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British Children Are Dying at the Hands of Their Fathers – and It Could Be Stopped

A UK charity detailed the deaths of 19 children from 12 families intentionally killed by their fathers between January 2005 and August 2015, and explained how this could be avoided.

by Cat McShane
Jan 27 2016, 6:25pm

Photo by Andy Rain/EPA

Before he died from 50 per cent burns, 12-year-old Jack was able to tell a police officer and hospital consultant: "It was my dad that started the fire... My dad did it on purpose."

Jack's brother, Paul, also died in the blaze, together with their father Darren who had been reported to a UK family court five months earlier by the boys' mother Claire as being "bullying, controlling, and verbally threatening and abusive to the children." Her description, which was part of an application for the boys to live with her, also noted that Darren had told her that, "he had nothing to live for and intended to commit suicide."

The children had also previously told social workers they were scared of their father, one describing him as "pure nasty."

The court nevertheless granted him two unsupervised visits with the boys every week. Two days after their last meeting, where Paul's wishes to see less of his father were discussed, both boys were dead. A report following the fire said a family court advisor had failed to read Claire's application in its "entirety."

Related: Cops in England Are Struggling to Deal With 'Staggering' Domestic Abuse

British charity Women's Aid released a report last week detailing the deaths of 19 children from 12 families intentionally killed by their fathers between January 2005 and August 2015.

In all cases, domestic abuse was a reason for the couple's separation, but the father had unsupervised access to the children. For 12 of the children killed, the British courts had arranged contact with him, including unsupervised overnight stays.

The report, called Nineteen Child Homicides, recommends that domestic abuse is recognized as harmful to children, with the woman's safety intrinsically linked to the child's. One study mentioned found that over a third of under-18s who had lived with domestic violence had also been abused or neglected by a parent or guardian.

The report also calls for an overthrow of the "contact at all costs" culture that it suggests is embedded within the court system. "The family court is there to protect a child, not the rights of fathers," Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of Women's Aid, told VICE News.

Only one in 10 of separating couples end up in the family courts, but domestic violence is a factor in 70 percent of those cases.

Women's Aid found in their review that an abusive parent was too easily able to present himself to the court as a good father, regardless of the severity of his violence towards the mother. 

'A father killing his children can be seen as the ultimate enactment of power-wielding, rather than 'losing it' in a temporary loss of control'

The report quotes Lord Justice Wall and his response to a 2006 report which Women's Aid believes is as relevant now: "It is, in my view, high time that the family justice system abandoned any reliance on the proposition that a man can have a history of violence to the mother of his children but, nonetheless, be a good father."

Due to cuts in UK legal aid, which used to offer victims free or heavily subsidized legal representation, women are also at risk of being directly questioned by their abuser, which the report recommends is forbidden. It also advocates that professionals like social workers and judges have training so they understand the dynamics of domestic abuse.

It states that agencies failed to show a proper understanding of how violence and control often continues or gets worse after separation — so pursuing child contact might be a means of enacting this continuing control. "In this light, a father killing his children can be seen as the ultimate enactment of power-wielding, rather than 'losing it' in a temporary loss of control," it said.

Nine of the 12 men who killed their children were known to have continued to abuse their ex-partner after separating and in two of the cases the mother was killed too.

The report also recommends the family courts recognize that child contact can offer an abusive man the opportunity to further control a woman. In one case, a woman had escaped to a refuge and started life anew with her children. It was access granted through the family courts that brought her abusive ex back into their lives, which led to the children's deaths.

Related: While Murders of Black Women in Brazil Rise Sharply — Murders of White Women Fall

The report also calls for vital information to be properly shared between the courts and other agencies like the police, and for abusive fathers to be better held to account for their behavior.

Jules, a 42-year-old mother of two, spoke to VICE News about her experience of the family court system. Despite separating from her ex-husband Ben five years ago, the court only became involved last year when he applied for formal access. The children had become increasingly insistent they didn't want to see him, and specifically stay over at his house. He believes this is Jules' fault.

Jules said that entering into the family courts she felt confident that her case would be treated sympathetically, as she had so much evidence of his abusive behavior. It started when she was pregnant and he became gradually more controlling.

"He'd say he was going to drown me, or that I only had three months left," she said. Eventually he raped her. "I wanted to scream, but I was worried about waking up the children." Ben was also abusive towards the children. "It got to the stage where they would hide under the bed when they heard his key in the front door," Jules said.

The turning point was when Jules discovered her then-husband was spying on her with a webcam set up in the bedroom, which he could watch from his computer at work. One night soon after, when he was away, she moved out to her mother's house with the help of a friend.

Jules was stunned to be told she needed to meet with Ben and two non-specialist psychologists to discuss access. Ben told the psychologists that it was Jules controlling him, that she'd wrecked the marriage and spent money irresponsibly. In fact, says Jules, "he was spending money on cocaine and strip clubs."

"I had two meetings like this. I was being forced to meet with someone had emotionally, physically and sexually abused me." She went on to be diagnosed with PTSD and developed anxiety attacks.

The family court sided with Ben and ordered Jules to facilitate weekly visits between him and their children. She feels no consideration was given by the court into the children's evidence, who made their anxieties clear, or the long history of controlling and abusive behavior that she had catalogued. "I've lost faith in the family courts. It was awful to sit there and listen to him lie about me and the children."

'In cases involving a perpetrator of domestic abuse, the family courts need to challenge the existing "contact at all costs" culture'

Visits remain highly fraught situations, with the children claiming to be "ill" the night before and often refusing to leave. Jules believes the children have suffered long-lasting damage. Both children are highly anxious and require additional support at school.

When a child is either seriously injured or dies, where abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor, a Serious Case Review is held by local senior professionals from multiple agencies including social work and the police. It investigates the circumstances around the death or injury and the findings are shared nationally.

The reviews for the 12 families in this report described the serious domestic abuse that preceded these children's deaths as "conflictual," "parental disharmony," and "acrimonious."

These vague terms, used by people who have power to change the situation, indicate how much the conversation around domestic violence still needs to change if further deaths are to be prevented.

"This failure to identify who holds the power and control is a major barrier in assessing and addressing the safety of the child(ren) and non-abusive parent," said the report.

"In cases involving a perpetrator of domestic abuse, the family courts need to challenge the existing 'contact at all costs' culture in order to always put the child first," concluded the report. "Unless this happens, the family courts will continue to enable circumstances that can ultimately cost the lives of the children they are set up to serve, and sometimes their mothers' lives too."

Claire is imploring the government to take notice of the report and prevent other families going through what hers did. "No parent should have to hold their children and comfort them as they die, or be told that their child has been harmed in an act of revenge or rage," she said.

"In another 10 years, we must not yet again be repeating the same investigation, with the same findings," said Neate.

Follow Cat McShane on Twitter: @CatMcShane

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