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The illusion of justice: Mothers, IPVA and the family courts

Mia Scally (Forensic Psychology PHD student at MDX) outlines 4 of the 6 main myths affecting mothers and children in family court getting their voice heard and justice served.

I’m a lecturer in forensic psychology and forensic criminology in the Criminology and Sociology department and as part of my PhD in Forensic Psychology (supervised by Dr Miranda Horvath and Professor Joanna Adler), I have been exploring survivor experiences of the family courts when it comes to child contact [1].

Over the course of three qualitative studies (including accounts from 72 women and 17 professionals), six distinct myths [2] and challenges have been identified, four of which will be discussed as part of this blog. It is suggested that these myths are believed by professionals operating within the child contact system, resulting in disastrous consequences for both mothers and their children.

Whilst research from the USA highlights similar myths and destructive beliefs, this blog seeks to outline these myths, the evidence base disproving them, and the dangers of accepting these myths as reality from the perspective of survivors in England and Wales.

Whilst the recent legislation (Domestic Abuse Act, 2021) has taken steps to protect women from Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse (IPVA), it cannot rewrite an individual’s beliefs. This is important to note when it comes to the family courts due to the amount of discretion held by Judges, whether this is intended or not.

For example, fact finding hearings (to ascertain whether IPVA has taken place and examine the evidence) are only ordered if the Judge feels that the findings would impact the outcome of the case. Therefore if an individual believes that IPVA does not impact a child, or that the conflict is relationship based, the IPVA might not be considered as part of the case at all.

Further examples include not giving women the time to discuss the impact of the IPVA on them and their children (because IPVA is viewed as being directed towards a partner and not experienced by the whole family), viewing women as vengeful and therefore being biased towards fathers (e.g. being identified as implacably hostile), the list goes on.

So here we examine four of the six myths that place women and children in danger, and that have potentially contributed to the deaths of 56 children at the hands of fathers known by authorities to have been abusive.

It’s relationship conflict

Women in the study discussed how IPVA was viewed as a conflict between two parents, notably conflict that had little to do with the children involved.

There was no understanding of what domestic violence is about, absolutely none, and they just think it’s to do with the relationship between the two of you and you’re an equal part of that relationship and actually, it’s not like that at all.

Meredith [3], Survivor

In reality, as Meredith alludes to, IPVA is about power and control, with fathers doing anything necessary to maintain this power and control – including using the children to harm the mother (also voiced by professionals taking part in this study). It is not a balanced argument between two people. It is not a ‘difficult divorce’ but a harmful and dangerous power imbalance.

Despite this, professionals were described as unaware of what IPVA entails, with Elena (Survivor) disclosing how a solicitor told her, despite acknowledging her partner as abusive, “it would be better for my ex to have unsupervised as he is at no risk to my children”.

Interlinked with this myth, is the belief that IPVA consists of explosive bouts of uncontrolled anger. Another myth.

Anger is expressive

IPVA consists of instrumental aggression. In other words, it’s goal orientated. The main goal being to maintain the control in the relationship. Abusive fathers do not ‘lose their temper’ in frustration. This is why men that abuse their partners attend behaviour change courses that are specific to IPVA and not general anger management courses. That is a different kind of anger, and placing men that are abusive on an anger management course can be particularly dangerous.

Despite this, women in the study explained how their partner’s anger would be explained away as being upset over the situation, or frustration at not being able to see the children.

Even when he was seeing them and he was really just spending all his time shouting at me, the professionals would say, ‘oh it’s just the sight of you makes him really cross.

Meredith (Survivor)

Some described how this ‘burst of anger’ was viewed as separate to the case. Carry (Survivor) explains “One Judge seemed to believe he was simply upset at separation therefore lashed out at me – but this should not impact on contact”.

The notion here is that IPVA has no impact on the children, or that the children are unaffected by their father screaming at their mother (the evidence suggests otherwise). IPVA has an impact on everyone in the household, resulting in adverse consequences for mothers AND children.

