
He said: “There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think of my sister.”
It was only through the family’s efforts, and the support of campaigners and lawyers, that they secured a longer inquest to examine in front of a jury whether any public body had contributed to Faiza’s death.
Otherwise, there would have been a shorter inquest and the failings of DWP would probably never have been exposed.
Mohammed said he remembered DWP’s attitude as “blasé” and that its refusal to accept the criticism and the call for action from the coroner’s PFD and the jury “was no surprise” as the department had been “very defensive, very guarded, not looking to help” and had shown “no remorse”.
He is certain that racism lay at the heart of the way his sister was treated by DWP, even if it was “indirect” and not immediately obvious.
This was because the harshness of austerity and DWP’s welfare reforms had a disproportionate impact on people of colour, he said.
He said: “You can’t separate it. It definitely, definitely had an impact; 100 per cent it was there.”
He believes the jobcentre would have called the emergency services if his sister had been a white woman.
He added: “The class thing doubles it up. Would it have happened to a young white woman in Hampstead Heath? No, not in my opinion.”
To this day, he cannot understand how the jobcentre could have failed to act after seeing the state his sister was in and what she had written on the form. Instead, he said, they just “waved it off”.
Now he believes DWP has “got away with it”.
He has backed growing calls for an independent inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants.
He said: “A judge-led inquiry on its own would be some justice. It would at least have some weight and would get justice for those families.”
Even better, he says, would be for former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was in charge of DWP when his sister died, to be brought to justice.
DNS has previously laid out a case for Duncan Smith and other senior DWP figures to face criminal charges of misconduct in public office.
Mohammed said: “For a lot of people who have lost their loved ones and certainly for me, Iain Duncan Smith being brought to bear in some way would be one of the most wonderful days ever in history.
“But an inquiry which highlighted what they did was wrong and should never have happened would go a long way for me towards some kind of closure for me for my sister, 100 per cent.”
Following his sister’s death and through the inquest, their family were supported by the grassroots women’s group Women Against Rape.
Lisa Longstaff, from Women Against Rape, said: “Faiza’s tragic suicide exposed the racism and uncaring cruelty of the DWP’s sanction regime.
“We’ve worked with many women up against similar brutality when trying to get basic benefits or compensation to recover after rape.
“Often it’s been women in the movement who’ve challenged these appalling injustices and campaigned for everyone’s rights, but that work goes mostly unacknowledged.”
A spokesperson for the Judicial Office said the PFD report had not been published until this week because of an “administrative oversight” by the chief coroner’s office.
A DWP spokesperson said its position was laid out in the response to the coroner’s PFD, and declined to comment further.
The department refused to say how it justified its failure to take any action in response to the PFD report, other than reminding staff of existing guidance.
It also refused to say when its response was sent to the coroner, and whether it had asked the chief coroner not to publish the PFD.
It refused to say whether its actions demonstrated a continuing culture that was putting the safety and lives of benefit claimants at risk, and which the department was refusing to address.
And it refused to say why it had made a referral to Faiza Ahmed’s community mental health team five days after she had killed herself.
Thu 16 Jul 2020 15.55 BSTFirst published on Thu 16 Jul 2020 09.04 BST
The Crown Prosecution Service and police have been forced to scrap controversial “digital strip searches” of rape complainants, following a legal threat from two survivors of sexual abuse and sustained campaigning from privacy and human rights groups.
Little more than a year after a new policy around the disclosure of private information was introduced, the police and CPS have made a major U-turn and will withdraw digital data extraction consent forms from operation.
Funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Centre for Women’s Justice took on the case of two complainants who argued that the forms – which required them to divulge all their mobile phone data – were unlawful, discriminatory and intrusive.Advertisement
“We welcome the decision from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and hope it leads to improving confidence in the justice system on the part of survivors of sexual assault,” said Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who said the forms disproportionately impacted women and acted as a barrier to justice.
Courtney, one of the complainants whose report of sexual assault was dropped by the CPS when she refused to hand over her mobile phone, said she hoped the decision would mean other victims of sexual violence would not have to chose between justice and privacy.
“There was nothing consensual about these ‘consent forms’ and it is a relief that the CPS and police have finally accepted that,” she said. “I approach this announcement with some trepidation, however, as I have been so seriously hurt and let down by the criminal justice system in the past. I am concerned that just doing away with the forms won’t necessarily improve practice.”
The second claimant in the case, who was asked for seven years of digital data after telling police she had been raped by a stranger, said: “Infuriatingly, the police and CPS have repeatedly said to the press that they only pursue reasonable lines of enquiry. This is untrue. I hope now that other women won’t be subjected to these unlawful requests.”
