This is a guest post from Dr Sue Whitcombe (@drsue2014), a psychologist working with high conflict family breakdown and parental alienation. It is re-posted with kind permission, having been originally published via Linkedin. A post from the Reporting Watch Team about the CAFCASS research which is the subject of the post will follow (once we’ve written it!).

My twitter feed has been buzzing with debate about the recent release of the report Allegations of domestic abuse in child contact cases, joint research by Cafcass and Women’s Aid. Much of the debate revolves around the wisdom of Cafcass collaborating on this project with Women’s Aid, given the stated gendered aims of the Domestic Abuse charity. As someone who works therapeutically with children, adults and families impacted by family breakdown, provides clinical supervision for family therapists and professionals employed in domestic abuse services, conducts assessments for the Family Court and delivers training in this field, the report is naturally of interest.

I’m not going to join the debate about the wisdom of this joint collaboration, but rather cast a critical eye over the methodology, reported findings and conclusions, drawing on my professional experience to put my critique in context. I was struck at the outset that, despite a move towards Child Arrangement Orders, away from the concept of Residence and Contact, this report from its title to the end reduces the relationship between a parent and their child to “contact.”

I whole heartedly agree with the authors of the report that the data highlights the difficulties and complexities in cases which involve domestic abuse allegations in the family courts (p 2) and that it was uncommon for domestic abuse allegations to feature in isolation from other safeguarding concerns (p 3). The case studies provided illustrate the complexity of cases and concord with my experience as an instructed expert witness in family proceedings.

However, I do believe that it is important to consider methodological issues. While we are told that the cases for the study were randomly selected, we are told nothing about the randomisation method used. Similarly, we do not know about the individuals who analysed the data and wrote the report, any independent review of the process and of course there is no oversight of a peer review process.

The stated aim of the study was:

to look at the types of allegations present in family law court proceedings, including safeguarding concerns other than domestic abuse, and what happened within the proceedings. It did not seek to make findings on the allegations(p 3).

However, the report also states that a primary area of consideration was the impact of domestic abuse, and court proceedings, on children. Given that veracity of allegations was not a focus, I find it concerning that the stated process and findings seem to presume some veracity throughout the report.

Quantitative and qualitative data was collected, with the qualitative data exploring the impact of domestic abuse on children (p 3).

Children in the sample presented a wide range of responses to the abuse they had experienced (p 7).

Where there had been no physical violence, children held less negative views of the perpetrator, having not knowingly experienced the abuse (p7).

Data was collected on each record of domestic abuse present in the case file (p 10).

The authors state that the main finding was that “domestic abuse was alleged in almost two-thirds of cases (62%)” (p 3). It would have been appropriate, in my opinion, to report the data collected. Questions 6 and 8 of the data gathering tool used, specifically ask whether the applicant and the respondent alleged that they were a victim of domestic abuse perpetrated by the other party. However, I see no details of this in the findings and all figures seem to refer to mothers and fathers. The authors state that “fathers [were] more likely to be the subject of allegations than mothers” (p 23). The female:male ratio of alleged victims of domestic abuse is approximately 3:1.

The authors refer to research of the use of court proceedings as a form of post-separation abuse. Similarly, false allegations of domestic abuse and child abuse are also used to perpetuate abuse during proceedings, and are increasingly a feature in the work in which I am engaged. “False allegations” as an umbrella term includes everything from malicious, fabricated allegations through embellishment and exaggeration to miscommunication and misinterpretation. My earlier research found that false allegations of domestic abuse were reported by 67% of alienated parents (mothers and fathers). False allegations of varying types have been evident in the vast majority of Private Law case in which I have been instructed. Anecdotally, I am increasingly being told by those who work in DV agencies that an allegation of domestic abuse is a “golden ticket” for some women. Education safeguarding professionals report that it is evident that when some women allege DV they are doing so for leverage in proceedings.

Of particular concern to me is the validity of the finding that “Children in the sample presented a wide range of responses to the abuse they had experienced.” The report continues indicating that responses of children to domestic abuse (not alleged abuse) included accessing “specialist support at school or nursery, or from a family support worker.” Further “Children were described in the case files as being ‘confused and upset’, of a ‘low mood’, and being ‘very uncomfortable’ at school when other children are loud” (p 7).

Given the complexity of the cases (119 out of 133 cases in which domestic abuse was alleged incorporated additional safeguarding or risk factors) it cannot be assumed that any difficulties experienced by the children and any support provided is as a result of domestic abuse allegations, and certainly not confirmed domestic abuse. All children are affected by family breakdown, even those where there are no safeguarding issues. This can cause regression, behavioural change and overt psychological distress, as indicated in the files in this study, in any child, for which support and intervention is appropriate and may be sought. At best, the data considered suggests a correlation between allegations of domestic abuse and support provided for children. There is no exploration of whether support was evident in those cases where domestic abuse allegations were not a factor.

I am firmly of the belief that more research is needed in this area, and that appropriate record keeping by agencies would enable a more informed picture of families who present at the Family Court. However, my concerns with this report, as is so often the case, are that findings lacking validity and inaccurate reporting, if repeated often enough, lead to those findings becoming “fact.” The authors here, despite their assertion at the outset, drift between statements about allegations of abuse and stating abuse as fact. Rather than a “complex picture of domestic abuse” within family proceedings, this report suggests the complexity of safeguarding issues in families who present in private law family proceedings. In my opinion it is not possible to separate out allegations of domestic abuse from the milieu of additional safeguarding factors evident in the vast majority of the cases analysed.

Children are impacted by parental separation. They are impacted by domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, parental mental ill health, neglect, abuse and inter-parental conflict. The simplistic headline messages focussing on domestic abuse, in my opinion, put at risk holistic assessments and interventions which seek to address the complex reality of children in separated families.

Feature Pic : Scales by Hittie Evie on Flickr – thanks!