Allegations of domestic abuse in child contact cases
Joint research by Cafcass and Women’s Aid
This report sets out the findings of a small-scale study undertaken by Cafcass, with Women’s Aid, looking at domestic abuse allegations in 216 child contact cases. The purpose of the study was to look at the types of allegations present in family law court proceedings, including safeguarding concerns other than domestic abuse, and what happened within the proceedings. It did not seek to make findings on the allegations. Quantitative and qualitative data was collected, with the qualitative data exploring the impact of domestic abuse on children.
The main finding was that domestic abuse was alleged in almost two-thirds of cases (62%), with fathers more likely to be the subject of allegations than mothers. The sample cases provided a complex picture of domestic abuse within family proceedings and it was uncommon for domestic abuse allegations to feature in isolation from other safeguarding concerns. This demonstrates the substantial challenge for courts in determining which cases can safely proceed to contact with the child.
Where the order at the final hearing was known, it was less common for unsupervised contact to be ordered in cases featuring allegations of abuse (39%) than cases without (48%). Cases featuring allegations of abuse were more likely to conclude with an order for no direct contact (19%) than cases without (11%), and this was the same for contact that was supervised or monitored in some way (11% and 6% respectively). In the cases where domestic abuse was alleged and unsupervised contact was ordered, unsupervised contact had been taking place between the applicant and the child either at the time of the application to court (67%) or within the six months prior to the application to court (33%). Where known, orders at the first and final hearings were made with the consent of the parties in 89% and 86% of cases respectively. Women’s Aid and Cafcass caution that contact taking place before proceedings and consent may not always equate to an ‘agreement’ about contact and may instead be indicative of a context of coercion or fear.
The qualitative work highlighted the impact for children of experiencing domestic abuse and other harmful parental behaviours such as excessive drinking or violence. Younger children were receiving support at school to improve their attendance and help with socialisation, while older children were receiving more specialist support, such as counselling. In some cases featuring multiple risks, the local authority was working with the children either as ‘children in need’ or more formally under a child protection plan. Children who had experienced domestic abuse had strong views about contact, particularly older children who were less likely to want to have contact with a parent who had been physically violent towards them or a member of the family.