In 2018 the Guardian revealed victims faced a postcode lottery around disclosure, with some police forces demanding almost unfettered access to highly personal records from rape complainants before pressing ahead with their cases. The following year the introduction of a new national digital consent form designed to reassure victims about how evidence on their mobile phones might be used inadvertently triggered further suspicions about police access to personal digital records.
The decision to scrap the national consent form comes after an 18-month investigation by the information commissioner’s office (ICO) on “digital data extraction” found that police forces were not giving enough consideration to “necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion”.
Claire Waxman, London’s victims’ commissioner, called on the police and CPS to implement the ICO’s recommendation of introducing a code of practice to prevent excessive and disproportionate requests for data. “This deters rape victims from pursuing the justice they deserve, and leaves them traumatised and lacking trust in our justice system,” she said.
Further pressure was put on the police and the CPS when a court of appeal judgment – known as the Bater-James judgment – laid out guidelines for officers and prosecutors on how to be lawful and proportionate when asking complainants of rape and sexual assault to disclose data.
Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, said: “This U-turn on digital strip searches is a huge success for our groups, the two women who bravely took on this legal challenge, and the thousands of people who signed our petition.”
In a letter seen by the Guardian, the NPCC told all chiefs of police the forms would be withdrawn from use and replaced by 13 August 2020 – after a consultation with stakeholders and the ICO.
Timothy De Meyer, the NPCC lead for disclosure, said police and prosecutors had a duty to disclose any undermining material, but added that no victim should feel discouraged from reporting a crime. “Searches of digital devices should not be automatic and will happen only when the investigating officer or prosecutor considers there to be a need to access information to pursue a reasonable line of enquiry,” he said.
Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, welcomed the withdrawal of the forms but said they should never have been used. “Their effect has been to delay rape cases and deter many victims from coming forward or continuing with their cases,” she said. “We will work with the defendants to ensure something fair and proportionate is put in its place.”
After a two-and-a-half-year investigation into my sexual assault case, which had witnesses and a potential second victim, the police told me the CPS was going to drop my case if I didn’t give them a download of my phone. When I asked them what was the reasonable line of inquiry, they told me that I could be lying. There could be something that discredits me on there. I could be hiding something. And to me, that’s not reasonable. I was asked why I was concerned, but actually it’s totally rational to fear giving your phone over to the police. I think most people would not want to give the contents of their phone to their mother, let alone the government or the person who attacked them who may, because of rules around disclosure, get access to it. When I refused my case was immediately dropped.
The CPS turned its back on me and treated me as a suspect – they made it so clear that I was alone and I was powerless. That anyone can rape me with impunity unless I submit to the court’s illegal demands.
And it became clear to me that I needed to work to change that, because it can’t go on. I had my power taken away from me from the assault, I had my power taken away from me from the criminal justice system. I was left in a really bad place. There were times, you know, I didn’t want to be here anymore. But taking up this case, working with the Centre for Women’s Justice, it’s been so important for my mental wellbeing. I feel like, for the first time in a while, I’m coming to terms with everything that happened to me. I want to help other people who have been through this – rehashing everything can be draining, but helping others has given me a purpose and made me feel that at least all of that pain happened for a reason.
I think we really need to start looking at what trauma does and how it can make victims behave. I think we need to look at misogyny in courts. I’d like to see the police and the CPS following the law and giving victims the same legal protections they give defendants. But also huge cuts to the criminal justice system has meant that we just can’t afford to prosecute crime anymore. I think the police, the CPS and the government need to take a hard look in the mirror and decide that rape is a crime worth prosecuting, that prosecuting it is important for public health and safety because it is one of the most vile crimes that exists.
Dame Vera Baird said complainants were being denied justice. In the year ending March 2017 the CPS prosecuted 3,671 cases, compared with 1,758 in the year ending March 2019, a drop of 52%. Photograph: Northumbria PCC/PA
Rape has effectively been decriminalised as a result of a collapse in prosecutions that has allowed many offenders to escape justice, according to the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales.
In her first annual report since taking up the role, Dame Vera Baird QC says there has been a “catastrophic” decline in rape prosecutions, with no measures put in place to reverse it.
“In some cases, we are enabling persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to reoffend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be held to account. This is likely to mean we are creating more victims as a result of our failure to act.”
Baird is a member of a review set up by the government to identify the reasons behind the fall in prosecutions but bemoans the fact that “a year after it was set up, we are nowhere near to completing the review and making recommendations for change”.
