Social workers and guardians could be used as experts in
straightforward contact cases freeing psychiatrists and
psychologists to advise on more complex cases including those
involving domestic violence, according to Dame Elizabeth
Butler-Sloss, president of the family court division,
writes Claire Laurent.
She was responding to concerns raised by delegates at a
conference on children and domestic violence at the length of time
it took in child contact cases for assessments to be carried out
and reports prepared.
The conference staged by Children Law UK (formerly British
Juvenile and Family Court Society) and chaired by Cherie Booth QC,
heard that courts are still enforcing contact orders between
children and parents despite evidence of domestic violence and
serious child protection concerns.
Claire Sturge, a consultant child psychiatrist who co-authored
guidelines on contact for the court of appeal, told the conference:
“Domestic violence undermines one of a child’s most basic needs. It
involves the abdication of the perpetrator’s responsibility of care
to the child.”
She said a violent parent needed to earn the privilege of
contact. “I don’t just want safe contact. I want something that can
do something really positive for the child. I feel the courts fudge
the moral issue. It’s a really serious matter when a court tells a
child they want them to have contact with someone they know has
done very bad and evil things.”
Anthony Hewson, chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory
and Support Service (CAFCASS), the organisation responsible for
preparing reports for family courts, said: “It’s easy for us to
listen to the child with our adult ears. What we must not do is
translate what they are telling us into what we want to hear.”
The Women’s Aid Federation of England is calling for legislative
changes to the Children Act to ensure the issue of domestic
violence is properly addressed by the courts.
In a survey of 127 domestic violence refuge services, WAFE found
that 48 per cent of refuge projects reported that adequate safety
measures are not being taken to ensure the safety of the child and
the resident parent before, during and after contact. Forty refuges
said that children who do not want contact with a violent parent
are not being listened to and taken seriously.
But Dame Elizabeth did not advocate a change in the law: “What
you need is to teach everybody including the judges and the
lawyers, the significance of what’s happening to the children.
That’s not by legislation, that’s by a culture change and