Children Act 1989
You and your ex are equally valuable parents.
Your ex could even become the main carer. Parenting history doesn’t matter.
If you turn to the courts for help, there’s a good chance
Cafcass will be unsympathetic, and pressurise you to agree contact.
Ministry of Justice, Sept 20082
Even if you have serious concerns about your ex’s violence, contact is likely to be granted.
Children and Adoption Act, Dec 2008
If you do not support contact you may be ordered to attend parenting classes.
Your ex won’t have to.
You might also have to pay his costs. Financial abuse by ex partner not relevant.
The injustice never ends.
The abuse never ends.
It’s the law.
Supporting mothers before, during and after parental separation and divorce
supporting mothers before, during and after parental separation and divorce
Response to Government Consultation paper
Together we can end violence against women and girls
Maypole is a new organisation supporting women involved in separation and divorce.
We therefore focus on domestic violence in the context of women separating from the fathers of
their children, and their experiences of parenting after separation.
large section of evidence based information about domestic violence and separation3.
The accompanying poster is a hypothetical one, alerting mothers to the fact that separating from
their partner may not end the abuse. The Children Act 1989, and its interpretation and
implementation, play a significant role in the opportunity for abusive fathers to continue to abuse
their children and ex partners after separation (see below). There are therefore no easy choices
for women wanting to leave an abusive relationship.
For further information please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Separation and domestic violence
There is a strong link between separation, domestic violence and the long term safety of mothers
and their children, because:
domestic abuse is a major cause of relationship breakdown
separation is recognised as one of the main trigger points for abuse
domestic abuse can continue, and even increase, after separation
the most common ways abusive men continue to abuse their ex partners is by child
contact and money
abuse can damage the mother child relationship
abuse can disadvantage women in residency and contact disputes
How common is domestic abuse in separating couples?
A number of research studies have found that domestic violence is a major factor in relationship
breakdown 4. A Government report showed that allegations of domestic violence occurred in as
many as 90% of separating couples who turn to the family courts to resolve disputes about
residency and contact5.
This figure must be considered with other research that shows that:
women are more likely to experience domestic violence than men, and their experiences
involve more serious incidents of abuse
women are more likely to under report domestic violence than they are to make false
a common abusive tactic is for the abuser to accuse the victim of abuse
There are therefore indications that the majority of cases in family court procedures involve
families in which there is a history of domestic violence against the mother.
The risk of domestic abuse increases at the time of separation. It can be particularly difficult for a
woman to escape an abusive relationship if she is required to encourage contact between her
children and an abusive ex partner.
Why is domestic abuse common at separation?
Domestic abuse is defined as the misuse of power and control, usually by a man over his female
partner. Abusive men are often possessive and retaliatory in nature.
The end of an abusive relationship, especially if it is initiated by the woman, signifies the loss of
the man’s ability to control his partner. An increase in abusive tactics is therefore an attempt by
some men to punish their partner, and to reinstate ownership and control over her.
Abusive fathers after separation
As a relationship ends, child contact can become the only means left to an abusive father to
control his ex partner, and continue the abuse. Research has shown that, for many men who have
a history of abuse towards the mother, caring for the child is not the main motivation in the pursuit
Research has also shown that continuing violence towards the mother increases the risk that
children will be abused during contact visits10 .
The tendency of abusive fathers to put their own needs before their children’s means that some
will insist on contact even when they know their children are frightened of them11 .
Abusive fathers are more likely than non abusive fathers to apply for residency of their children 12 .
As well as enabling them to continue the abuse, a desire for residency or contact can be motivated
financial gain, eg to obtain a greater share of joint equity or avoid child support
the abuser’s distorted perception of his ex partner’s and his own parenting skills
In considering residency and contact claims, the following should be of significant weight in
considering the best interests of mother and child:
the father’s history of caring skills and commitment
allegations of abuse by the mother
the father’s reasons for wanting to change his level of involvement
Residency and contact should be dependent on responsible parenting. Because children’s safety
lies with their non-abusive parent, responsible parenting must include genuine respect for the
mother, her parenting role, and the mother child relationship.
How abusive fathers use their children to continue abuse after separation
Common tactics13 include:
shaping the child(ren)’s view of their mother
lack of boundaries (including lack of routine, supervision, safety and care)
being competitive with the mother
forcing the child to withdraw, reject, harass or abuse their mother
financial control, eg
withholding joint money or child support
bartering child contact with financial assets or child support
threatening to apply, or applying, for increased contact or residency
These behaviours, when occurring as a pattern of undermining and controlling behaviour, can
create severe psychological distress for mother and child(ren), undermine a mother’s ability to
parent to her best capacity, and weaken the child(ren)’s relationship with the parent who is most
able to meet their needs14. The stresses on women sharing care with emotionally abusive and
controlling ex partners can be debilitating, yet these difficulties, and the effects on children, are
largely invisible to professionals and policy makers.