She says that the dramatic fall appears to coincide with a series of visits by two senior Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures to specialist rape and serious sexual offences units, reported in the Guardian, in which they told staff to “put a touch on the tiller” when deciding whether to prosecute “weak” cases, in order to boost the conviction rate.
While the CPS has denied a change in prosecution policy, Baird said that “it has failed to offer any convincing explanation to account for the fall in the number of cases being prosecuted”.
In the year ending March 2017, the CPS prosecuted 3,671 cases, compared with 1,758 in the year ending March 2019, a drop of 52%. Baird says that anecdotally some police officers said they had made fewer referrals – which dropped by 22.6% over the same period – because they knew the CPS was prosecuting fewer cases.
“If the CPS is unwilling or unable to deal with this failure effectively to prosecute rape, then the government must act,” she says.
Baird is also critical of prosecutors and police for demanding rape complainants’ phone contents and personal records, using digital processing notices, forms for complainants to sign, introduced early last year, which she says have the effect of allowing police “free rein” to extract data from their mobile phones. In her report, she highlights ending this “intrusive breach of privacy” as a priority for the coming year.
“This situation has to change,” writes Baird. “Victims of rape and sexual assault are being badly let down.”
Prosecutors accused her of scaremongering, distorting the criminal investigations process, and discouraging victims from reporting attacks.
Responding to the report, a CPS spokesperson said: “We share the concerns about the gap between reported rapes and those cases which come to court … Working with police, we are focused on understanding the reasons for the charging gap and are pleased to see the beginning of a reversal of this trend in the past year. However, we know there is much more to be done to drive up confidence in the justice system and will announce further plans shortly.”
The Domestic Abuse Bill is due for second reading in the House of Lords followed by Committee stage, when amendments can be put. We don’t know the date for either of these yet (watch this space) but we will be sending this briefing to some members of the Lords (and Ladies) to bring our concerns about strengthening the Bill to their attention.
This Briefing is from Women Against Rape (WAR) and Support Not Separation Coalition
We daily work with mothers who have suffered domestic violence and are fighting in the family court to protect their children from abusive fathers. Our experiences of sexism, racism, class and other prejudice have been confirmed by the recent government Review into how the family courts treat victims of domestic abuse. (See our Review summarywith quotes.) The Domestic Abuse Bill is an opportunity to provide protection for women and children, but there are serious problems with it. We urge you to address them.
SUPPORT NC10: “Prohibition of reference to sexual history of the deceased in domestic homicide trials”.
OPPOSE NC11: “Anonymity for victims of domestic homicide” – It is a protection for victims, families and defendants that courts are open to public scrutiny. This is essential to holding judges and barristers to account and to ensure that we can all see whether or not justice is done. We also oppose all recent proposals to end jury trials. Our experience is that the key problems in court are caused neither by the jury nor the public, but by the way the evidence is handled and presented.
Oppose NC15: “Children as victims of domestic abuse” – This may be used to remove children from their mothers causing further injustice and trauma. While the intention may be to ensure children’s access to services, legal changes should be considered on how they are likely to be implemented. This amendment could result in more children being removed from their mothers. We say this based on experience. The family courts have been heavily criticised for their deep-seated sexist bias, especially against low income single mothers, who are often also women of colour, immigrant, and/or have a disability. They commonly blame mothers who report domestic violence, accuse them of either lying or of failing to protect their children from witnessing domestic violence, and remove children from the only parent concerned with their protection. Violent fathers know this and use it to stop women from reporting. Unless professionals are directed to prioritise keeping children with their primary carer, they are likely to use children’s “independent” status as victims to recommend their removal, subjecting them the worst trauma of losing their mother and siblings. The shocking 44% increase in children being taken into foster care during Covid19 confirms the urgent need for resources to go to mothers, NOT to separation. Section 17 of the Children Act was designed to keep children with their mothers but is not implemented. It must be strengthened to help address the massive rise in poverty and homelessness, especially among single mother families.
Support NC22, NC25, NC26 and NC27: Protections for migrant women who are domestic abuse survivors. These four amendments would strengthen the rights of women who are in the process of regularising their immigration status, including mothers financially dependent on violent partners, and destitute women who are all vulnerable to exploitation, especially given the hostile environment and the COVID pandemic.
Support NC24: “Proceedings under the Children Act 1989” to amend presumption of contact. The recently published government Review and its accompanying literature, make clear that the “pro contact culture” pervading the whole family court process enables abusive fathers to gain unsupervised access and even residence of their children, with deeply harmful and even fatal consequences. The Review also made clear that children are often ignored when they express fear and strong feelings against contact with their abusive father. This is against the interest of the child as defined in the Children Act; it must be stopped. Abusive men and family court professionals must no longer be allowed to dismiss mothers who report violence, especially sexual violence, with accusations of “alienating” the child. The use of the discredited psychological theory of domestic abuse deniers and paedophiles by CAFCASS and others whose job it is to protect children must end.
