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Child victims of trauma forced to visit parents that abused them – this should be illegal

A poll has shown that parents caring for children who have experienced trauma have been forced to take their children to see the parent that abused them, with nearly all asserting this should be illegal.

The survey, carried out by the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma (CoECT), leading UK experts in the field of therapeutic parenting strategies, received 1,125 responses from parents who have adopted, fostered, or cared for children who have experienced trauma.

Over half (53%) of the parents surveyed have had to take their child to see a parent that has abused them. With 85% of parents believing it should be illegal for abusive parents to be guaranteed contact time.

The current legal position is that children’s wishes should be taken into account but will not ultimately determine what happens. The courts view contact as being in the best interests of the child and see both parents’ involvement as a benefit to the child’s welfare.

Children’s services can refuse contact if they deem it necessary to safeguard a child’s welfare, but this can only last for a maximum of seven days before a court order must be obtained. Conversely, the court cannot order there to be no contact if children’s services have allowed contact. The current system is based on the opinion on the judiciary and children’s services, there is currently no law banning contact for parents who have abused their children.

Sarah Naish, CEO and Founder of the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma, former social worker and parent of five adopted siblings, said:

“You would not expect to meet your rapist once a month for a cup of tea, so why do we force children to keep seeing their abusers?

“Looking at the poll alone, this is evidence that over 500 children have been marched back to visit their abusers, which is an absolute disgrace. From the stories I hear on a daily basis this is the tip of the iceberg and something needs to be done.

“This should be regarded as one of the biggest scandals that still exists in the British legal system today. The legal view that contact with parents is beneficial to a child’s welfare becomes absolutely ridiculous when that parent is the one that abused them.

“The parents I speak to dedicate their entire beings to try and heal the children they have to care for, only for them to be the adult that has to march their child back to the person that abused them.

“The government needs to take action on this and ban parents that have abused their children from having contact with them.”

Rosie Jefferies, Managing Director of the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma and former child in care, said:

“Contact was a very scary time when I would have to see the people I feared the most – the killers of my two siblings. My birth father would always scowl at me, watch me and make sure I didn’t say anything I shouldn’t. I felt terrified and trapped. It was incredibly confusing to me that I was told by my social worker I was in a safe place, yet my birth parents were there. I felt uncertain, unsafe and did not understand why this was happening.

“When I think back to when I was forced to have contact, I can remember being too scared to say I didn’t want to go. I viewed all adults as very dangerous and it was hard to know who to trust. If I said I didn’t want to go and they told my birth parents they might get angry again. I didn’t want them to hurt anyone else so I smiled and went along to protect my siblings.

“My experience is not unique – children are still being forced to have contact with abusive parents. We need to see a change in the law that prioritises child welfare over the contact right of parents who have committed the worst crimes imaginable.”

Emily Tremlett*, a foster carer, said:

“There was a very clear established link between my child’s night terrors and contact with her dad. Regardless of the fact that she clearly did not want to go, we were told contact must continue and extra dates were added at the father’s request.

“A short while after, she began to disclose details of sexual abuse by her dad. Despite this, and even after the police became involved, the contact still continued.

“To this day her dad is still able to send letters, which can affect her behaviour for up to a month after receiving each one.”

Lynne Thorne*, an adopter, said:

“When my three-year-old would see the contact centre, he would visibly shake his head from side to side and cry. He would refuse to get out of the car and hang onto our legs. This level of anxiety would remain long after the session ended and if we went near the bag he associated with contact, he would freeze, cry, stare at us or become clingy.

“I did not feel as if he was safe whilst at contact with his birth parents. After one particular session my son was ill for days after they gave him a huge bar of chocolate, despite me telling them he is lactose intolerant.”

Matilda Lowe*, a foster carer, said:

“The youngest sister in my care was five years old and would become terrified prior to meetings at the contact centre. When we arrived, she would kick and scream in her car seat and desperately try to stop me unstrapping her – at times she was completely hysterical. I reported this to my agency and social worker and it did not make a difference.

“I was told by the contact supervisor that in meetings she did not interact with the mother and was withdrawn and playing alone. If her birth mother came over she would sit frozen and look absolutely terrified. Even after the sessions she would be extremely distressed and unable to sleep. She later admitted that she was terrified her birth mother was going to get in our car or was coming to our house.

“Things didn’t get any easier for her, so after one journey where she had again repeated all the way there that she didn’t want to go in to the contact, I refused to take her in. This did not go down well with the social worker who then arranged for her to be picked up directly from school by the contact supervisor, delivering the child to the contact session without any emotional support.

“I made a note of all the distressed behaviour and the anxiety it was causing and reported it to the social worker, only to be told contact must continue as court applications were coming up.”

Susie Hutton*, a foster carer, said:

“When I had to take my child, aged seven, to contact within two days of him being placed with me, he tried to rip a radiator off the wall. He had nightmares, soiled himself, tried to strangle himself and would sleepwalk around absolutely terrified. I put the kitchen knives in a lock box as I was concerned he might mistake me for his abuser and stab me whilst he was sleepwalking.

