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Opinion: 'A father’s right to access should not outweigh a child’s right to safety'

Child protection and safety should be prioritised in all custody and access proceedings, writes Margaret Martin.

Margaret Martin Director, Women's Aid

LAST WEEK, WOMEN’S Aid launched our Impact Report for 2016 outlining 19,115 contacts made with us, including 15,952 calls to the 24hr National Freephone Helpline.

During these contacts, 16,946 disclosures of domestic violence against women and 3,823 disclosures of child abuse were made. This annual snapshot by Women’s Aid provides an insight into the level and nature of the abuse experienced by women and children.

Without it, domestic violence would remain largely hidden in Irish society.

Concerning that children are being directly abused

The number of disclosures to Women’s Aid of children being directly abused and exposed to domestic violence is very concerning.  In 2016, women told us that their children were being hit, slapped, shouted at and called names, and in some cases, sexually abused. Children have been told they will be killed alongside their mothers.

At times, the perpetrator of the abuse has deliberately targeted the children as a way to hurt both them and their mother. It was disclosed to us that children were also bearing witness to the most appalling abuse and violence against their mothers.

Working in line with Children First guidelines, we support women in their ongoing efforts to protect and keep their children safe.

Domestic violence kills women

We know that domestic violence is dangerous and that at its most extreme it kills women. It kills children too.

Using 20 years of data collection on female homicide our Behind Closed Doors Report, published last November, revealed that 209 women died violently during that time and that 16 children were killed alongside their mothers. More than half (54%) of women were killed by their partners or exes.

Ending the relationship does not always protect women and children from domestic violence with 26% of abuse reported to Women’s Aid being carried out by an ex-partner or ex-husband, often during access.

Custody and access arrangements in Family Law proceedings often disregard the impact of domestic violence on children and as a result risk continuing abuse of the children as well as their mothers.

Needs to be recognition of risk to children

There needs to be a greater recognition of the risk to children, especially during access arrangements with men who have a history of domestic violence and we have made a number of recommendations to address these issues.

Courts should consider the safety and well-being of any children when granting a Barring order and take interim measures to protect them and experts should be made available to the court to professionally assess any threat the perpetrator poses to children and the impact of the direct/indirect abuse. Funding should also be made available for child contact centres across the country to facilitate safe, supervised access visits.

Many women supported by Women’s Aid in 2016 were worried about protecting their children. As much as they can, women work hard to protect their children and to keep their children’s lives as safe, stable and normal as possible despite the domestic violence.

Fear is heightened when women have to facilitate access to the children for the man who has been perpetrating domestic violence. A father’s right to access should not outweigh a child’s right to safety and child protection and safety should be prioritised in all custody and access proceedings. To do anything less fails women and children.

In our experience, where women have no safety concerns for their children, they will do their utmost to facilitate access visits between children and their fathers.

Margaret Martin is Director of Women’s Aid. The Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline marks is marking its 25th anniversary.  Since its inception in 1992 staff and volunteers have responded to over 280,000 calls. The Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline is 1800 341 900 and you can find us online at www.WomensAid.ie.

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About the author:

Margaret Martin  / Director, Women's Aid

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