Demand an amendment to ensure the Bill is NOT gender neutral In the year ending March 2018, 92% of defendants in domestic abuse-related prosecutions were men while 83% of victims were female; 95% of calls to domestic abuse helplineswere made by women (ONS, 2018). Maintaining gender neutrality puts women in even greater danger by hiding the violence we face and allowing perpetrators to portray themselves as victims. This has serious consequences:
1. For the family courts: it enables violent fathers to claim and gain access to the children. 2. For the Bill’s Domestic Abuse Protection Orders. Abusive men often make counter allegations that they are victims in order to escape prosecution; unless the legislation explicitly states that the overwhelming majority of DV victims are women, as stated in the Istanbul Convention, the police could use their new powers to remove women from the family home with devastating consequences, especially for the children. Given proven police sexism, racism and other prejudices, we are deeply concerned about how these new powers may be used against families of colour.
REJECT all the wrecking amendments proposed by MP Philip Davies, a close ally to militant fathers’ groups who deny domestic violence. Davies wants the pseudo-science of “parental alienation” to be included in the definition of domestic abuse. The recent government Review found that while women are concerned with their children’s safety, men are concerned with themselves. These are the men who have influenced CAFCASS and other family court professionals to back “parental alienation” as a way to dismiss mothers and children’s reports of abuse, especially sexual abuse. He further calls for the immediate eviction of women who report domestic abuse and are disbelieved by a sexist criminal and family court system. Davies also wants to maintain the Bill’s gender neutrality, thus hiding that overwhelmingly women are the victims and men the perpetrators. His amendments have no place in a Bill to protect victims of domestic abuse and must be strongly opposed.
DEMAND an amendment about bail, as in Women’s Aid’s Briefing: “Changes in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 have led to a dangerous drop in the use of pre-charge bail in domestic abuse cases, and dangerous offenders being released under investigation with no conditions attached.”
Please contact us if you would like to discuss this further.
Why another review when all the facts are known? Where are the resources for mothers and children?
We welcome the government’s announcement that the family courts must do more to protect victims of domestic violence, and that the presumption that a child’s contact with both parents is in her/his best interest may be ended. About time. But why wait for another review when all the evidence is there? Why is the report gender neutral when mothers are the carers and men the perpetrators? And where are the resources for mothers and children to escape? Without these there will be no meaningful changes for women and children.
The “expert-led review” into how the family courts handle domestic abuse already reported that victims are being put at unnecessary risk. But despite the fact that 63% of respondents to the review were women, the report perpetuates the “gender neutral” presentation of domestic violence, thus hiding the fact that it’s overwhelmingly women who suffer violence from men who perpetrate it. Of some 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse a year aged 16 to 74, two thirds are women. This was proven again during the Covid19 lockdown as the number of women reporting violence skyrocketed (domestic murders doubled in the first three weeks and calls to the Met Police have risen by a third. MPs have told us that most of the emails they get are from desperate mothers struggling to protect their children.
For years, we have been working with mothers who’ve suffered rape and domestic violence and are overwhelmingly low income, single mothers, women of colour and/or who have a disability. What they report, and what we have seen from our own experience, is a family court process which is deeply sexist, racist, class-biased and discriminatory in other ways. While millions are spent on taking children into care, women and children are deprived of the benefits, housing and other resources they need for their protection. Section 17 of the Children Act, which entitles mothers to resources to keep children within the family, is not implemented. CAFCASS, social workers, psychiatrists and judges are guilty of taking children from mothers who are victims of domestic violence and backing fathers’ false claims that mothers “alienate” the children by reporting their violence, especially sexual violence.
Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape says: “The Domestic Abuse Bill must recognisethat mothers are the carers and men the abusers. To be gender neutral allows violent fathers to hide and continue their reign of terror over women and children, and to get the backing of misogynistic and racist courts. The junk science of “parental alienation” used to dismiss mothers and children who report abuse must be dropped. Mothers must get the financial support they need to protect their children.”
We are calling on the government to urgently:
Abolish the presumption that it’s always in children’s best interest to have contact with both parents. This presumption is continually used to over-ride any history of rape and/or domestic violence, or lack of care/involvement by fathers. Introduced in 2014 after intensive lobbying by fathers’ groups who deny domestic violence, it has opened the way for allegations of “parental alienation” against mothers who report a history of domestic violence, and especially when they report fathers’ sexual or other violence against children.
