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Five mums have died after family courts allowed fathers accused of abuse to apply for contact with their children, a BBC investigation has found.
Some took their own lives, another had a heart attack outside court.
One mother, whose child was ordered to live with a convicted child rapist, would no longer eat and drink and “gave up living”, friends say.
A separate study has found 75 children forced into contact with fathers who had been previously reported for abuse.
In some cases, in the England-wide study carried out by the University of Manchester and revealed for the first time by the BBC, the fathers were convicted paedophiles.
All the fathers in the study had responded in court to allegations of abuse with a disputed concept known as “parental alienation”, in which they claimed the mothers had turned the child against them without good reason.
Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, who led the research, says the concept is a “handy tool for abusers” and its acceptance by courts is a “national scandal”.
Family law barrister, Lucy Reed KC, says the term is deployed “increasingly frequently” – but doesn’t always mean the same thing. “It’s quite often used by fathers to mean pretty much anything that is in opposition to their demand for a certain amount of contact.”
The 45 mothers of the children in the University of Manchester study all reported serious health problems which they believed were linked to the stress of family court proceedings – including miscarriages, heart attacks and suicidal thoughts.
For months, the BBC has also been examining stories of traumatised women as part of a wider investigation into the way the family courts handle domestic violence claims in disputes between parents.
Because of the laws surrounding reporting of the court proceedings, intended to protect children, the women’s names and some identifying details have been changed.
Domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs says the “harrowing” cases uncovered by the BBC show there is a need for “urgent and wide-reaching reform” of family courts. Abusers aided by unregulated experts were using “so-called parental alienation” to “deflect from their own abusive behaviour”, she says.
The BBC has learned the government is investigating whether further action is needed on “alienation” and – since we made the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) aware of our investigation – the judiciary has issued new draft guidelines for consultation on handling parental alienation claims in domestic abuse cases. But some experts say they don’t go far enough.
Grace and the child rapist
Grace was madly in love with her partner at first – friends told the BBC – but later she discovered he had previously been jailed for raping a child. The friends said she was also abused by him.
After Grace and her partner separated, he refused to return their child and accused her of being mentally unwell. He said there was a risk she would “alienate” them from him.
The family court was aware of his conviction but believed the risk to the child could be managed.
One friend said Grace felt disbelieved throughout the court proceedings and “her soul just completely disappeared”.
In one of her last messages to her group of friends, seen by the BBC, Grace wrote: “I’m unable to eat or sleep, it’s a mess, I hate the family court. Dead dead dead.”
Her health declined and she died after the final court hearing, in which her child was ordered to live with her abusive partner.
Another friend told the BBC: “When you emotionally and mentally give up, I suppose her body followed. It was almost like they signed the death warrant. It was 100% the family court.”
The case of another mother – who took her own life after two years of family court proceedings – highlights what a drawn-out legal process can do to the mental health of a vulnerable person.
A published judgement of the case – of the woman we are calling Sarah – details extreme abuse. Before her death, the judge determined in a fact-finding hearing that she had been raped by her partner, who drank excessively and became aggressive. Her partner punched her in the chest, slapped her in the face and threw her against the bannister.
He put CCTV in the house to monitor Sarah and their two children and would not even allow them to use the bathroom without keeping the door open. He also threatened Sarah, saying he would reveal footage of her inside the bedroom.
After she left him, he also placed trackers in her car, the judge concluded.
Parental alienation was brought up in proceedings, with the father saying he wanted contact with his children. Eventually the father was denied contact, but by then Sarah had killed herself.
The judge said she had “huge regret” that the proceedings had taken so long and had “evidently been so difficult for the mother to cope with”.
When another mother died waiting outside the family court, a doctor told the inquest into her death that her cardiac arrest could have been linked to “broken heart syndrome” and the emotional distress of proceedings.
According to coroner’s documents, seen by the BBC, the mother had alleged she was a victim of domestic violence. We understand parental alienation was not a feature of the case, and the woman’s children had been removed from her care.
In another case, friends of a mother who had spent time in a refuge for domestic abuse victims told the BBC she had been so traumatised by her medical records being discussed in the case that she later refused to visit a doctor, even when she had a serious illness.
One friend said the mother had felt like “her ex, an abuser, was in control” in the court – because her former partner had labelled her as mentally ill and accused her of parental alienation, turning their child against him.
After her child was ordered to live with her former partner, the mother was afraid of being taken back to the family court and losing what little contact she had, another friend said.
The mother became unwell with a treatable illness but sought medical attention too late – and eventually died of sepsis.
The story of women fleeing the UK with their kids. They say the system has failed them.
Sheila: ‘She never recovered’
Parental alienation was brought up by a family court judge in Sheila’s first hearing, as a warning to her.
