UK Family Law Reform

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-----Original Message-----
From: rwhiston
Sent: 13 January 2003 19:00
To: Mike.TESTER@dfes.gsi.gov.uk
Subject: Safety Stakeholder Group

To : Safety Stakeholder Group

I wonder if members of the Safety Group have seen the Guardian article (Jan 8, 2003) about children;s safety on contact visits. This follows hot on the heels of a similar article Dec 15th quoting Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of NAPO as stating that in a small survey of 300 cases it was 'revealed' that 61% of children were in danger. The article actually said, "61% of fathers involved in the court system had allegations of domestic violence made against them." This does not mean all the allegations were all true, but the public has nonetheless by this time been sufficiently misled.

The Jan 8th article states that, "Meetings with her father are fraught affairs - as they are for many children in a society where domestic violence makes up at least a quarter of all reported crime." The public will read this as 25% of children facing violence when visiting their fathers. This linkage is simply not true.

Contact visits do not represent 25% of all reported domestic violence and it is wholly irresponsible to mislead the public in this way.

Every year 120,000 children are separated from one or other parent and contact is arranged. This means that every year an additional 2,880,000 points of possible conflict arise [ Calc. 120,000 children pa x 24 visits a year = 2,880,000 pa] If the contact visits of the previous 10 years of divorce are added then the figure rises to 28,800,000 visits pa [Calc 120,000 children pa x 24 visits a year x 10 yrs = 28,800,000 pa ]. "Annette", the children's mother featured in the article is said to dread these fortnightly forays across town, to a contact centre miles from her home.

There is no comment as to why all parties, children, mother, father, despise the contact centre and we are supposed not to ask. We are not told whether she has ever been violent to the children. We are not told that mothers have consistently presented over the decades more of a threat of death and abuse to children than fathers (ranging from 60% to 85%, dependent on category).

Detailed surveys over many years have frequently shown that women initiate domestic violence more often than do men. Comment is made regarding how ironic it is that, having ended the relationship because of concerns about violence towards "her" children (note their chattel status), she now has to comply with the court order to use contact centres.

However, the impression is left that this is on a substantial scale across the length and breadth of England. No mention is made that is affects a mere 3%, as we have recently learnt the House of Lords record states. The Guardian states that the Lord Chancellor's Department has been digesting a report it commissioned into the safety of child contact centres. Why were we not made aware of this if it is true ?

The three researchers cited at Warwick University, Rosemary Aris, Christine Harrison and Cathy Humphreys, found that mothers were "often very unhappy" about what they considered inadequate supervision when they took their children along to spend time with their fathers.

In the circumstances of other unhelpful and misleading references later on in the article I would appreciate clarification by the researchers and LCD staff of their position as I believe, listening to them in committee, that they have perhaps been gravely misrepresented by the Guardian. Other committee members may feel the Guardian is going too far when it implies that Contact Centres are "manned by volunteers - often people with a strong belief in the nuclear family " as if this is some disability. The logical extension is that mothers are too maternal to look after children. I would hope the researchers would refute the impressions and innuendoes in the Jan 8th article.

Yours etc,
Robert Whiston

Minutes of meeting: 8th October 2002 LCD – Southside

4.3 Investigation into child deaths

· WAFE wrote to Rosie Winterton earlier in the year enclosing press cuttings detailing 14 children killed during contact arrangements. MT had investigated these cases through court and CAFCASS records and the Social Services Inspectorate.

· RW said that Mankind would like to be involved with the review of Appeal Court papers in the same way that WAFE were being involved. He said that Kay Birch had said that WAFE had been given access to these papers. However, CP and MT were unaware of any such permission, especially as none of these were Appeals Court cases.

ACTION

MT and CP said that they would seek clarification as to whether this was the case.

· The 14 deaths involved seven families. There were in fact proceedings relating to three of the families, involving eight of the children. In one case contact was by agreement.

· MT suggested that there was a need to establish the circumstances in which the children were killed and whether it was the result of proceedings. The difficulty was that in order to properly investigate the circumstances you would have to approach the families, which the Department would be very reluctant to do. The minister was considering how best to take things forward.

· The whole exercise demonstrated an absence of systematic procedures to investigate cases where something has gone seriously wrong. There was a need for proper inter-agency procedures to investigate such cases. These could be fed into the current white paper on criminal proceedings.

· RW said that his organisation had written to Rosie Winterton concerning child deaths but had received no reply.

· RW said that deaths were most likely to occur in single parent households where the mother has residence. He felt that the group shouldn’t just be examining contact-related deaths as child deaths occur much more frequently outside this context. RW felt that the group needed to address the issue of the courts awarding residence to unsafe mothers. This was felt by others to be outside the group’s remit.

