Caroline was a vibrant, talented woman who spoke her mind. A successful author, she married a well-connected man and they seemed to have the world at their feet. They went on to have three children, all boys. Caroline was a devoted mother. Her husband was a well-respected man in politics and law.
But Caroline and the children would walk on eggshells whilst her husband George would be hard-drinking and regularly, brutally abusing Caroline. The children would be acutely aware of these terrifying incidents. Caroline feared for her and her children’s safety. She knew the boys were just as likely to be harmed by him as she was.
She filed for divorce.
Caroline’s abuser was legally permitted to systematically destroy each aspect of her and the children’s lives. Subjected to human rights abuses in court, she lost access to her sons on the word of her violent ex-husband. He was indulged by the court system who provided him with total control. He was able to continue his abuse of her financially, emotionally, physically, and professionally. He faced no consequences for his actions.
Caroline Norton had applied to divorce George Norton in 1836, yet her story follows a similar pattern to the testimony I hear today.
What the court said then and what court says now is not that different. It routinely ignores Domestic Abuse and its insidious, often lethal patterns. It refuses to entertain any suggestion of the risk to survivor families. Instead the court gives weekly opportunities at the minimum to perpetrators and brick walls where justice should be, for victims.
Family court is where a man’s word really is worth more than a woman’s (evidenced) truth.
Such is the culture of disbelief in the family court, evidence is routinely ignored.
It is where non-consensual sex is not rape, and lethal patterns of stalking and coercive control are the mark of a desperate, loving father. It is where seeking help from a Domestic Abuse organisation is considered manipulative. Trying to manage the real risks posed to children is considered an act of hostility. Breastfeeding an infant, described as ‘an act of alienation’.
It is where frightened children who have witnessed or have been subjected to abuse themselves are routinely ignored. If they don’t react eagerly to contact with an abuser it is decided, (using cutting-edge ideology and a hand-picked expert) that the child has been alienated by the mother. She was obstructing contact all along. How can we punish and stigmatise her?
Dr Adrienne Barnett of Brunel University, London, found in her ground-breaking 2020 study about the use of Parental Alienation, that “the case law revealed a high incidence of domestic abuse perpetrated by parents (principally fathers) who were claiming that the resident parents (principally mothers) had alienated the children against them, which raises questions about the purpose of PA”.We know that a counter allegation of Parental Alienation in response to Domestic Abuse is the ultimate weapon for an abuser. It enables them to silence and punish a victim in the court room with terrifying regularity.
If mothers don’t enthusiastically agree to the prospect of the children having unsupervised access with a parent who has abused them, then they are the problem. Be quiet about your safeguarding concerns, the known risks, that awful case on the news, the abysmal child homicide record. We will take our chances with your children, the court said.
“Don’t worry, if he does kill the child, we will prosecute.” This is said to mothers with sarcasm, by practitioners who should know better, with alarming frequency.
This is what victim blaming looks like. It feels utterly barbaric.
We compare notes. By doing this thousands of times with thousands of survivors, we know an awful lot about injustice.
Many survivors who interact with the #thecourtsaid campaign say, “If I had known about what would happen in Family Court I would never have left.” With the system as it is, we go from the frying pan into the fire after we are told to just leave.
Collectively, we knew by lived experience what research confirmed. Domestic Abusers are not good for children, with 62% of Domestic Abusers directly harming their own children.
Yet the safe parent, usually (but not always) the mother, is who stands to lose the children when they report abuse. Joan Meier found that mothers lose custody 28% of the time when they allege abuse.
This systemic injustice is a symptom of an underbelly of misogyny that runs rampant throughout the system. The failings have been confirmed by way of a judicial review. The Family Court is presiding over a spectrum of misery, and inquiries like this need to happen everywhere. Globally, our stories mirror each other’s. This is the other pandemic.
Survivors voices are central to the #thecourtsaid movement. Those voices also helped to secure the review into Family Justice in the UK and the planned reforms. Now we must secure the reforms in real terms, by keeping survivors voices central to that, too. Our attention in the UK, is on the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill as it now moves through the House of Lords. Caroline Norton left her mark there, too.
Caroline’s tireless campaigning led to laws being passed that would begin to change the landscape for mothers. Her triumph over injustice was well known. When an artist was commissioned to paint a historic mural in the House of Lords, he secretly chose Caroline Norton as the model for lady justice. She still looks over the House of Lords today. I wonder if any of the people sitting in that historic chamber today would even know she is there.
Her story is our story. To look at the accounts coming into the #thecourtsaid campaign is to look at a blueprint of catastrophic failure, globally. Children subjected to post-separation abuse clock up ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) like barristers clock up cases. Survivors are subjected to endless trauma, litigation, bled dry financially and emotionally. Family Court is a decades long journey into post-separation abuse. But the court said the cure happened when you left, and there is nothing to see.
George Norton was able to deliver the ultimate pain and injustice to Caroline by moving out of jurisdiction, taking the boys to Scotland. She would never see them again, despite her winning changes in law. One son subsequently died from his father’s neglect.
Everything and nothing changed since 1836. Child homicides continue, the out-pouring of grief, the promises to make changes. Lessons learned, thoughts and prayers. Little Keira was killed in a murder-suicide, by her father during court ordered contact in February 2020. He was a known Domestic Abuser. Keira’s courageous mom, Jennifer, is leading #thecourtsaid in Canada. There are many more children like Keira, and many moms like Jennifer. When Domestic Abuse is ignored, people become statistics.
#thecourtsaid was created as a collective voice for change, by survivors, for survivors. If anyone is serious about tackling Domestic Abuse, they must be serious enough to tackle the Family Court. It is where the buck should stop for Domestic Abuse cases, and where reforms need to begin. For now, it is where the abuse continues, and court proceedings become a roulette.
In the UK with the review confirming what we have been saying, and COVID-19 revealing the extent of the emergency, our sights turn to establishing a vehicle for recourse. The wrongs need to be righted. The law has continually shown that it is not working to a sufficient standard for those who have experienced Domestic Abuse, and the time for accountability is now.
I believe unswervingly that survivors have the power to leave the world a better place for generations to come. I believe we must amplify our voices collectively, because there is an important global conversation that needs to be had. How we as individuals, groups, institutions, and nations, respond to Domestic Abuse. I believe we can have this conversation through uniting our voices for reform, and I hope that you join us, too.
 Safelives UK 2019
 Joan Meier