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.
Courts frequently make orders supporting contact between the father and child which disregard
mothers’ concerns about their own, and their children’s, safety. In a review of over 300 cases in
2008, in which contact was sought (mostly by non resident fathers), serious welfare issues were
raised by the resident parent (mainly mothers) in 63% of all cases, yet direct contact was only
refused in 21% of cases30 .
‘American research has shown that women tend to report what has occurred accurately, with
accounts that remain consistent over time and in response to interrelated interview questions,
together with evidence from hospital and arrest records to substantiate their stories’31 .
Listening to women ‘is also important because women are the only ones who can say whether
they are still living in fear, even if the actual violence has stopped’32 .
A woman’s estimate of the level of risk has been shown to be the ‘single strongest predictor of
future violence by a batterer33 .
Studies confirm that women report adversely affects on their children when contact with an
abusive father is enforced.
Court decisions granting contact between a father and child, where there is a history of poor
parental responsibility or care, builds up paternal expectations, while expecting mothers to act in
ways which, in their view, are contrary to the child’s best interests. The resulting conflict, danger
and distress is a consequence of working against, rather than with, conventional maternal roles
and social norms, in which mothers are almost always the primary care giver and psychological
parent to the child.
Contact decisions are much more likely to be supported by mothers if their concerns are listened
to, respected, and incorporated into a contact plan which manages, rather than ignores, welfare
Understanding the link between abuse to the mother and risk to the children
In a detailed study of child protection work, Farmer and Owen (1995) found ‘the children with the
worst outcomes were especially likely to have mothers who were being abused by their male
partners, although the domestic violence tended to be ignored by the professionals involved’35 .
Bancroft and Silverman (2002), and others, express concern that some court evaluators do not
appreciate the risk of murder of children by an abusive father. ‘Where children have been killed,
the significance of violence to the mothers as an indicator of potential risk to the children has
tended not to be understood or acknowledged36 .
At separation, a father, through paid employment, has ‘access to resources and benefits which go
with this status’ while the mother is ‘unlikely to have a well paid, secure job; indeed, she may not
be in the labour market at all … she cannot hope to become a self sufficient, independent citizen
for several years … she remains extremely economically vulnerable37’.
Women who have experienced domestic violence are most vulnerable, as they may have been
prevented from working, or gaining financial independence. Financial abuse may have occurred
during the relationship, and at separation. Residency and contact claims can be a form of financial
abuse, removing from the mother, who is already in a weak financial position, access to child
related state benefits.
Mothers need to retain access to child related state benefits. The current system of measuring
primary care by the number of nights a child spends with each parent leaves women open to
financial abuse by ex partners.
When fathers gain residency at separation, the courts’ concentration on providing a home for the
child means financial abuse by the father is often ignored. Financial abuse should be considered
as illegal as rape within marriage, and should be of primary concern to the courts.
Mothers also need, and deserve, support in re-establishing themselves in paid employment at a
level commensurate with their abilities, training and experience.
Lack of equity in assessing and supporting parental skills
A very common complaint is that mothers and fathers’ parenting skills are assessed to different
standards. Professionals can be ‘very optimistic about men’s parenting skills, while scrutinizing
women’s parenting in much greater detail’38. These double standards and lax attitude to fathers’
parenting skills victimise women and endanger children; fathers need to be able to provide
evidence of consistent, sustained, responsible parenting before contact is granted.
Even when men are abusive, professionals tend to focus on the need for the woman to change39 .
‘Women’s efforts to manage violent men and their difficulty in escaping violence must be
understood in the wider context of a moral climate that places responbsibility for family problems
on women’40 .
Using force to change parenting roles
Successful shared parenting relies on trust, respect and constructive communication between
parents. A mutual dedication to the concept of shared parenting is essential. Parents who cannot
agree – and find themselves in court -are the very parents for whom the philosophy of shared
parenting has already failed. An enforced order ignores the necessity for an internal belief in the
benefits of shared care, and voluntary co-operation. Enforced orders are therefore likely to cause
distress, and even trauma, both to the primary care giver and her children. In many cases,
enforced co-parenting will be a contradictory and meaninglessness concept, as the causes of
resistance are not addressed.
