Social workers should receive specialist training and continuing professional development on domestic abuse, Women’s Aid has said, in a report into 19 children killed by their fathers during contact visits.
The charity said there was an urgent need for independent national oversight of the implementation of a practice direction introduced in 2014, which required courts to ensure that, where domestic abuse has occurred, any child arrangements order protects the safety and wellbeing of the child.
Women’s Aid said that despite progress being made, particularly with the introduction of the practice direction, it was not always adhered to because of a “pro-contact” approach in the family courts.
Cafcass workers and members of the family court judiciary should therefore have specialist training to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, and recognise these harm children as well as the direct victim, Women’s Aid said.
The report recommended statutory agencies make sure they enquire about any children affected when they receive a disclosure or evidence of domestic abuse and pass on information to the relevant child and adult services.
‘Good enough’ parent
It said there was a paradox where a parent can be seen as a violent perpetrator of domestic abuse and, at the same time, a “good enough” parent. The Children and Families Act 2014 enshrined in law a presumption children should have ongoing involvement with both parents following separation so long as this does not put the children at risk of harm.
The presumption that contact is always beneficial for children unless explicitly proven otherwise is harmful and contributed to 19 child homicides over the past 10 years, the report said.
This is compounded by a cultural assumption, contrary to evidence, that the family courts are biased against fathers applying for contact.
Women’s Aid uncovered 19 child deaths directly related to contact arrangements by analysing serious case reviews. The researchers included cases where: a child had been killed, the perpetrator was both the child’ parent and a known perpetrator of domestic abuse against the other parent and the parents were separated and child contact had been arranged formally or informally.
Cases were not excluded based on the gender of the perpetrator but in all of the relevant cases the perpetrator was the father.
All 12 fathers were known to statutory agencies as perpetrators of domestic abuse, and 11 were known to the police. In at least 12 of the 19 cases, contract was arranged in court.
Two of the fathers had been granted overnight contact and two had been granted residence orders.
One of the fathers granted a residence order by the court had made violent threats over the phone to the mother while in prison for offences including violence against her.