Divided he rules

What happens when a daughter suffering from her father’s
violence elects to live with him rather than her mother after a
divorce? Mike George reports on how one project, which helps Asian
women suffering domestic violence, dealt with a family conflict
involving difficult confidentiality issues.

A year ago the Lord Chancellor received a recommendation that
courts needed to take more care in dealing with the question of
parental contact with children in cases where there is domestic

Staff working in this field say they have to balance the needs
of working with children, often in confidence, with working with
the courts. And because the courts cannot be relied on to link
child protection with domestic violence, physically abusive fathers
and stepfathers are still granted access or custody.

Bhaggie Patel, who heads a Barnardo’s project which helps Asian
women and children suffering domestic violence, frequently sees the
results of this lack of court action. It is also implicated in the
problems she faced in her work with Paramjit Singh (not her real
name)and her daughters.

Singh’s husband had been violent towards her for many years, and
had also threatened and physically abused their three daughters.
After a particularly serious incident her eldest daughter, who is
in her early teens, called the police because she was frightened
for her mother’s safety. The husband was arrested and cautioned.
Directly after this Singh approached the project for advice and

Patel explains that she and her colleagues provided Singh with
the opportunity to look at her options and their implications.
Singh obtained an injunction banning the husband from the family
home. Patel also started to work with the eldest daughter, who had
started to exhibit behavioural problems at school and home,
although, says Patel, she still had a good relationship with her
mother at that time.

Although the husband was removed from the family home, there
were informal arrangements for him to see the children, which were
often organised to fit in with Singh’s working patterns. During
these periods of contact he persuaded them that they would be
better off living with him rather than their mother. This, says
Patel, quickly affected the eldest daughter’s relationship with her
mother. She also became aware that the daughter’s attitude change
derived in part from her father’s more relaxed approach to
boundaries. For example, he was far less strict than Singh in
letting the daughter go out in the evenings.

Meanwhile, Singh had sought and obtained a divorce, and had
decided that both she and her children would be safer if they moved
nearer to her family, who lived elsewhere. This appeared to further
alienate the eldest daughter from her mother, because she didn’t
want to change schools. She had also persuaded her two young
sisters to say they wanted to live with their father. Subsequently,
there was a custody battle.

This situation, says Patel, was particularly difficult for her
and her colleagues. For while Singh wanted her eldest daughter’s
case notes from the project to be put before the court, because
they detailed the husband’s violence and aggression towards the
children, they couldn’t do so because the daughter was old enough
to insist on them remaining confidential.

However, the court was aware of some of the father’s violence;
he had been cautioned previously, but the court wanted to keep the
children together. Because the eldest daughter wanted to stay with
the father and she had persuaded the two young sisters to stay with
the father as well, the court granted the custody of the children
to the father.

“Obviously, this was terribly frustrating for the mother, who by
now had a much greater understanding of both domestic violence and
child protection, and who, like us, feared for the children’s
future safety,” says Patel. “But there was nothing we could do
about the fact that the court had accepted that the children wished
to live with their father, and that it was important to keep the
children together. Confidentiality for both service users created
tensions for all concerned.”

The father continued to harass Singh, and after obtaining
information from the eldest daughter, he tried to harass project
staff. “It was often difficult for us, and the daughter, to deal
with this. We had to keep emphasising to her the importance of
keeping the project’s work confidential, yet at the same time she
was becoming more convinced by her father’s point of view,” she

Singh appealed against the father having custody of the
children. But the project had to balance keeping the
confidentiality of the work it was doing with the mother and
children and the wishes of the eldest daughter, and disclosure to
the court. The court had been informed of the father’s violence
during the divorce hearing but still gave him custody of the
children. So, because disclosure would not necessarily lead to the
mother winning custody, confidentiality was kept. The court
rejected Singh’s appeal for custody but did grant her unsupervised

Meanwhile, the children began to disclose to the mother a great
deal of additional information about the father’s violent
behaviour. This led her to refer her children to social services.
The children, however, are afraid of disclosing the abuse to social
services for fear of reprisals from their father.

Singh is now trying to obtain a residence order so that the
children can return to live with her.

