Domestic violence history should be factor in child-access cases

Women’s Aid says 3,800 disclosures of child abuse made to charity in 2016

Women’s Aid Impact Report: Prof Stephanie Holt, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Sinéad Burke at the launch on Wednesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Women’s Aid Impact Report: Prof Stephanie Holt, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Sinéad Burke at the launch on Wednesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Courts must consider any history of domestic violence when they make orders for access to children, an expert on children and domestic violence has said.

Stephanie Holt, an assistant professor of social studies at Trinity College Dublin, said there is “no evidence to support a claim that children will benefit from ongoing and unmonitored presence of an abusive man in their lives”.

Speaking at the launch of the Women’s Aid Impact Report 2016, Prof Holt said that courts allow contact “in the misguided belief” that domestic violence does not need to be taken as seriously once parents have separated. In ignoring a history of violence “we elevate significantly the risk to the child, because we no longer are considering it”.

Almost 17,000 disclosures of domestic violence against women were made to Women’s Aid last year, as well as more than 3,800 disclosures of child abuse.

Prof Holt said the principle that it is in all children’s best interests to have contact with both parents after a separation or divorce underpins most decisions about child contact. In general no one would disagree with that, “but for safe, quality contact to happen we have to establish evidentially what is actually in the child’s best interests and move away from this universal notion of what is in every child’s best interest.”

She said that children experience domestic violence as “a potent and overwhelmingly negative, permanent cloud on their lives” and that it does not end when post-separation contact “facilitates the ongoing and usually unmonitored presence of abusive men in their lives”.

She said her findings were grounded in facts and were not “anti-fathers” or “anti-contact” rhetoric.

There had to be an openness to not taking resumption of contact as a starting point, as well as meaningful engagement with children, Prof Holt said.

Courts are now obliged, in cases involving access, to establish the age, maturity and wishes of any child affected, according to Ursula Regan, the chairwoman of the charity. “Judges have taken a view that they will interview children over the age of 12 to establish what their wishes are regarding access,” she said at the launch. “Unless either or both parents [of under-12s] are in a position to fund a private report, there are little or no resources for judges to call upon to have a report before the court.”

She queried who would be asking the child how they felt about contact with a violent or abusive parent or whether they felt safe. “These are basic and fundamental questions which need to be addressed, and I believe it is the obligation of the State to address such matters through a properly funded process, to include professional services made available to the court.”

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said she would like the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill 2017 to include an out-of-hours court service, so that victims can obtain emergency barring orders. “I will be raising that again with the Tánaiste when it comes to taking the Bill forward,” she said.