Welcome to another week.
A new case published on 2nd July offers insight into a different judicial perspective on violent parents — and young children’s engagement with family judges — but also goes to some trouble to highlight a wide range of factors which led to the decision.
The case involved a mother of two daughters who had been stabbed 15 times by her partner in 2019, following a history of domestic abuse which included the father serving a prison term in 2016 for assaulting the mother. The father was sentenced to a minimum of 13 and a half years in prison for the attempted murder of the mother.
The eldest daughter, who is now seven, witnessed the attack when she was five, and was struck in the face by her father’s elbow as he stabbed her mother. The mother suffered serious life-changing injuries. Both the mother and the daughter continue to have therapeutic counselling for the attack.
On 4th April, 2020, the police received a report from Crime Stoppers that the father had called through to say the mother was going to be murdered that day. Around the same period, the mother had received two Instagram friend requests (which she declined), from two relatives of the father.
The mother decided to bring two applications to the court: one for the termination of the father’s parental responsibility for both daughters, now aged seven and two, and another to change the girls’ surname from their father’s name.
The oldest daughter also wrote to the judge explaining that she did not want to see her father ever again and that she wanted to change her surname so he could not find her.
The court granted both those requests, and gave the following reasons why it chose to do so (we have highlighted significant points of reasoning in bold which appear to show a shift in the court’s thinking on child welfare, and we have also explained the shifts in italic writing):
(i) The father will be in prison until at least March 2033, by which time X will be an adult and Y a teenager. The father will not be able to exercise his parental responsibility in any meaningful way until then;
(Prior judgments have concluded that a parent in prison can offer some meaning to a child’s life).
(ii) The girls’ physical, emotional and educational welfare can only be met by them having no contact with their father, direct or indirect – there is no need for him to exercise parental responsibility;
(Past cases where one parent has tried to murder the other parent and the offending parent has asked for contact often succeed, making this judgment a departure in some ways from that base line. The shift seems to represent an understanding that a child’s needs, particularly if she or he has witnessed violence and is afraid of that parent, are sometimes better served by creating boundaries).
(iii) Further than that, there is a risk of harm to the girls if he were to exercise his parental responsibility for them. He played only a limited role in the girls’ life previously, he holds strongly negative views about the mother, her parenting capacity and the wider maternal family. He has shown no insight into the impact of his actions on the children and continues to represent a high risk to them and their mother. In the circumstances, the Court can have no confidence that he would exercise his parental responsibility for the benefit of his children;
(Past case law on parents who have played a limited role in a child’s life suggests that the policy has been to welcome contact, usually by a father, if a request for contact is made. Critics of current policy on contact say the pendulum has swung too far in favour of parents who don’t genuinely wish to have contact and are simply using it to abuse ex partners and their children.)
(iv) There is a real risk that he could use his parental responsibility to undermine the mother as a parent, or for the purpose of causing her or the children harm, for example by contacting schools or doctors to obtain information about them or their whereabouts;
(v) The father’s relentless negativity about the mother as a parent makes it clear that there is no prospect of him being able to co-parent with her and she should not have to consult with him before making significant decisions about the children;
(vi) If the father had not been registered on the girls’ birth certificates there is no prospect that any application he should make now for parental responsibility would be granted;
(vii) The fact that the father was registered on the girls’ birth certificates in the first place does not carry significant weight (a) in circumstances where the mother alleges she was subject to the father’s control and (b) where the law provides that an application to the Court may be made for both the discharge of parental responsibility and a name change in appropriate circumstances;
(An interesting comment, which suggests that where a parent has been violent and controlling, as in this case, parental rights could be stripped from abusive parents.)
(viii) The father continues to be assessed as a high risk to both mother and the girls. To permit the mother to change their names would be consistent with their welfare and enable her to act protectively;
(ix) X is traumatised by her memories and experiences of her father. A change of name is consistent with her strongly expressed wishes and feelings;
(Family judges often overlook trauma children experience at the hands of violent parents, even if they are not the primary victims, preferring instead to try and ‘mend’ the relationship between the child and parent even in extreme cases of violence. This judgment seems to represent a shift away from that, giving the child’s views weight and thinking ahead to the long-term implications of keeping ties which are, at a given point in time, very painful for a child, but also ultimately taking a different view on the effect of that disconnect.)
(x) Y has no memory of her father and no established relationship with him. The name she holds is nonetheless a continued reminder for all the family of the experiences her mother and sister have had as a consequence of the father’s actions and it is in all their welfare interests for that name to be changed;
(xi) The girls have no relationship with their extended paternal family and no positive associations with the second name they have been given. The applications do not represent a significant interference with theirs or their father’s right to a family life.
Though we think this judgment falls on the right side of the child welfare balance, we can see there may be some push back on it. Several aspects of the judgment go against established views and principles on contact with violent parents, but it is, to our mind at least, right, and represents an acknowledgment of the fact that some bad experiences can’t be mended or soothed by the law.
And rather critically, we think, it touches upon something significant – the idea that a parent who abuses the other parent cannot have their child’s best interests at heart, knowing as they will, that the abuse will interfere with the victim parent’s ability to care for their child.
In short: the abuse of one parent by the other is a selfish act, which places the abuser’s emotional state above that of their child’s wellbeing.