“He would be awake all night before contact begging me not to take him and, in the morning, the social worker would say I had to take him. I felt this was incredibly damaging to my relationship with the child as I am supposed to be his ‘safe base’, but by taking him to his abuser that makes me unsafe. The last time we had contact he was so badly affected I think my daughter has secondary trauma from how he was afterwards.

“In my experience the situation has been made worse as I’ve had social worker’s promise the child they will not be left alone with parents, only for contact supervisors to leave the room, or let parents take children into public toilets unsupervised.

“There is also a lack of understanding from those who should be protecting children. Somebody from Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) came to observe a contact and correctly observed that my child was extremely terrified throughout, only to see the supervisor was writing these reactions down as happy and excited. Even with the report from CAMHS and various other reports over the past five years saying this child should not be having contact the fight is still going on.

“To make matters worse, in spite of the fact my observations match those of CAMHS and professionals, I am treated as having no idea, understanding or knowledge.”

Jane Mitchell, independent trainer in adoption, fostering and social care, said:

“I meet a lot of parents who have had to take their children to contact sessions when the child adamantly does not want to go.

“The current rules are inhumane. If we were talking about a dog instead of a child, and the dog was removed by the RSPCA, not only would the dog never see their abuser again, the abuser would be banned from having a dog.

“We find ourselves in a situation where contact can be insisted on as in the ‘best interests’ of the child – when clearly the reverse is true.”

Jessica Jackson, a social worker specialising in domestic violence cases, said:

“Too often I see children who have witnessed domestic abuse being expected, encouraged and often court-ordered to spend time with the very individual who perpetrated the abuse.

“Even when there is a clear history of coercion, control and manipulation, there seems to be a cognitive disconnect between the abuse of a partner and the impact on the child.

“Contact often serves as a tool for perpetrators of domestic abuse to continue their powerful manipulation of both the child and mother. The lack of a tangible, trauma-focused assessment of the impact on the child, leads to a continuation of their trauma and an even greater sense fear and powerlessness.

“We have to reach an equilibrium where no parents desire for contact overrides a mother’s right to a life free from abuse, or a child’s wellbeing and safety.”

Michelle Tebbutt*, a social worker, said:

“I worked with two little boys, aged seven and four, who had witnessed their father trying to kill himself whilst they were in his care. Their parents were separated, but the father sought reunification and the incident occurred after the children mentioned their mother had a new partner.

“Recounting the event to me, the child, E, said:

‘Daddy drank things from a bottle and it made him talk funny. He went in the bathroom and banged his head on the sink. Lots of times.

It was loud. There was blood everywhere. I had to look after B (younger sibling) and I phoned mummy. A lot of people came and we went home to mummy.  Daddy was sad. Daddy cried. There was blood.

Daddy says he has a poorly head now and we have to see him in a special place. I hope his head gets better soon. There was a lot of blood.’

“This child developed severe anxiety, facial tics and became extremely worried about his father’s welfare. This was made worse as throughout all of this the father insisted he had ‘slipped’ and had not meant to hurt himself.  This was disputed by attending paramedics and police.

“Contact continued to be supervised for two years with the children increasingly developing emotional problems. The children were exposed to parental alienation attempts by the father, as well as other incidents of self-harm and narcissism prior to him doing the intensive work on a perpetrator course.

“In my view the contact should have been stopped before he undertook the course and only resumed once he had successfully completed it and was signed off.

“The children were exposed to emotional harm due to his behaviour, but due to his legal rights contact went ahead regardless of the harm to the children.”

Anne Armstrong, a foster parent and social worker in the midlands, said:

“As a foster parent there have been far too many occasions where I have had to take children to contact with their birth families who have harmed them.

“I have had to intervene when my six-year-old foster son was hit by his 11 year old sister, berated as stupid by his grandfather and not being permitted a drink by his grandmother. In the weeks following contact the child bit the tops of his fingers down to the bone, regressed to wetting the bed and soiling himself daily and exhibited a number of other extreme fear response behaviours.

“The children I have fostered also experience psychological abuse at these sessions. One of my foster sons, aged nine, was told by his mother that he had to say we were hitting him, or she would not love him anymore. On a separate occasion, my seven-year-old foster daughter returned from contact offering my husband sexual favours because her father told her this is what girls are for.

“Each time the children in my care had any form of contact with their birth families who had harmed them before they entered the care system, they were retraumatised and re-lived the original abuse they had endured for years.

“The children I mention all presented fear-driven behaviours both prior to and following contact, including bed-wetting, siling, destruction, stealing, lying and increased violence. The level of aggression directed at us as foster parents, particularly myself as the maternal figure, was extraordinary and extremely dangerous for both parties. It was like managing a war zone without the proper skills or training.”