Punitive approaches, particularly in the context of limited resources and research, put many
women, and their children, at risk. Intervention which is ‘unwilling to understand (women’s) needs
see them only as mothers, partners or recipients who have failed to take responsibility’ puts
women ‘in danger of being re-victimised’41 .
Recent provisions for enforcing contact (Children Act, Dec 2008) is an example of an approach
that pays no attention to the needs of mothers. For a detailed explanation of the challenges facing
mothers do not support contact.
Psychological needs of mothers ignored
‘Studies have repeatedly revealed social workers’ tendency to focus narrowly on the children, to
the detriment of women’s safety and sometimes of children’s safety, because the danger to
children from a man who abuses his partner is not recognised42’.
The Children Act 1989 ignores the psychological needs of all mothers. A mother is expected to
‘give up her ‘special’ relationship (for the sake of the children) and hence her status as primary
carer. But she must also amend her status as a dependent, earn enough money to support herself
and (in part) the children, accrue benefits against the exigencies of illness and old age, and
become autonomous and self sufficient … In this process she is unlikely to have much support
from The Children Act, the legal profession or the mediation services, none of whom give priority
to, or even much consideration to, the needs of mothers’43 .
The emphasis on the welfare of the child, and contact with fathers, profoundly devalues mothering:
‘It is extremely hard for women to be mothers and (paid) workers … if mothers give up these rights
in order to meet the welfare of their children, it seems a hard lesson to insist that this was an
irrelevant sacrifice at the point when they divorce, especially as the routes back into (the benefits
of paid employment) are so limited. The active pursuit – by family law-of equal, joint parenting
after divorce combined with welfare and employment policies which make equal joint parenting
during marriage virtually impossible for the majority, gives rise to a form of disenfranchisement of
Contact and residency arrangements need to reflect parenting roles adopted before separation.
Women’s attempts to protect their status as primary care taker, in the absence of legal protection,
can hinder mothers from facilitating contact45. The current system ignores women’s special
contribution to child care and subsequent psychological and financial vulnerability.
Women who have experienced abuse and have children are likely to lose the most at separation.
They can, and do, lose their mental health, self worth, career and home. Women can also lose
their children to abusive men, and with them their main identity and role in life.
Government statistics suggest that approximately 700,000 children in the UK were living with a
lone father, or father and step mother, in 2006. HM Revenue and Customs recorded 7,529,00
families claiming child benefit in August 2007, and calculated that approximately 7% of claimants
were male. This equates to 527,079 fathers recorded as the main carer of their child(ren).
It is difficult to estimate how many mothers this involves, as a mother may live with one or more of
her children whilst one or more live apart from her, and these figures include widowed fathers. It is
also impossible to estimate how many mothers have chosen to be apart from their children
voluntarily. Narratives from mothers who have lost contact with their children at or after separation
include vocabulary that indicates they have all have experienced domestic violence46. The belief
that their ex partners were actually ‘aided and abetted’ by Cafcass, ie Cafcass failed to identify
abuse and actually supported the father’s claim, is a common theme47 .
It is not known how many women are affected, but a conservative estimate puts the number in the
high hundreds, and possibly thousands48. This is consistent with Child Benefit statistics, above. It
is also consistent with the HMICA report (2005) which found that ‘the nature of domestic abuse is
not sufficiently understood by most CAFCASS practitioners. Routine ways of working do not
assess risk and some are dangerous’49 .
This could mean that thousands of children have lost contact with their primary care giver, and
now live in the sole care of an abusive father.
Isolation of victims is a common abusive tactic. Mothers who have lost contact with their children
suffer the worst type of isolation, and live with on-going bereavement. Because women usually
have an especially close psychological connection with their children, their trauma is particularly
acute. Their children are also isolated from the parent who is most able to meet their needs.
Maypole calls for a review of all cases where Cafcass have failed to identify domestic violence and
protect women and children, as evidenced by the HMICA report 2005.
Understanding of how domestic violence presents, and the effects on family dynamics, must be
urgently improved, to protect women and children.