“We have continued to work with her, and the importance of our
support has been heightened by the disclosure of this latest
information. But we’re still facing difficulties with the eldest
daughter, who now wants to return to her mother, but doesn’t want
to leave the area. She has stopped coming to see us, but we’re
hoping she’ll return. Perhaps we will be able to help her examine
her longer term interests,” says Patel. “It has all been very
frustrating, particularly as there seems to have been little
opportunity to raise these issues formally, and to get agencies to
understand the relationship between his violent behaviour and child

Case Notes

  • Name: Bhaggie Patel.
  • Field: Leader of Barnardo’s Phoenix Project.
  • Location: Greater Manchester.
  • Client: Paramjit Singh (not her real name) is in her late 30s,
    she has three daughters; the eldest is in her early teens and the
    other two are much younger. Her husband has been violent towards
    her and physically abusive towards the children.
  • Case history: After an incident in which the mother could have
    been seriously hurt, the eldest daughter called the police, who
    cautioned the husband. At that point Singh contacted the project
    for support. She also sought and obtained an injunction to remove
    the husband from the family home.

Patel and her colleagues supported the mother and worked with
the eldest daughter. But as a result of the husband’s manipulation
during informal contact with the children, they decided that they
wanted to live with him rather than their mother. The eldest
daughter did not want to disclose the full extent of the father’s
violent behaviour, though the court was aware of some of it.
Consequently, after the divorce, the father was granted custody of
the children.

Singh appealed to gain custody of the children, but failed
though a contact order was granted. Full disclosure of his
behaviour was not made because there was no guarantee that the
mother would win custody.

The children began to disclose to the mother that their father
was continuing to be abusive but they will not disclose the
information to social services.

  • Dilemma: Patel had a clear duty to protect Singh, but also
    needed to work with the eldest daughter in particular, who for much
    of this time took her father’s side in the disputes.
  • Risk factor: All three children are at risk from their father,
    but continue to live with him.
  • Outcome: Singh is currently seeking a residence order, to
    require the children to live with her.

Arguments for risk

  • As social services are now aware of the children’s disclosures,
    their father will know that if he is violent towards them he could
    face difficulties in keeping them.
  • Despite all the problems within the family, the children do
    appear to have a good relationship with their father, and see their
    mother regularly.
  • Some members of the husband’s own family have been concerned by
    his behaviour and he knows that they are likely to keep an eye on
    him and on the children’s welfare.
  • He has never been convicted of assault or threatening
  • To date he has not been able to obtain access to any services
    which might help him to explore issues of domestic violence and
    child protection.

Arguments against risk

  • There seems little doubt that the husband has a long-standing
    pattern of abusive behaviour towards his wife and his children,
    which extended to harassment of both her and the project.
  • As a result of the custody case he has learned that it is
    possible to continue with this behaviour, and that he can
    successfully manipulate the children; which could create more child
    protection problems in the future.
  • The mother is now very much more aware of child protection and
    domestic violence issues and has much greater ability than before
    to ensure that the children’s welfare is protected.
  • The swift reversal of the children’s attitude towards living
    with their father, and their continuing disclosures about his
    violence make it clear that they now wish to return to their
  • Singh has moved and can now receive much more support from her
  • Singh’s ex-husband has demonstrated a willingness to use his
    children to express his displeasure at his ex-wife’s rejection of
    his violent behaviour.

Independent comment

This case reveals many of the dilemmas facing practitioners
trying to work with families where there is domestic violence,
writes Nicola Harwin. Following an important appeal court
judgement (Re L, Re V, Re M and Re H [2000] 2FLR 334) in four cases
involving child contact and domestic violence, any allegations of
domestic violence which might affect the outcome of the case should
be adjudicated upon and found proved or not proved before issues
such as contact or residence are decided.

Judges and magistrates need to have a “heightened awareness of
the impact of domestic violence on children and in arrangements for
interim contact”. The court should ensure, as far as possible, that
any risk of harm to the child is minimised.

In this case, the fact that residence was granted for the
violent father, despite clear evidence of domestic violence through
the injunction already obtained by the mother, indicates that there
is an urgent need for a practice direction for judges, as the
Children Act sub-committee recommended over a year ago in their
report to the Lord Chancellor.

Client confidentiality should not be guaranteed where there is a
serious risk, and in this case, the confidentiality given to the
eldest daughter may have put the two younger children at further
risk. The law permits the disclosure of confidential information if
this is necessary to safeguard the child.

However, it is not hard to see why the project made this
difficult choice. Although in theory their case note evidence could
have prevented the court’s decision to give residence to a violent
and abusive father, in practice, given the absence of sufficient
guidance on domestic violence within the courts, this might easily
not have happened. The father might still have been given
residence, and they might have thereby lost the daughter’s

Nicola Harwin is acting director, Women’s Aid Federation
of England

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