I Just wanted to say an enormous Thank You to everyone who co-signed our letter to Robert Buckland QC MP asking for redress of unsafe decisions made in light of the Family Court Review.
Some of you will know me from my campaign #GetMHome and some will have followed my journey so far to try to gain justice.
For those who haven’t yet come across my campaign, I’ll give you the background.
I found myself in the Family Courts in 2017, after a horrendous 2 years of fighting a losing battle where admitted abuse by the perpetrator was ignored, minimised and then blamed on me, my daughter was removed from my care and given to the perpetrator for reasons we have seen time and time again in the Family Courts. The horrific removal video was placed online by a witness and through this I gained the support of many prominent domestic abuse campaigners, commissioners, celebrities, charities and MPs.
I told my story publicly in March 2019 and in April 2019 the Parental Rights (Rapists) and Family Courts Bill 2017-19 was put into Parliament by Louise Haigh MP for an independent inquiry into Family Courts and highlight what domestic abuse victims and their children go through in the secret family court system. The Ministry of Justice agreed that a review into the Family courts was needed.
I continued campaigning and risked my liberty speaking out, I was threatened with prison, injunctions were placed on me, but I still kept speaking out as nothing was changing.
In June 2020 the Family Court Review came out, we were all vindicated! Everything we said was happening in the draconian system was published in the report.
So, my daughter can come home, right?
My case was raised in Parliament, printed in the media several times, Baroness’ (who sit in the House of Lords) support. I was asked to take part in the Ministry of Justice Focus Group with Womens Aid, as part of the Ministry Of Justice review. Everything I explained that happened in my case was evidenced in the review by many others, a major overhaul of the Family Courts was instructed!
So, my daughter can come home now, right?
No, nothing had been put in place for all the cases they got wrong. All the children who have gone before this review and all the cases currently still going through Family Court are still receiving the same barbaric, cruel treatment.
Children are still being forced to attend unsafe contact and those children who raised abuse while visiting those parents (who were then removed from the safe parent to the abuser) are still there.
So those children may still have 10/15 years of abuse, the safe parent mentally tortured watching them go through it
There is no redress on any of these cases?
In response to this I set up my new campaign Justice For Family Court Children #JusticeForFCchildren asking for 2 things;
1. Unsafe contact orders to be made safe.
2. Any children removed from the safe parent to the perpetrator to be brought home to the safe parent
#thecourtsaid wants the same thing, recourse on these cases, so we decided to join forces.
We ask for every single parent and child (who is old enough) to write to your MP, ask them to lobby the Justice Minister Robert Buckland and put something in place for justice for our children, for us It may take a little time out of your life, but it may stop thousands of victims of abuse being put through more state sanctioned abuse through the Family Courts
You may not even have been affected directly, but if it is a friend, a relative, a co-worker, please also write…..we need an army……we need you!
Petition PE01458 Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s Judiciary
Dear committee members
We are a group of domestic abuse survivors who have spent many years in the family court system. We hope you will consider our views from our lived experiences, from the frontline. We believe there must be a register of judge’s interests; our reasons are as follows.
If a judge is a member of an association, such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), then this could be detrimental to victims of domestic abuse and their children. If an interest could negatively impact users of the system, then that interest should be public knowledge.
The AFCC is a long-standing American association which is branching out into Europe and further afield. Its members are family court professionals including judges, lawyers, service providers to the family court industry, and court expert witnesses such as mental health professionals.
The AFCC are generally proponents of;
As raised in debates on the recent Children (Scotland) Bill, these concepts can harm victims of domestic abuse (should they be in legislation). These matters were rejected by parliament when considering the bill, bringing more protection to the vulnerable; however, in our experience, the concept of parental alienation is still brought into the courtroom, even when not in legislation.
You may say that the judicial oath, the statement of principles and ethics and the system for complaints against the judiciary are sufficient to prevent judicial bias. We have good reason to believe this is not always the case.
When ‘parental alienation’ is counterclaimed to ‘domestic abuse’ in the courtroom, then in some cases the focus moves away from the evidence of abuse, and the spotlight shines on the apparent ‘alienating behaviour’. It is common knowledge amongst domestic abuse victims that complaining of any sort during the process can be considered as evidence against the victim and for the abusive parent.
