Despite her faith in justice, she was finding Family Court traumatic. Suzanne went to the Doctors and told them what had happened to her, how she had been raped and abused. How she felt she was on trial, not him. She explained the persistent night terrors and panic attacks that had started. How she struggled to switch off and was in a constant state of ‘high alert’. How her memories had become an unwelcome intrusion. The Doctor prescribed beta blockers for the emerging PTSD symptoms, and the referral for counselling was marked urgent.
Suzanne tried to get on with her life. She read on social media it was ‘okay not to be okay’, and that there was no shame in seeking help. She was told she did the right thing because she left and that what was wrong with her was PTSD, and not her fault. She tried hard to look after herself and her children. She went for regular meet ups with a couple of the mums from the children’s new school but had not confided about her situation. She wanted a fresh start, she just wanted to feel better.
During one of these outings her counsellor rang for the first time and asked to schedule an appointment. She was asked a few things about how she was feeling and whether she was currently in crisis. Feeling awkward in the café, with people who did not know her situation, she said she could not really talk right now, but was fine, thanks for asking. She confirmed the appointment and hung up. The counsellor wrote on the brief notes “Suzanne says she is fine, appointment made for [date]”
Neither of them thought anymore of it.
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Before Suzanne attended the first counselling appointment, her fact-finding hearing was held in Family Court. She was being cross examined by her ex-husband’s barrister on the evidence of Domestic Abuse. The rape allegations were not to be discussed in Family Court as there was still an open criminal investigation. During the cross examination, her ex-husband’s barrister started to laugh loudly. Rounding on Suzanne, she asserted that the abuse allegations were just a malicious lie and began taunting her about why she would not be cross examined on the rape allegation. Was she scared of being caught in a lie?
“What rape victim says they are “fine”? You’re a liar, aren’t you Suzanne” She bellowed, waving a sheet of paper. “You’ve just come here today to tell a pack of lies!”
Suzanne realised the paper the barrister was reading from was her rape counselling notes, which held one throwaway comment, given on that phone call in the middle of the café. The damage was done, before she had even turned up to the appointment. She did not know how the barrister got hold of it.
Distressed and horrified, she was unable to defend the allegations because she feared jeopardising the open criminal investigation. She would be ordered to co-parent weekly with her (alleged) rapist, without it ever being heard, with no safety measures in place. The judge wrote that although the allegations had not been examined due to the police investigation, he thought it was fabricated. The criminal case consequently collapsed.
All around us are those that (quite rightly) chant the mantra of “reach out” if you are in difficulty, whilst they have no idea that for many, this is simply not possible. Suzanne is now mistrustful of reaching out to anyone, knowing that whatever she says is likely to be raked over by the court, and her abuser. She continued to suffer without treatment, because her case also continued.
After a final hearing in Family Court with an abuser, the next round is often not far away. In many cases, a final hearing is merely a temporary cease-fire before you are onto the next case. For victims, this means recovery is nigh on impossible, with continued, repeated exposure to the trauma.
Children are being denied NHS treatment relating to trauma that others can freely access. A doctor spoke of a 14-year-old boy he was treating for self-harm & anxiety, who had disclosed suffering violence at the hands of his father to his School & the Police. He had been ordered to live with his father against his will by the Family Court, despite these reports. The boy’s protests, anxiety and self-harming had been blamed on the mother. Subsequently the father emails a Court order to the Doctor, saying that the child can no longer be treated by him, the CAMHS referral, halted. The mother later spoke with the Doctor, in tears of despair. Asking how anyone can protect her son if even his GP is not allowed to assist in treating him. The Doctor’s hands are tied. The mother’s ‘crimes’ were reporting Domestic Abuse and taking a self-harming 14 year old to the Doctor. The child is now living with a perpetrator, cut off from avenues of help. This is not an isolated case.
A group of Health Visitors were also horrified to learn that a mother they had been supporting with establishing breastfeeding, had been ordered to stop, because breastfeeding was considered “an act of alienation” towards the father. She later de-registered from the Health Visitor service.
Survivor Families are being ordered by the Family Court not to access tailored Domestic Abuse support; in case they come to believe that the abuse happened (FYI – they already know it happened, they lived it). You cannot seek help as a victim, unless the Family Court say you are a victim. With the culture of disbelief in the system about the fact that Domestic Abuse even occurs, this stance means that many, many families face the prospect of never getting the help they need to move on from Domestic Abuse if they are also in Family Court.
The Family Court also make the climate utterly treacherous to anyone suffering the very real and present effects of living with ongoing Domestic Abuse, and the associated injury of PTSD. “If mother keeps going on about abuse, we may as well take the child now” is commonly said. One survey relating to barriers for mothers seeking mental health support, reported that 30% of women withheld negative feelings from Health Care Professionals often due to fear of their baby being taken away1. Whilst these fears can often be unfounded, in the Family Court these fears are representative of a very real and pressing danger. Those who have come to understand the system for what it is, are rarely able to seek treatment for the health issues that often develop, as a direct result of compounded, repeated trauma.
When Perpetrators are emboldened by the Family Court, they often try to make good on the threat to remove the children from the victim (usually the mother). Parental Alienation is likely to be alleged, fitness to parent questioned. The privately paid experts’ form an orderly queue ready to write reports confirming either the mother’s vulnerability or hostility, depending on the narrative (and budget) of the case. This often means that those who have come to understand the system for what it is, are rarely able to reach out when they are not okay.
During the COVID-19 Lockdown, we saw the horrors of Domestic Abuse revealed all around us. We also dutifully clapped for the NHS. The NHS professionals who have caught an unfortunate glimpse of the Family Court will know that when a mother with PTSD says she is in Family Court for Domestic Abuse, they will be less able to help her or her children. Tragically, five women a week lose their lives in the UK because of Domestic Abuse, three of which will take their own lives.
It should not be the Family Court who decides that out of those who have survived Domestic Abuse, who then gets to access treatment to recover from it.
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