On 15th September a debate in parliament focused on the failure of family courts to protect children and victims of domestic abuse. The Government was urged to undertake a full review of the family court system to ensure that children's safety is put at the heart of all decisions and that survivors of domestic violence are protected.
I have witnessed the experience of one of our clients, and her children, in the family court system.
Anna first came to our Suicide Crisis Centre in the autumn of 2013. Her immediate concern was for her elder daughter, Keira, although she was also very worried about Amy, her other daughter. Keira had taken an overdose the previous day and her GP had arranged immediate treatment. However, Keira wanted no ongoing support and was reluctant to talk to anyone about the reasons for the overdose.
Anna explained that her two elder daughters had recently disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted in childhood by her ex-partner. Both girls had been interviewed by the police, who felt there was insufficient evidence to proceed. This compounded the loss of trust that Keira already felt, as a victim of sexual abuse. She had placed her trust in the justice system and now felt unprotected, unheard - and disbelieved.
Anna disclosed that she herself had suicidal thoughts at times. Although she had retained custody of her two elder daughters, she had lost custody of her younger children in the family courts. It was devastating for her. She explained that she had been the victim of domestic abuse over a number of years and there is a police record of some of the incidents. As well as physical violence, there was emotional abuse from her ex-partner and this had impacted severely on her mental health over a period of time. When someone is repeatedly telling you that you are worthless, you eventually believe it yourself, she told me. She became clinically depressed and was prescribed anti-depressants. Her mental health was cited by her ex-partner in court as a main reason for his seeking custody of the children. Despite a CAFCASS report documenting the domestic abuse, with dates of incidents, the judge gave custody of the younger children to the father.
When social services were informed of the sexual assault allegations, they undertook their own investigation. Social services suggested that Anna had encouraged her daughters to allege that they had been sexually assaulted in order to regain custody of her other children. They later acknowledged that there was no evidence to show that she had done so. I found it difficult to imagine that any parent would do such a thing, let alone one who is as dedicated to the welfare and wellbeing of her children as Anna clearly is. She received no apology from social services for their suggestion.
In the weeks that followed Anna attended further appointments. She quickly felt able to trust us, and encouraged Keira to come and see us. We were able to arrange for someone from Rape Crisis to see Keira regularly at our Suicide Crisis Centre.
On one occasion we feared very much for Keira's safety when she went missing at a time that she was having suicidal thoughts. When the police eventually located her, she told them that she had gone to stand outside her younger siblings' school, in the hope of seeing them as they left school. She and Amy missed them desperately.
Amy came to see us some weeks later. In her first appointment, she referred to the sexual assaults. The distress which she displayed while talking about this aspect of her past was so clearly genuine that I fully believe that she was sexually assaulted in childhood. It is profoundly distressing to be aware of this, and know that the person who she alleges assaulted her has been given custody of Anna's younger children. I made very clear to social services my opinion on this, and what I had witnessed.
There have been times when Anna and her daughters have returned to us for support in the last three years. In Anna's case, it is always at the times when she has to return to the family court, whether it is because her ex-partner is not giving her the access to her younger children which was agreed in court, or because of some other breach of the court order on the part of her ex. It causes her so much anguish and fear every time she has to return there and be in the presence of the man who subjected her to domestic abuse, and who allegedly assaulted her elder daughters.
I was in contact with Amy's school at one point because a member of staff had expressed some concerns at the level of anger which she was displaying at times. With her permission, I was able to explain that I felt childhood trauma was likely to be at the root of this. When her Head of Year replied, he made it clear that he admired and respected Amy and was impressed that she had never taken time off school despite the very difficult past few years, including when she and her siblings were split up - a horrendous experience for her. On one occasion, I also spoke to Keira's employer, and he told me that he thought very highly of her and that she had a bright future ahead of her in terms of her career.
We know both daughters to be polite, caring and considerate young women. They are an absolute credit to their mother, as I made clear in my report to the family court. I find it extremely difficult to accept that Anna lost custody of her younger children to a man who had been violent towards her - and allegedly to her elder daughters. Their case has continued to trouble me. It is just as upsetting, three years on. We urgently need to review the way that the courts treat individuals like Anna, Keira and Amy, and their siblings. The safety of children must be at the heart of decision-making.
This was written with the permission of Anna, Keira and Amy (not their real names).
For information about the Suicide Crisis Centre: http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk