Abstract title: Hearing children’s voices in domestic abuse cases in the family courts

Keywords: children; courts; family; disclosures

Abstract

The importance of children’s participation in family law decision-making is now widely reflected in UK socio-legal policy and practice. However, including children in legal proceedings raises a number of questions, such as how should children be involved and what are the impacts of their inclusion on decisions made? (Butler et al., 2003; James, 2007).

 

Background & Context

This paper is based on research, and a subsequent article written for the journal Child Abuse and Neglect (Macdonald, 2017), which examined children’s participation in welfare reports (S7 reports) prepared for private family law proceedings concerning child arrangements in domestic abuse cases (England). The research sought to answer the following questions:

  • How are children’s views presented in private family law court reports in domestic abuse cases?
  • How do constructions of children’s experiences of violence impact upon report recommendations to the courts?

 

Methodology

Documentary analysis was used to examine a sample of reports.  Content analysis provided a profile of data. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) of a sub-sample provided in-depth analysis of discursive practices.

 

Findings and Implications

Analysis identified the inclusion of children’s disclosures regarding fathers’ violence. These testimonies identified children as victims of violence and linked this directly to violence towards their mother. However, report authors did not routinely validate children’s experiences through explicit inclusion of their accounts in a safeguarding agenda. What children disclosed about domestic violence and child abuse regularly disappeared from recommendations regarding contact and future action (Macdonald, 2016).

It is argued that failure to respond to a child’s disclosure of abuse reinforces the child’s victim status (Eriksson & Nasman, 2008).  Furthermore, validation of children’s experiences of violence should contribute towards effective safeguarding.  It is argued in this paper that other more dominant ideologies around children’s need for contact with biological parents (fathers predominantly in this research) shaped constructions of children’s experiences, wishes and feelings in domestic abuse cases. As a result, issues of safeguarding, and children’s refusals of contact due to experiences of a father’s violence, were routinely overshadowed by a hegemonic presumption of the benefits of contact (Barnett, 2014; Macdonald, 2016, 2017).

This raises questions in respect of what children’s participation really means. For example, how do we actively engage children in court processes in meaningful ways which value their experiences, feelings and opinions, whilst simultaneously promoting their safety and welfare? What are the barriers to accurately representing children’s voices in the family courts, and can we really hear children’s voices in a professional context that presupposes what is best for them? Consequently, how might practitioners and Judges better balance professional knowledge and expertise, and ideologies around contact, with truly engaging with individual children’s worlds and experiences, particularly when those children’s wishes do not fit with preferred outcomes?

 

References

Barnett, A. (2014). Contact at all costs? Domestic violence and children’s welfare. Child and Family Law Quarterly, 26, 439-462.

Butler, I., Scanlan, L., Robinson, M., Douglas, G. & Murch, M. (2003). Divorcing children: children’s experiences of their parents’ divorce. London: Jessica Kingsley Press.

Eriksson, M. & Nasman, E. (2008). Participation in family law proceedings for children whose father is violent to their mother. Childhood, 15, 259.

James, A. (2007). Giving voice to children’s voices: practices and problems, pitfalls and

potentials. American Anthropologist, 109(2), 261–272.

Macdonald, G.S. (2016) Domestic violence and private family court proceedings: Promoting child welfare or promoting contact? Violence Against Women, 22(7), 832 –852.

Macdonald, G.S. (2017) Hearing children’s voices?: Including children’s perspectives on their experiences of domestic violence in welfare reports prepared for the English courts in private family law proceedings. Child Abuse and Neglect, 65, 1-13.

 

Author: Dr Gillian Macdonald