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Family court system "still failing domestic abuse survivors and their children"

Two years after the Harm Panel published its report into the failings of the family court system, campaigners say that not enough progress has been made on the issues facing domestic abuse survivors and their children.

05/07/22

Family court system "still failing domestic abuse survivors and their children"

The justice system is failing domestic abuse survivors and their children, according to a new report mapping progress in the two years since a panel identified problems.

In 2020, a Ministry of Justice expert panel – made up of academics, the judiciary and legal profession, children’s social work and domestic abuse sector organisations – published a report revealing that the family court system was seriously failing and creating further harm and trauma for women and children in private law proceedings.

The Government responded by publishing an implementation plan, however campaigners say that not enough work has been done towards the transformed system that the Harm Panel recommended. Women’s Aid says that despite some progress there is evidence of progress stalling, and in some cases even reversing.

The Harm Panel – whose members included Chief Social Worker for Children and Families Isabelle Trowler – in 2020 identified a ‘significant weakness’ in the knowledge and skills of social workers who are undertaking risk assessments and other related direct work with children and their families where domestic abuse is alleged, suspected or known. It made several recommendations to help build the skills and expertise of these social workers, including ensuring that they are nationally accredited child and family practitioners. However, the Department for Education announced earlier this year that the National Assessment and Accreditation Scheme (NAAS), which was designed to assess social workers against core knowledge and skills requirements, would be scrapped having accredited just 1,700 social workers and costing £24 million.

Despite praise for ‘positive developments’ such as Cafcass rolling out a new training programme for its staff on domestic abuse, the new report from Women’s Aid says that more needs to be done and urges the Government to ensure that the Harm Panel’s recommendations on social worker accreditation are actioned within any new scheme developed.

Speaking to researchers, domestic abuse survivors and support workers also said they have continued to be disbelieved, that children have continued to be forced into unsafe contact arrangements with abusive parents, and that perpetrators have continued to use child arrangement proceedings as a form of post-separation abuse. Survivors and professionals also reported that family court professionals have not been held accountable for their poor decision-making and the trauma it has caused.

Those taking part in the research said that family court proceedings “continue to be trauma-inducing, rather than trauma-aware,” and that “an underlying culture of misogyny, mother-blaming and victim-blaming” persists. Shockingly, all the survivors contributing to the report felt that their children’s thoughts, wishes or feelings had not been listened to or acted upon.

Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said they are “ready and willing to work with agencies and organisations across the family courts system to ensure progress” and called on the Government to ensure the Harm Panel recommendations are actioned as a matter of urgency.

“The current system, based on misogyny, victim-blaming, and a lack of understanding trauma is as tragic as it is unacceptable: we must show women and children that they will be listened to, believed and supported.”

Claire Throssell MBE, an ambassador for the Child First campaign, whose two sons had been murdered by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in circumstances of child contact, said that victims and survivors are still experiencing the same traumatising and humiliating treatment that she went through.

“Within the family court system, there remains inequality, injustice, fear and oppression,” Claire said. “Too often, perpetrators are shielded because practice directions and guidance that were created to protect children are not working effectively. There is still too much insistence on parental rights and a deafening silence about the rights of a child.”

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