Born by default rather than design: What are the rights of the rapist father?
Speaking at the Social Work Innovations conference, Janet Goddard discussed with professionals a controversial and difficult area of law for social workers to navigate.
A failed attempt in Parliament to remove parental rights from any man who fathered a child through rape highlighted a current dilemma for social workers.
Janet Goddard, Social Work Course Leader at the University of West London, said that Louise Haigh MP had brought the bill forward because currently, any man who fathers a child through rape can apply and gain parental responsibility for that child.
In England and Wales, it is estimated that around 85,000 women between the ages of 16 and 59 are raped every year, with 90% of rape perpetrators known to their victims. More than half (55%) of rape cases are perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner on a female victim. The number of convictions has also dropped significantly, with an estimated reduction of around 23 per cent in the number of convictions since 2018.
“We layer harm on to the rape victim by allowing the perpetrator to gain rights normally attributable to a parent father. We allow the perpetrator to be involved in the child's life, even though the child exists by default, rather than design,” Goddard told the audience. “This wasn't a child arrived at because people wanted this child here. This was a child that was here by an aggressive act. It means that we have to consider how we move forward to address this.”
This means, for example, if the mother decides to give the child up, the father has a right to say that they want that child to be with them.
A convicted rapist has the right to be notified of care proceedings, to information about the child, and to be involved in any important decisions about the upbringing of this child.
“Just to be clear – that doesn't automatically mean that he's going to have contact. But that's not a certainty because always the welfare of the child is paramount.”
“It's a difficult area because you don't want to deprive the child of rights.
“It gets messy, but what you have to think of when we're dealing with this is that the courts look at the right of the child to know both parents, not the rights of the parent to know the child. Regardless of how this child arrived here, this child has the right to know both parents.
“If we think the child should have the right to have both parents involved in the life, is it something where we have to be entirely honest, from the outset, to say: ‘this is how you came into this world?’ Or is better to say to people that you do not want them to ever release this information? I don't know how you silence people, if someone's determined to say something.”
“If the rapist is a family member, for example, do you break up this family? Do you take a family that would otherwise be robust except for this offence, and fracture it? I don't know if that's good or bad,” Goddard said. “I think it's a risk.”
Denying rights to rapist fathers also suggests that rapists could not rehabilitated – a key issue for social workers and the criminal justice system.
Ultimately the law has to come up with a decision, but for social workers, Goddard says: “if you are looking for answers, you are in the wrong place because this is greyer than anything else you will cover.”
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