Meeting the needs of children
The needs of mothers, fathers, and their children, are diverse, and can be contradictory. The rights
of fathers, and the benefit of paternal care, has dominated recent discourse in finding solutions to
McBean (1987),writing just before the introduction of The Children Act (1989), notes that ‘fathers
have rarely been the prime caretakers of the children, and therefore rarely the main psychological
parents of children. The disruption of the bond between the psychological parent and child should
be avoided in the best interests of the child’.
Continuing contact with both parents is only one of several factors which contribute to good
outcomes for children. Many researchers believe the well being of a child’s primary care giver is
inseparable from the needs of the child51 .
There is growing awareness that the rights of some parents to have contact with their children
have been prioritised before safety 52 .
Mothers’ concerns are often not taken seriously by the courts53. Either women are not being
believed, or the risk of harm to the mother and her child(ren) is not fully understood. Research
suggests both are true 54 .
This is in contrast to a belief that mothers are the best predictor of their partner, or ex partner’s,
capacity for further abuse 55 .
Women’s resources to seek protection
‘Women fleeing abuse are frequently on very low incomes, since, whatever their socio-economic
status before the violence, they commonly leave with nothing’56. Yet the majority of women leaving
abusive relationships will not qualify for legal aid. Some mothers have spent tens of thousands of
pounds seeking protection from abusive partners in the family courts57. This has serious
implications for their ability to recover from the abuse, and provide an adequate standard of living
for their children. Women should not have to fund their own protection from abuse. The situation is
particularly dire as women invariably fail to gain the protection through the courts they feel they
How children’s coping strategies to abuse can cause them to reject their mother
Cafcass can place great emphasis on the preferences of older children. However, children’s
strategies in coping with abuse can sometimes cause them to distance themselves emotionally
from their mother, and form an apparent closer bond with the abusive parent.
Until this phenomenon is understood, and incorporated into practice, court evaluators will fail to
make accurate assessments of children’s needs.
Coping strategies include ‘siding with their father, including sometimes joining in with the abuse of
the mother’and expressing anger and aggression towards her.
Children can find to very difficult to identify and express their own needs: ‘the batterer’s tendency
to be retaliatory has important implications for children who disclose abuse to outsiders’60 .
The effects of domestic abuse on family relationships is highly complex. Accurate evaluations
cannot be made until the level of training and monitoring is significantly improved. For more
information on how domestic violence can damage the mother child relationship see
Mothers’ recovery from abuse
The parenting skills of mothers who have been abused often improve significantly after
separationif they are able to escape the abuser’s ‘chronic undermining’and recover from
abuse induced trauma. Shared care with an abusive ex partner does not allow women to recover
from abuse. This also has implications for their children.
Domestic violence, and how it affects family dynamics, is highly complex. Training is utterly
inadequate – many professionals working with families receive training which briefly summarises
the four types of domestic violence, and then concentrates on child abuse. The link from protecting
the mother to safeguarding is often absent.
With this level of training, failure to identify abuse, and errors in assessment, will happen
frequently. The detail of knowledge needed for professionals, including court evaluators, is found
in The Batterer as Parent, by Lundy Bancroft. The book is based on clinical experience working
with over 2000 abusive men and their partners, and comprehensive review of research. Although
American, the information is highly relevant to the UK, and accurately reflects many women’s
experiences in the UK family courts.
The detail provided by Bancroft includes an in depth account of:
characteristics of men who abuse
the abuser’s parenting style
the abuser’s impact on family relationships
motivations of abusive fathers in seeking residency and contact
tactics used by abusive men in court disputes
factors disadvantaging women in court disputes
factors which should be considered in assessing risk to children
how to identify permanent change in an abuser
recommendations to improve court evaluators’ practice
recommendations to therapists working with children exposed to domestic violence
This level of knowledge should be mandatory for all court evaluators, and expert witnesses.
Monitoring of Cafcass officers’ ability to implement training is also urgently needed.
Improved use of resources
The amount of time allocated to Cafcass officers to manage each case is totally inadequate when