Woman in black and white looking worried

It’s a parenting problem

Federica (Survivor) extends the discussion of parenting, explaining that the family courts view both parents as ineffective once abuse has been disclosed. In fact, Federica was ordered to attend a parenting programme alongside her partner, despite the children describing their mother as their support system and Federica doing everything in her power to protect and empower her children. The joke? Only Federica attended the programme. Her partner didn’t feel the need. The consequences? Zero. This is not uncommon and is highlighted by Refuge as an ‘inappropriate response to domestic abuse’.

Some researchers question the ability of abusive fathers to effectively parent at all if the abusive behaviour is not addressed, something echoed by professionals taking part in this study:

And she was told exactly that in court; ‘well I know he was abusive towards you but that doesn’t make him a bad father’. It does. In my personal opinion, it does. If someone went to prison for assault on another human being you wouldn’t let them come out and look after your children.

Maria (Professional)

Many of the women in the study would agree with this parenting inefficacy, describing the fathers as ‘throwing tantrums’ when they don’t get their own way, manipulating children and/or being particularly authoritarian – but with no clear rules that anyone can follow.

The women in the study felt that the courts didn’t acknowledge the IPVA but suggested that the two parents were unable to parent effectively and that dealing with this would resolve the issue.

But IPVA goes beyond a parenting issue. It is not a lack of communication, or understanding how to implement boundaries. And requiring mothers to attend a parenting programme when there is no evidence to suggest that they are the problem is the wrong message to be sending.

As Julia, a professional participant from the study noted, “A lot of the pressure of the work that we ask them to do is situations that they’ve not put themselves in, they’ve been put in, and now we’re asking them to do the work to keep their children safe, it’s a catch 22.” .

What a charming man!

Part of the issue here (beyond not understanding the dynamics of IPVA and the impact it has) may be the way that abusive men present themselves to others, and professionals being subject to the ‘charm’ of an abuser. What Enander (2010) describes as fathers switching from Jekyll to Hyde.

Enander describes survivors as detailing their partners as having two sides; the side that is charming, sociable and smart and the side that is aggressive, manipulative and controlling. Survivors describe their partner as being able to switch from one to the other with great ease, although it is Dr Jekyll (the charming side) that is displayed to others, making the possibility of Mr Hyde seem unbelievable. Morena (Survivor) states, “out in public you would think he was/is the man/father of the year”.

The emotional work of leaving such a ‘perfect’ illusion can be a challenge in itself but having to convince others that Mr Hyde exists can be a case of life or death when it comes to children and contact arrangements. Again, suggesting a lack of knowledge when it comes to abusive men, Meredith (Survivor) describes how difficult it was to be believed, ultimately having to wait for everyone involved to see the behaviour that she had been disclosing since the beginning.

This included Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), Judges, and other professionals involved in the system:

It was really horrible that they had to wait and see what he would, you know. They had to see for themselves, to experience it for themselves, that, I think, was really awful.

The end result? Mother’s feel punished, revictimized and powerless. In short, abused by the system that is supposed to protect them and their children.

I feel trapped by this horrible person and he seems to get sanctioned by the legal system to do so!

Soraya (Survivor)

Where do we go from here?

For more updates about this PhD, or to find out more, please get in touch.

[1] See previous blog post for a reflection of my own personal experiences researching this topic.

[2] Please note – parental alienation is not considered as part of this blog, but the evidence base shows a clear bias in the family courts towards fathers when it comes to this. In reality, the term derives from a lack of evidence and the notion that mothers alienate children from their fathers in the context of IPVA is a recognised fallacy. If you want to read more about this, please see the work of Meier, and Barnett.

[3] Names of survivors and professionals have been changed throughout to preserve anonymity.

Health & wellbeing

Intimate partner violence among adolescents

Mia Scally Middlesex University

Mia Scally is a research associate with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University. Alongside her colleague, Associate Professor in Forensic Psychology Dr Miranda Horvath, she is currently working on research into the confusion felt by young people involved in abusive relationships.