Research is urgently needed on the realities for women of living with continuing emotional abuse
Are abusive fathers granted residency or contact?
Yes15. Courts act on a presumption of contact, assuming that contact with both parents is almost
always beneficial to the child, even when there is a history of abuse. A detailed study of contact
applications filed in 2004 found in 60% of cases where the resident parent opposed contact,
because of ‘serious welfare issues’ (the greatest proportion of which involved allegations of
domestic violence and child abuse), staying or unsupervised contact was granted 16 .
Domestic abuse can have far reaching, negative effects on mothering and family dynamics, and
these, combined with the use of abusive tactics17 in court, and a family court system which is
inadequately trained in understanding abuse18, means that abusive fathers can gain advantages in
Providing an opportunity for abusive men to claim residency and contact through law is
inappropriate, endangering women and children, and is a poor use of resources.
Mismatch between legal ideology and reality of parenting roles
The Children Act 1989, on which UK family law is based, assumes that parents are equal.
However, equal parenting before separation is rare – so rare, in fact, it can be seen as an
ideological myth, rather than a reality (Eichler, 1988, writing at the time when the Children Act
1989 was formulated, noted no research studies had found couples who shared ‘truly symmetrical’
child care responsibilities20.)
Research has consistently shown that in the majority of families, it is the mother who holds the
main responsibility for the children, even when she is also employed outside the home21. Mothers
are almost always the primary care giver – a role usually negotiated and agreed by the parents
when living together.
Most couples who manage, at separation, to agree child care arrangements without the
involvement of the courts, do so by replicating previous gender roles, in which the mother
continues to take greatest responsibility for the children22 A continuation of parental roles
established when the relationship was intact therefore avoids conflict, and provides children with
stability and continuity of care.
Boyd (2003) points out that ‘genuine shared parenting after separation or divorce requires certain
conditions, which are difficult to meet, before it can succeed’. The most important factors are good
communication and ‘parents (who) have a history of shared parenting responsibilities before they
split up’23 .
The failure to consider past parenting history, and expectations of shared care which are
inconsistent with that parenting history, means abusive behaviour often becomes invisible in the
family courts, putting women and children at risk.
The disempowerment of women in family law
Women are almost always the primary carer of their children The identity of women who have
children is deeply entwined with that of mother, and they gain a deep sense of satisfaction and
well being from their mothering role24 .
At separation fathers are able to retain their ‘status as a citizen in paid employment’ 25while the
Children Act 1989 creates a situation in which the role of the mother, as primary care giver, is
something that is ‘up for grabs’, something that can be competed for, and fought over.
The fact that a father who has not been the primary care giver, can take that role from a mother
after separation, either by applying for residency through the courts, or encouraging a child to live
with him, presents a threat to women’s identities and main role in life26 .
Current family law, which assumes a gender neutral approach, ignores the fact that women as
primary care givers are usually the psychological parent to children, and an enforced change in
residency is ‘unfair to the mother and potentially harmful to the child’27 .
Anecdotally, many women live with the fear of losing their children to their ex partners, and their
role as primary care giver, for years after separation. Fear is a major factor in abuse against
To take the role of primary care giver from a woman, without her consent, and without providing
emotional support or an alternative identity, is a deeply traumatic experience29 .
When shared care occurs, mothers usually continuing to have greatest responsibility for child care,
but with an obligation to consult with her ex partner on certain matters, at least some of which he
may have previously been happy to delegate to her.
The Children Act 1989 therefore creates a situation which increases men’s power over women.
Domestic abuse is defined as the ‘misuse of power and control’. Research and government
statistics suggest that fathers with a history of abuse often turn to the family courts to assert this
power. In fact, fathers with a history of abuse could be the largest group of service users
accessing the family court system.
The family court system becomes, for many women, a continuation of the abuse they have
experienced in their relationship. The law does not allow women and their children to escape
Listening to mothers
Emotional abuse is frequently reported as both the most common type of abuse, and the most
damaging. Yet emotional abuse leaves no trace, and is easily ignored by professionals. Domestic
violence can never be properly addressed until emotional abuse is understood and managed.
Women’s accounts are the evidence. Women are the experts, and professionals must respect,
and learn from, women.