Review all cases currently in the family court where children are being forced into unsupervised contact with abusive fathers based on the presumption of contact, as well as historic cases where children have been taken from mothers who tried to protect them from violence. For the welfare of children to be paramount, their safety and the safety of the mother, who is usually the primary carer, must be prioritised over fathers’ contact. Fathers who are violent to their children, to mothers, to former or present partners should not have contact with children, especially unsupervised contact. Thousands of children are being harmed physically and psychologically, and even murdered, by being coerced to see fathers they are terrified of.
Ensure the Domestic Abuse Bill makes clear that domestic violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women. Maintaining the law’s gender neutrality allows men to disguise their violence, endangering women and children’s lives.
Urgently investigate how much racism, class bias, disability discrimination and other prejudices affect decision making at every level throughout the family court process, including the disproportionate number of children of colour in “care” and taken from mothers with disabilities, especially those with learning disabilities.
Two recent cases: Just this week, despite a judge finding that the father had strangled the mother on at least two occasions, thrown her to the floor and stomped repeatedly on her face (as well as being violent to his sister as a child), she ordered the father to have unsupervised contact with his children and also disclosed to him the mother’s address in a refuge. In another case, a judge ordered a BAME mother who is shielding due to Covid19 to take her children to contact, ignoring her shielding letter and forcing her to choose between endangering her life (and her children’s) or being in contempt of court.
25 June: Oppose amendment proposed by Jess Phillips MP which would include children in the definition of victims of domestic abuse.
We are inundated with cases of mothers who’ve suffered domestic violence fighting in the family court to protect their children from abusive fathers. Based on our experience over many years, we are very concerned that this amendment, rather than protect children, would result in even more being taken from their mothers.
Since the Adoption and Children Act 2002 extended the definition of significant harm to include witnessing domestic violence, it has been used by social workers, CAFCASS, psychiatrists, and judges –- all of whom have been heavily influenced by the fathers’ lobby – as yet another reason to decide the mother is “unfit” and/or “unable to protect the children”. Little or nothing is done to get the perpetrators prosecuted and removed from the family home to protect the mother or children from abuse nor to provide support to recover. Instead, victims are punished and traumatised, starting with the children.
Given this deep-seated sexist bias, especially against single mothers on low incomes, who are often also women of colour and/or with disabilities, any change to legislation has to be considered in the real context of how it is likely to be implemented. If a child is treated as a victim separately from her/his mother, it is likely that again the mother will be blamed for causing her child to be a victim. Rather than allowing this amendment to increase the power of professionals to act against mothers, legislation which already exists –- Section 17 of the Children Act – must be implemented to give mothers resources to increase their power to escape violent situations and protect their children.
Professionals must be directed to prioritise protecting women and children, rather than take children away from mothers, siblings and extended family to be “cared for” by strangers. The shocking 44% increase in children being taken into foster care during Covid19 confirms the urgent need for resources to go to families and NOT to separation.
If this amendment is presented at Report Stage we urge you to vote against it.
Please contact us if you would like to discuss further.
Lisa Longstaff Anne Neale Women Against Rape Support Not Separation
See our other Briefings on the Bill further down this page
A WOMEN’S rights group called on Parliament today to reject “wrecking amendments” to the Domestic Abuse Bill proposed by Tory MP Philip Davies, who they say has a “misogynistic” record.
The Shipley MP has said that attempts to use a child as a “weapon” by keeping them away from a parent, usually the father, “without good reason” should be classed as domestic abuse.
Women Against Rape (WAR) said Mr Davies is “closely allied with fathers’ groups who deny domestic violence.”
The group said that the Bill, currently at committee stage – where amendments are considered – must ensure family courts protect abuse victims and not perpetrators.
WAR insisted that the proposed law should end the use of “parental alienation” – the allegedly unjust separation of a child from a parent – which is invoked by abusive fathers in order to “torture” children who refuse to see them and take them away from mothers who reported abuse.
The group is part of the Support Not Separation Coalition, which said: “Last week, six women described to us how they and their children have been accused of ‘parental alienation’ after they reported violence.
“One mother has already lost her children to the violent father who hits them and is so neglectful that they have been sent to live with their grandmother.
“In two cases, court professionals are recommending the children be taken into foster care to force them into contact with their fathers, including twins who would be separated. Such blatant disregard for children’s best interest amounts to child abuse.”
WAR is also demanding resources for abuse survivors.
The group argues that Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which instructs councils to assess what mothers need to keep their children, is hardly used and that millions of pounds instead goes into “a growing privatised ‘child protection’ industry.”