People close to her say she had suffered coercive and controlling behaviour for years from an abusive partner, and had been bombarded with emails, calls and messages at all hours – even after they split.
When her former partner applied for greater access to their child, loved ones urged her to see the family court as a friend – but they now say they bitterly regret that advice.
Before any expert reports had been commissioned, the judge said in their opinion the case involved parental alienation and the court took it extremely seriously.
People who knew her well said she was traumatised by the hearing – which went in favour of the father.
“She felt like she’d go to prison if she did anything wrong,” the BBC was told. “She never recovered, she was now controlled by the family courts and her abuser.”
Over a year later, she took her own life.
Suicide prevention charity the Samaritans says the causes of suicide are often complex and there may not be a single identifiable cause. But the judiciary in England and Wales has commissioned a report to examine the “potentially heightened risk of suicide” after involvement in family court proceedings.
If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this report, details of organisations offering information and support about suicide and emotional distress are available via BBC Action line
Researchers studying the family court say they are concerned that claims of parental alienation appear to be increasing in private law cases like these – where one parent takes another to court, rather than an intervention by social services.
The University of Manchester found accusations of parental alienation were the common factor among the 45 women and their 75 children in its peer-reviewed study.
Carried out with the domestic abuse research group SHERA, and soon to be published in the Journal of Family Trauma, Child Custody and Child Development, the research examined the health impacts on abused women facing family court proceedings.
Dr Dalgarno, the lead researcher, says the mothers in these private law cases were not supported in the court. “Credible evidence of abuse was diminished or ignored completely – and when I say credible evidence, I’m talking about criminal convictions,” she says.
Dr Dalgarno says that based on self-reported surveys, it is estimated about 70% of the 55,000 private law family court cases each year involve allegations of abuse – but there is a shortage of reliable data on the overall prevalence of cases where parental alienation has been claimed.
There should be “emergency measures” to tackle the use of parental alienation claims in court, she says. “There are catastrophic health impacts with children and adult victims of abuse considering or attempting suicide.”
Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, Jess Phillips, says she has been contacted by thousands of women who have struggled with similar experiences inside family courts. “It’s the biggest issue in my inbox,” she says.
She compares it to abuse scandals such as those in Rotherham or the Catholic Church.
“This isn’t a bad judge. This isn’t a rogue court in one part of the country. This is a tactic of abusers that is being used across every part of our country.”
The secrecy and power the courts could wield over a person is “delicious to domestic abuse perpetrators”, she adds.
In cases where domestic abuse, sexual violence or any form of child abuse is alleged, the presumption of contact should be earned, not given automatically, Ms Phillips says.
She says the use of unregulated experts testifying about parental alienation need to be banned and there should be more data collected on the outcomes of family court cases.
The term parental alienation was first coined by the controversial US psychiatrist Richard Gardner as “parental alienation syndrome”. He claimed mothers in acrimonious divorces brainwashed their children to believe they had been abused by their fathers and recommended completely severing contact to “re-programme” them.
This concept has been criticised for a lack of evidence – but there are those who say it has now been rebranded simply as “parental alienation” and, supported by some psychologists, it has frequently been used by family courts.
Lucy Reed KC, who promotes transparency about the workings of family courts, thinks processes should not be diverted by “complicated psychological jargon” – including the term parental alienation.
She says there needs to be better oversight of how courts are handling such allegations. “If there is domestic abuse, that could explain why the child rejects contact,” she says.
The President of the Family Court in England and Wales, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has warned the parental alienation label is “unhelpful” – and the Family Justice Council has recently issued new draft guidance for consultation on how to deal with “allegations of alienating behaviour”.
It provides a step-by-step guide for family courts hearing parental alienation claims, especially in cases of domestic abuse. It focuses on dealing with evidence and finding facts first before judgements are made.
But some believe more needs to be done. Earlier this year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls called for the use of parental alienation to be prohibited globally.
The Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, Nicole Jacobs, says too often courts consider claims of domestic violence and parental alienation simultaneously – which, she believes, is an “unsafe approach” and can put women and children at risk.
England’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), which advises courts about children’s best interests, referred to “parental alienation” in guidance as recently as 2021, but now adopts the term “alienating behaviours”. But it told the BBC its advisers should first consider if factors, such as domestic abuse, mean the child’s refusal to see a parent is justified.
In a statement, the Ministry of Justice described the cases of the women as “deeply tragic” and said that its thoughts were with those who had lost loved ones. It added that improvements had also been made to the family court system to protect domestic abuse victims, such as preventing cross-examination by abusers, expanding legal aid and allowing them to give evidence behind protective screens or by video-link.
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