they reflect the best interests of the child?
all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private
social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities
or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a
primary concern. “
3.1, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
Women’s Aid Federation (Women’s Aid Federation
Northern Ireland) is the lead organisation tackling
domestic violence in Northern Ireland.
It consists of eleven member groups providing refuge and support
to women and children who are suffering from violence in the home.
A 24 hour helpline is in operation 365 days per year.
Women’s Aid Federation
Northern Ireland has over twenty
years experience of working in the field of domestic violence.
In this time we have witnessed the many complex problems and
mixed emotions that surround the process of establishing child contact
arrangements i.e. where the perpetrator of domestic violence has been
granted continued access to the children, subsequent
to the break up of the relationship.
This document seeks to
outline the complexity of establishing contact and to identify the
difficulties involved, where there is a history of domestic violence.
It outlines recent legislative developments within Northern
Ireland in relation to contact and seeks, also, to provide general
recommendations which will reflect the best interests of the child.
associated with contact arrangements
Research has shown that
the majority of women who have experienced domestic violence are,
despite these experiences, keen to establish contact arrangements to
enable the child to maintain a relationship with the father.
Hester and Radford (1995) in their study “Domestic Violence and Child Contact Arrangements in
England and Denmark” found this to be the case in both countries.
When properly monitored
with the implementation of appropriate systems for support, contact can
be a positive development. The
child, in particular, can benefit from maintaining a relationship with
both parents. However,
where there has been a history of domestic violence, the process of
establishing contact arrangements can be complex , difficult and
sometimes dangerous. Hester
and Radford (1995) found that, where there is a history of domestic
violence, child contact usually fails.
This is because contact arrangements are often used by the
perpetrator of domestic violence to continue the abuse of the women
and/or of the child(ren) Various studies have shown that women are more
likely to be at risk of domestic homicide directly after separating from
the abuser. In their study,
Hester and Radford found that the majority of women
were assaulted after leaving the relationship. All post separation contact was linked in some way to child
experiences of contact
The child may also be
at risk of further physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse through the
continuation of contact with the father.
Studies have revealed close links between domestic violence and
child abuse. Many
researchers would argue that where one exists the co-existence of the
other is highly likely. The
Hidden Victims Study (NCH, UK 1994) showed that more than a quarter
(27%) of the children had been hit or physically abused by the violent
partner. Stark and
Flitchcraft (1988) analysed reports of children on the child protection
register and matched them with hospital records of their mothers.
In this study 45% of the mothers had a medical history indicative
of domestic violence.
It is important to
remember also, the emotional effects contact arrangements may have on
children. The period before
and during contact can be a distressing and emotionally difficult time
for a child. This will
depend a great deal upon, the child’s knowledge of and exposure to
domestic violence; the child’s relationship with the father and
the level of support offered to a child.
If a child has been
subjected to physical violence by the father, there will, inevitably,
be feelings of fear prior to and during contact.
This may be manifested in many ways e.g. bedwetting, sleeping
disorders, mood swings etc. Witnessing
domestic violence can have damaging emotional effects on children both
in the short and long term. If
such violence continues during contact,
the resulting stress placed upon the child can
be difficult to cope with.
Children may also feel
that they are “caught in
the middle” during contact . Often
the child will be used as a weapon to further the abuse of the mother,
the child may be encouraged to pass threats on to the mother or may be
quizzed as to the mothers whereabouts and daily routines.
A child may also be subjected to constant criticism of the
mother. Such experiences
may leave a child with feelings of confusion, fear and torn loyalties.
Northern Ireland Context
outlined pose the question, how can contact arrangements be established
which will accurately reflect the best interests of the child as
outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?.
Within the Northern Ireland context changes have already occurred
in legislation which begin to answer this question. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (NI) Order 1998 has
been developed to provide progressive and coherent policies and
legislation which will in turn
provide effective and just remedies for victims of domestic violence.
Such remedies, it is anticipated will meet the need for
protection of victims whilst still respecting their dignity and
integrity. The Order
replaces features of previous legislation such as Family Law (NI) Order
1984 and the Domestic Proceedings (NI) Order 1980.
The Legislation also amends articles of the Children Order(NI)
The Order provides a
clear focus on children. In
relation to applications for contact or residency orders, the new
legislation has the potential to have a huge impact.
When granting a contact order, a court must consider:
the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering any harm through
seeing or hearing ill treatment of another person”Article
The Order provides an
increased understanding of the effects witnessing domestic violence may
have on children and recognises
that where one parent has suffered domestic violence, there is a risk
that children may also be vulnerable to abuse.
The introduction of
this legislation is a major development which will assist the
acknowledgement of domestic violence as a crime in it’s own right. In recognising the effects domestic violence may have on
children, both physical and emotional it enables their experiences to be
taken into consideration when contact orders are being considered.
The legislation, though still in early stages of development has
the potential to be a major force in the protection of children during
For the best interests
of children to be fully reflected, attention also needs to be given not
only to legislation, but also to other issues relating to contact.
Providing support for women and children throughout the court
process is an area which needs to be addressed.
Domestic violence training is essential for all those involved in
the legal/court system to ensure that both women and children are
receiving an effective and supportive service
The quality of the child’s relationship with the father should
be examined before any decision concerning contact arrangements is made.
It does not suffice to assume that if a father wants contact he
is a good father.
The child’s wishes regarding contact should be taken into
account during proceedings. It
is essential that the child is supported during proceedings and has
opportunities to talk about the situation and how they feel about it.
Where there is domestic violence it is essential that the
women’s account of this is taken into consideration and that the
safety of the woman and child is given priority at all times.
Where granted, contact should be carefully monitored for the
possible existence of abuse. Effective
systems for doing this need to be set up and adhered to.
Contact between parents should be kept to a minimum.
This could be facilitated by the establishment of contact centres
where children can be “dropped off” and “picked up”.
circumstances of domestic violence, contact should not be presumed to be
in the best interests of the child. The starting point should be no
contact with the possibility of contact only if this can be arranged
safely for both mother and child”
and Radford 1995
to children and domestic violence