When victims of domestic abuse feel that certain professionals within the system have mistreated them or their children, they are often scared, worried and anxious. Judges hold immense power; the power to remove their children to care, transfer the residency of their children to the other parent, and the power to hold them in contempt; the power to send them to jail. When a domestic abuse victim is in court proceedings, they are in a constant state of fear; fear of their ex and fear of the power the judge holds. They would never dream of complaining to the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services about the judge on their case whilst their case is ongoing, or about any other professionals in the system. Lawyers and others who support victims of abuse do not encourage victims to complain, and victims often have no idea that there is a route to complain until long after they have left the system (after the time to complain has lapsed).
There is an air of secrecy around the family courts. The factors contributing to the secrecy are;
The lack of a register of interests for family court system professionals including judges
The restrictions placed on journalists
The inability for parents to speak freely about their case when they feel misconduct has taken place
Therefore, any move the government can make to address the matters of secrecy, fear of complaint, and judicial bias would be helpful to domestic abuse victims and their children. A move towards transparency and openness would undoubtedly help restore the user’s confidence in the administration of justice by the family courts. Therefore, we fully support the register of interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary.
Injustice is a strong word, particularly when you claim to be on the receiving end of it following court proceedings. Shout the word injustice in the wrong tone, at the wrong pitch on social media, and you run the risk of being considered disgruntled, hostile or vengeful.
When your family court experience starts to cause immense pain; when it tortures you and your child emotionally, you seek answers. You must understand why your experience has been so cruel. In the 21st century, we head to the internet for explanations. When you find hundreds of other women, globally, who have experienced the same pattern of harm, shouting not only injustice but ‘collusion’, at first, you are hesitant.
Once again, one questions and seeks answers. You can’t entirely dismiss the possibility of collusion, yet you can’t quite believe it to be true. You become an investigative journalist to get to the core reason for your harrowing lived experience of the justice system. You often shudder at what lays beneath the murky waters on your journey of discovery.
When the dots are all joined, and you realise collusion has taken place within the family courts, you are shocked at first, and then angered. You discover that self-serving interest, immorality, and patriarchal beliefs are the reasons children are being removed from safe homes, sent into dangerous ones, being harmed, and sometimes being killed.
Governments in the UK are working hard to radically reform their justice systems to make them a fairer, kinder and safer environment for victims of domestic abuse.
Mothers of the family court crisis were tricked by those who’s ideology and beliefs were extreme, outdated, and biased. Some mothers are still faced with draconian treatment in UK courtrooms today. They are silenced with threats, engulfed in fear and are desperately worried about the fate of their child. Governments have acknowledged the harm; however, governments must consider, and take prompt action for those children stuck in unsafe contact arrangements right now; they desperately need help.
The scoundrels in the system were not prepared for the 21st century, the era of social media. No wonder they consider it to be problematic. They never expected silenced, scared mothers from around the world to break through their fear, band together, share their experiences and raise their voices.
To survivors of the family court crisis, whose human rights have often been breached, the word injustice means betrayal. Studies on institutional betrayal prove that inflicting malpractice and wrongdoing on those who depend on a system has damaging psychological effects. Survivors are brought up to treat others with kindness and fairness, and to apologise and make amends if they cause someone harm; this is our shared belief system.
When a government responds appropriately to a crisis; makes amends, deals with misconduct, and prevents harm from happening to others, it does several things. It restores faith in our leaders; it helps to heal those the system harmed, and it restores confidence; confidence for the domestic abuse victims currently embroiled in the system and confidence for those victims following in the wake of the brave warriors, and their children, who survived it.
Rachel heads #thecourtsaid (Scotland) campaign and hopes to help bring about robust legislation to protect victims of domestic abuse in the family justice system in the future. Rachel is the author of ‘How To Annihilate A Narcissist In The Family Court’, a survival guide, written to help victims safely navigate their family court journey in the meantime.
