“Let’s make sure children’s safety is at the heart of all decisions made by the family courts…” Katie Ghose, Chief Executive, “Women’s Aid”
(United Kingdom: October 2017) The implementation of Practice Direction 12J (Domestic Abuse) on October 2, 2017, will provide much needed changes in family court to better protect survivors of domestic abuse and their children by defining what a court is required to do “in any case in which it is alleged or admitted, or there is other reason to believe, that the child or a party has experienced domestic abuse perpetrated by another party or that there is a risk of such abuse“.
Practice Direction 12J requires judges to take certain actions in cases where domestic abuse or child abuse allegations are raised. The value of Practice Direction 12J has been embraced because of the potential to save lives; despite the additional work it may impose on family court judges and clerks.
“MPs from all political parties were united in pressing the government to
transform the family court system and ensure that perpetrators can no
longer use family courts to continue abusing women and children...” (“Child First: One Year On”, Women’s Aid”).
Though these measures affect the UK only – these mandated changes are such a tremendous step to improving family court for survivors of abuse and their children, that they are certainly worthy of consideration for other family law courts, worldwide.
An Outline – Practice Direction 12J (Domestic Abuse):
- The court presumes the role of both parents in a child’s life is in their best interest unless there is evidence to the contrary.
- Expands the definition of Domestic Abuse to include psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional, or culturally specific abuse as well as coercive and controlling behavior. Culturally specific forms of abuse include, but are not limited to, forced marriage, child marriage, honour-based violence, dowry-related abuse and marriage abandonment.
- The court must make safety a priority in cases involving abuse for both the child and for the parent whom the child is living with. Custody and visitation orders should not expose either to further harm.
- The court cannot compel parties to participate in resolution or conciliation efforts which are not suitable or not safe.
- If the court is advised by any party, or by CPS or social services, that there is a need for special arrangements to protect the party or child during proceedings, the court must ensure proper arrangements until no longer necessary.
- When considering allegations of domestic abuse or child abuse in proceedings, family court judges must follow specific recommendations. Before issuing a custody or visitation order, the court must explain why contact ordered does not pose a risk to the child and is in the child’s best interest.
- Specific practices are mandated for courts when handling cases of domestic abuse or child abuse when findings of abuse are substantiated, or allegations are admitted. “The court should make an order for contact only if it is satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living can, as far as possible, be secured before during and after contact, and that the parent with whom the child is living will not be subjected to further domestic abuse by the other parent…”
Women’s Aid, a collective comprised of a group of charities across England working together to end domestic abuse against women and children, was instrumental in the passage of Practice Direction 12J. Women’s Aid worked diligently to raise public awareness of the impact of domestic abuse on children, and raise awareness of the need for changes in family court to prevent unsafe custody and visitation decisions. Raising awareness was crucial to garnering support from the community, and from lawmakers, needed to implement what became Practice Direction 12J.
In January 2016, Women’s Aid launched a major campaign Child First to make the family court process safer for victims of abuse and their children. Recommendations suggested by Child First were later adopted into Practice Direction 12J. Child First is motivated by a report conducted by Women’s Aid that details, over a 10 year period, the tragic stories of 19 children and 2 women intentionally killed in situations relating to parent contact with an abuser. Of these cases, there were 12 cases of child murder that resulted after the family court arranged contact with the abuser. Sadly, less than a year after the report was released, another child was murdered – bringing the number up to 20. Women’s Aid argued these deaths were avoidable, that family court failed to recognize (or dismissed) concerns of domestic abuse, and failed to take measures to protect victims contributing to further harm.
Women’s Aid is now fighting to pass a measure to require compulsory training to all judges on domestic abuse, how it manifests post separation, and training regarding the devastating effect of abuse on children. With improved training, judges will be better able to identify and understand domestic abuse – and be better prepared to handle cases involving abuse; including issuing orders that truly uphold the best interests of children.
The efforts of Women’s Aid is inspiring for all – parents, advocates, professionals, politicians, etc – to draw strength, and ideas, from when considering how we can impact positive change, or press for reform in the effort to prevent and end domestic abuse in our communities. And inspiring in our own efforts to improve the systemic responses to abuse (family court and beyond).
The call to action is urgent – too many abuse victims, and their children, are being further abused, and even killed, because of family court failures. The children who survive being court ordered into contact or custody with an abuser suffer lifelong physical and emotional scars. Sadly some of these child survivors contemplate suicide, and some succeed in taking their lives. As Women’s Aid has shown, these abuses and deaths are entirely preventable.
We, in America, look across the ocean towards the UK and see that family court reform is possible… and just like an ocean, sometimes our efforts seem like a ripple, too small to make a difference. But the passage of the historic Practice Direction 12J has shown us that no ripple is ever insignificant, indeed, it these ripples that push the ocean, causing sweeping change from sea to shore.