Louise Haigh: Family courts are failing children by allowing violent parents to have access
An inquiry is needed before more young lives are lost, says Louise Haigh
The revelation that at least four children have been killed by parents in the past five years having been granted access by the family courts, despite concerns about a history of violence and domestic abuse, is sickening.
It raises serious questions about whether the rules which should forbid this kind of access are being followed and whether abused parents are being listened to when they warn the courts.
One child being killed in these tragic, avoidable circumstances is one too many. But over the course of the past couple of decades, there have been many more children murdered in this way. Something is going seriously wrong and, because of the secrecy at the heart of the family courts, designed rightly to protect children, we cannot know how big the problem is.
Many of these cases have only come to light thanks to the campaigning of brave domestic abuse survivors who have shone a light in the dark corners of our justice system and spoken up when nobody would have blamed them if they had chosen to grieve in peace.
It should be a wake-up call for powerful politicians and for parliament. How were these voices ignored for so long? How are lessons still not being learned?
Pioneering research by Women’s Aid found clear examples of family courts prioritising access to those with a history of domestic abuse; not last month, but way back in 2004. In its report, Nineteen Child Homicides, Women’s Aid uncovered the deaths of 19 children following contact granted to men who were known abusers. This research did lead to changes in the system, but this was not enough.
It should not be down to charities and survivors to expose these issues at the heart of our justice system. So I believe we need an independent inquiry to establish the extent of the problem in the family courts and to recommend changes so that no child loses their life like this again.
The vast majority of cases in the family courts are handled with care and dignity, respecting the rights of both parents with sensitivity. Cafcass social workers often do a tremendous job under immense pressure following reorganisations and soaring complex caseloads that are completely unsustainable. It is the culprit who is to blame. But when there is evidence that something is going catastrophically wrong, we have a duty to look at what needs to change.
The evidence suggests the family courts are still taking a dangerous approach to child contact decisions in cases where there are findings of domestic abuse.
Children do not just witness domestic abuse, they also experience it. It has a devastating and often long-lasting impact on their health and emotional wellbeing. As last month’s research shows, this unsafe approach to child contact is putting children’s lives at risk. That’s why we need an inquiry which can look at the evidence and the decisions of the court to get to the truth and establish whether a change in the law is needed.
We cannot allow the most vulnerable voices in our society to go unheard, silenced and ignored any longer.
Louise Haigh is Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and shadow policing minister