You can find Rachel on Social media @thecourtsaidSCO @RWatson_insight (Twitter)
Suzanne (not her real name) left her husband due to Domestic Abuse. She engaged with services who helped her move with the children to a place of safety. The children settled well at school and things were starting to look up. The Family Court papers arrived, but she managed to get some legal aid and a high street solicitor to help. ‘We are safe, that’s the main thing’ Suzanne told herself, because she initially trusted the judges to listen. She had evidence, there had been a MARAC, Police records, Social Services reports. She thought she would be believed, and the children protected.
Despite her faith in justice, she was finding Family Court traumatic. Suzanne went to the Doctors and told them what had happened to her, how she had been raped and abused. How she felt she was on trial, not him. She explained the persistent night terrors and panic attacks that had started. How she struggled to switch off and was in a constant state of ‘high alert’. How her memories had become an unwelcome intrusion. The Doctor prescribed beta blockers for the emerging PTSD symptoms, and the referral for counselling was marked urgent.
Suzanne tried to get on with her life. She read on social media it was ‘okay not to be okay’, and that there was no shame in seeking help. She was told she did the right thing because she left and that what was wrong with her was PTSD, and not her fault. She tried hard to look after herself and her children. She went for regular meet ups with a couple of the mums from the children’s new school but had not confided about her situation. She wanted a fresh start, she just wanted to feel better.
During one of these outings her counsellor rang for the first time and asked to schedule an appointment. She was asked a few things about how she was feeling and whether she was currently in crisis. Feeling awkward in the café, with people who did not know her situation, she said she could not really talk right now, but was fine, thanks for asking. She confirmed the appointment and hung up. The counsellor wrote on the brief notes “Suzanne says she is fine, appointment made for [date]”
Neither of them thought anymore of it.
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Before Suzanne attended the first counselling appointment, her fact-finding hearing was held in Family Court. She was being cross examined by her ex-husband’s barrister on the evidence of Domestic Abuse. The rape allegations were not to be discussed in Family Court as there was still an open criminal investigation. During the cross examination, her ex-husband’s barrister started to laugh loudly. Rounding on Suzanne, she asserted that the abuse allegations were just a malicious lie and began taunting her about why she would not be cross examined on the rape allegation. Was she scared of being caught in a lie?
“What rape victim says they are “fine”? You’re a liar, aren’t you Suzanne” She bellowed, waving a sheet of paper. “You’ve just come here today to tell a pack of lies!”
Suzanne realised the paper the barrister was reading from was her rape counselling notes, which held one throwaway comment, given on that phone call in the middle of the café. The damage was done, before she had even turned up to the appointment. She did not know how the barrister got hold of it.
Distressed and horrified, she was unable to defend the allegations because she feared jeopardising the open criminal investigation. She would be ordered to co-parent weekly with her (alleged) rapist, without it ever being heard, with no safety measures in place. The judge wrote that although the allegations had not been examined due to the police investigation, he thought it was fabricated. The criminal case consequently collapsed.
All around us are those that (quite rightly) chant the mantra of “reach out” if you are in difficulty, whilst they have no idea that for many, this is simply not possible. Suzanne is now mistrustful of reaching out to anyone, knowing that whatever she says is likely to be raked over by the court, and her abuser. She continued to suffer without treatment, because her case also continued.
After a final hearing in Family Court with an abuser, the next round is often not far away. In many cases, a final hearing is merely a temporary cease-fire before you are onto the next case. For victims, this means recovery is nigh on impossible, with continued, repeated exposure to the trauma.
Children are being denied NHS treatment relating to trauma that others can freely access. A doctor spoke of a 14-year-old boy he was treating for self-harm & anxiety, who had disclosed suffering violence at the hands of his father to his School & the Police. He had been ordered to live with his father against his will by the Family Court, despite these reports. The boy’s protests, anxiety and self-harming had been blamed on the mother. Subsequently the father emails a Court order to the Doctor, saying that the child can no longer be treated by him, the CAMHS referral, halted. The mother later spoke with the Doctor, in tears of despair. Asking how anyone can protect her son if even his GP is not allowed to assist in treating him. The Doctor’s hands are tied. The mother’s ‘crimes’ were reporting Domestic Abuse and taking a self-harming 14 year old to the Doctor. The child is now living with a perpetrator, cut off from avenues of help. This is not an isolated case.