· MT said that the sorts of procedures he was proposing would encompass any child death in a domestic context. He had often uncovered contradictory information in the course of his investigations.

· AW was unsure how helpful it would be to separate out domestic child deaths from the deaths of children whose parents are separating.

· RW felt that the long-term frustration of contact by the resident parent could be an aggravating factor. However CH was of the opinion that the first six months following separation were the most high risk.

· In investigating such cases one would want to know not just about court-ordered contact but whether the mother may have received legal advice affecting her decision (WAFE allege that solicitors sometimes advise women that there is no point resisting a contact application as the court will always grant it) or whether the parents have not followed the terms of court-ordered contact for whatever reason.

· Consideration of what procedures could be put in place to aid such investigation was thought to fit in with the group’s agenda.

· CAFCASS and social services reports could be utilised but these only offered a snapshot in time. An investigative checklist could be useful. Cases where serious incidents occurred where a death had narrowly been averted should also be investigated.

· Part 8 reviews could be launched if they were in the public interest but this was not automatic, so the protocol was in place but not the mechanism.

· It was pointed out that the cases highlighted by WAFE were only those that appeared in the media and so one can assume that there are more. This highlighted the problem of how child deaths were recorded. One option would be to place a statutory imposition on the coroner as any such death would be investigated by a coroner.

· The police should also be targeted. It would be a question of training them to ask questions over and above those that would contribute directly to the criminal proceedings. RP said that the Home Office was already looking into this but that they were awaiting the outcome of the Victoria Climbié case before taking action. An inter-agency team had already been set up in anticipation of the recommendations coming out of that investigation.

4.4 Judicial training

· RW said that training on outcomes was always lacking.

· IH said that there was an over-concentration on violence as opposed to the range of domestic abuse. The President was particularly concerned that judges should be aware of other such problems that may be equally serious.

· RW underlined the need to be aware that there were male victims of domestic abuse. He said that there was little provision of protection for fathers and their children. Local authorities tended not to believe that the female partner could be dangerous.

· A non-gender-specific approach had been set out at the previous meeting of the SSG. RW felt that the legislation might be gender-neutral but that the reality was different.

· It was felt that the group also needed to look at the broader issues above and beyond domestic violence, e.g. alcoholism. These issues were frequently inter-related. The group should name the other issues without taking the focus off domestic violence. The aim should be to ensure the child’s emotional, physical and moral well being, i.e. the whole picture. This was an issue for training: not all judges were alert to the whole picture. This was something that the group would consider further when examining the documents concerning rule changes.

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike.TESTER@dfes.gsi.gov.uk
Sent: 14 January 2003 10:55
To: rwhiston
Subject: Safety Stakeholder Group

Dear Robert

Thank you for your e-mail. We are aware of the articles in the two December editions of the Observer re the NAPO survey and the article in last week's Guardian (Society) which featured the research from Warwick University. On the NAPO items Rosie Winterton has met with Harry Fletcher as we had concerns about the general flavour of the article.

First, it inaccurately gave the impression that 19 children since 1994 have been killed by their fathers through court arranged 'visiting access' i.e. contact. As you are aware the LCD has investigated the cases of 14 children featured in the WAFE campaign and we have shared that outcome with WAFE and the Safety Group (the figure of 19 arises from the 15 in the WAFE campaign which included one mother plus four children killed by their father last summer).

Ms Winterton also wished that NAPO were brought up to date with the fact that we had investigated these tragic deaths. We were also concerned that the article could be misinterpreted - as all in the field are aware there is a tendency for a figure to suddenly hit the headlines and remain there.

In the case of the NAPO survey it was the 61%. This figure (obtained from a survey of 300 cases) relates to contact cases where there are allegations of domestic violence by men (I recall the figure for findings was 21%). Of course CAFCASS reports are called for in a minority of proceedings involving children, which in themselves do not cover all families.

As you are aware the majority of separating parents (married or not) reach their own arrangements re children. It is important to get matters in perspective. Ms Winterton also updated Harry Fletcher on the work of the various PSA8 groups. On the Warwick article I understand that the Guardian contacted Cathy Humphries and Catherine Harrison re their report but neither saw the final article. Of course many of the issues raised in the Warwick research on contact centres - inappropriate referrals, terminology and a dearth of supervised contact centres; are being addressed by the Child Contact Centre Working Group.

We are currently considering how we can best get into the public domain the positive work that the group has done. I am afraid I don't follow your point about the LCD/Warwick University not sharing the report (which off course can't happen until it is published). The report was an item at the last meeting of the Safety Group (an executive summary was circulated with the agenda) - December 10th. Unfortunately I was not there on the day but understand that you were and that Humphries and Harrison were available to answer any points but none were raised.

I hope you find this response helpful.

Mike

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