Research into Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) among adolescents is still in the early phases. Policies are only just being implemented in the United Kingdom to raise awareness, protect and support survivors in this age bracket. The launch of the ‘This is Abuse‘ campaign by the UK government in 2010 highlighted the concerns surrounding adolescent romantic relationships; the recent launch of the ‘Teenage Relationship Abuse’ campaign (Home Office, 2013) shows there is still much to be done.

The definition of domestic violence recently changed (March 2013) to incorporate under-18s and psychological abuse such as control (Home Office, 2012). Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, recently stated: “I have raised concerns about [the levels of] domestic violence prevalent among young people, in particular young girls aged 16 to 19 are probably now most at risk. We may have a new generation [suffering from such abuse]. I have no reason to think this problem is reducing” (in Bowcott, 13th March 2013).

A lack of certainty and destructive beliefs about relationships appears to leave young people vulnerable to Intimate Partner Violence

A lack of research

Despite these concerns, little research has been conducted (Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans, 2009; Wekerle and Tanaka, 2010). Prevalence has been explored to a limited extent. For example Halpern, Oslak, Young, Martin and Kupper (2001) found that 32 per cent of their sample had experienced some form of victimisation (using a sample of 7,493 students ranging from 12 to 21 years of age). Most of the available research reviewed to date seems to reflect this figure, with prevalence being identified for around 30 per cent of participants across research articles. This is particularly concerning when considering the consequences of IPV. Some of the health consequences described as a result of IPV include broken bones, cuts, bruises and general medical intervention (Munoz-Rivas, Grana, O’Leary and Gonzalez, 2007). Obviously, the consequences are not limited to physical harm – they also include emotional and social consequences (which have been considered far more harmful by survivors than use of physical violence).

When looking specifically at adolescent samples, issues come to light that reflect confusion surrounding relationships. Although this confusion is normal, in the case of maladaptive relationships, it can be compounded by a lack of understanding, awareness and support when it comes to IPV. Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009) conducted 91 in-depth interviews and a survey with 1,353 13 to 19 year olds. They found that girls were unable to identify whether abusive behaviours engaged in by partners were intended as coercion or being caring. Normalisation of violence was evident throughout the study and a lack of certainty and destructive beliefs about relationships appears to leave young people vulnerable to IPV.

Fe Ilya - Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Fe Ilya (Creative Commons 2.0)

Healthy relationships

There have been repeated calls to incorporate healthy relationships education in schools (Banister and Leadbeater, 2007; Barter et al, 2009) and while this has been somewhat implemented by external agencies such as Tender, it is by no means widespread, leaving many people of this age group without the skills, knowledge and support that they need (Banister and Leadbeater, 2007; Barter et al, 2009; Josephson and Proulx, 2008).

Reynolds and Shepherd (2011) qualitatively explored three young girl’s experiences of IPV and found they experienced anxiety, isolation and loss of identity. Participants in this study identified confusion surrounding relationships and emotions as the main factors contributing to their vulnerability, reinforcing Barter et al’s (2009) findings. Barter et al (2009) also found that adolescents from their study involved in IPV seemed unsure as to whether help was needed and were unlikely to seek help. If they did, many did not know where to go to get help or sought advice from peers in similar situations who normalised the abuse. The research reviewed suggests that adolescents are uncertain when it comes to relationships and lack the support to deal with this.

Social support

Having social support when leaving a violent relationship is crucial, and with isolation being a feature of abusive relationships, also hard to come by (Banister and Leadbeater, 2007). Reynolds and Shepherd (2011) explain how their participants finally removed themselves from abusive relationships by rebuilding their identities. This was done by re-engaging with their own families, removing themselves from their partner’s families and partaking in activities that were suited to their age group. This highlights the importance of social support and maintaining contact with family.

These research findings show the extent to which adolescents are being affected by IPV and the importance of healthy relationship awareness and positive social support. However, these findings also highlight the lack of literature available on these topics, especially with regards to the UK. More needs to be done to confront this issue and build an evidence base of empirical research.