A group of Health Visitors were also horrified to learn that a mother they had been supporting with establishing breastfeeding, had been ordered to stop, because breastfeeding was considered “an act of alienation” towards the father. She later de-registered from the Health Visitor service.
Survivor Families are being ordered by the Family Court not to access tailored Domestic Abuse support; in case they come to believe that the abuse happened (FYI – they already know it happened, they lived it). You cannot seek help as a victim, unless the Family Court say you are a victim. With the culture of disbelief in the system about the fact that Domestic Abuse even occurs, this stance means that many, many families face the prospect of never getting the help they need to move on from Domestic Abuse if they are also in Family Court.
The Family Court also make the climate utterly treacherous to anyone suffering the very real and present effects of living with ongoing Domestic Abuse, and the associated injury of PTSD. “If mother keeps going on about abuse, we may as well take the child now” is commonly said. One survey relating to barriers for mothers seeking mental health support, reported that 30% of women withheld negative feelings from Health Care Professionals often due to fear of their baby being taken away1. Whilst these fears can often be unfounded, in the Family Court these fears are representative of a very real and pressing danger. Those who have come to understand the system for what it is, are rarely able to seek treatment for the health issues that often develop, as a direct result of compounded, repeated trauma.
When Perpetrators are emboldened by the Family Court, they often try to make good on the threat to remove the children from the victim (usually the mother). Parental Alienation is likely to be alleged, fitness to parent questioned. The privately paid experts’ form an orderly queue ready to write reports confirming either the mother’s vulnerability or hostility, depending on the narrative (and budget) of the case. This often means that those who have come to understand the system for what it is, are rarely able to reach out when they are not okay.
During the COVID-19 Lockdown, we saw the horrors of Domestic Abuse revealed all around us. We also dutifully clapped for the NHS. The NHS professionals who have caught an unfortunate glimpse of the Family Court will know that when a mother with PTSD says she is in Family Court for Domestic Abuse, they will be less able to help her or her children. Tragically, five women a week lose their lives in the UK because of Domestic Abuse, three of which will take their own lives.
It should not be the Family Court who decides that out of those who have survived Domestic Abuse, who then gets to access treatment to recover from it.
On Friday 21st August 2020, thecourtsaid.org published an open letter to the government calling for recourse for victims affected by the Domestic Abuse Crisis in the Family Court.
This crisis has the potential to continue for many months or even years before reform is achieved. Recommendations for reform, detailed in the Family Court Review are yet to be implemented, leaving those fleeing Domestic Abuse at continued risk of harm. Those already subject to unsafe Family Court orders, also remain at risk.
Leading charities, organisations, academics, activists, and campaigners have backed the campaign’s call for justice, including Welsh Women’s Aid, Safelives, Paladin, White Ribbon and many more.
In a joint effort from #thecourtsaid and #getmhome, the third sector has rallied in support of survivor family justice.
You can read the open letter, and list of signatories here.
View the organisations calling for recourse
Without urgent action in the interim, thousands of families will be subject to unsafe orders. Many more will have their children unjustly removed for the crimes they endured, but did not commit.
Survivors need to know that there will be a mechanism for recourse accessible to those who have been unjustly treated by the Family Court. It is unacceptable that cases currently in the system have been informed that it is ‘too late’ for them. It is unacceptable that those living with the catastrophic consequences of Family Court injustice have no viable, reliable way of redressing their families’ situation.
Without measures to establish an independent case review, and a mechanism for reversing poor decisions, families are left with no redress. Those who are suffering continued abuse through child arrangements, have no end in sight.
The government stated that they want the abuse to stop.
The government must recognise that they have the power to make it stop for thousands of families, by establishing an independent mechanism for recourse.
Survivor Families deserve better.
Click to tweet your support!
I stand with Survivors, because no family should be forced to live with Domestic Abuse. Charities join with calls for urgent justice, due to systemic harm in Family Court. It’s time to put things right.
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.