Don’t ignore the risk of violence

A series of high-profile events have ensured fathers’ rights groups
have remained in the media spotlight. One group to come under
criticism from campaigners has been social workers, who have an
unenviable role to play in cases of disputed contact. Campaigners
claim social workers and the family court system are naturally
prejudiced against men. But social workers are only too aware that
many fathers who go to court to seek contact with their children
have been accused of domestic violence and may be a risk to their
children. Meanwhile, the campaigners maintain that many allegations
of domestic violence are invented to win points.

A National Association of Probation Officers study in 2002 of 300
family court cases revealed that 61 per cent of the fathers
involved in the court system had allegations of domestic violence
made against them. Research also documents numerous cases of
violent fathers who have been granted contact with their children
and who go on to seriously injure or even kill members of their
family. Last year the charity Women’s Aid reported that in the past
10 years, almost 30 children in the UK have been killed by fathers
given contact rights.

In New Zealand there is a rebuttable presumption of no contact in
cases where domestic violence has occurred. The country’s social
workers and courts are given guidance that a violent father is not
a good role model. Things are less clear here and seem set to
remain so. For the moment, the view of fathers’ rights campaigners
that the family court system is just not working appears to have
won the upper hand. The government has announced moves to tackle
perceived failings, and mothers who flout court orders regarding
contact could be ordered to undertake community service while their
children are having contact with non-resident fathers.

Many social workers argue that the genuine concerns of vulnerable
women and their children are going unheard in the blaze of media
attention being awarded to a few campaigners from fathers’ rights
organisations. The big question is whether children’s safety is
likely to be compromised as a result.

Lee Clark is a practice learning lecturer at Goldsmiths
College, University of London

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