If I tell the social worker I am a victim of violence or abuse, she will take my baby away to punish me.
This is a really dangerous myth as it can stop people asking for help when they need it. If you are a victim of violence or abuse you will not be punished for that. BUT it is sadly true that the available support is often not ideal and is not always easy to access.
However, to say its a fact that a victim of abuse will be deliberately punished by the system by having her (and it is almost always ‘her’) children taken away is wrong. If children are removed, it will be to keep them safe. However, its not hard to see how for many victims of violence, this will feel like a punishment.
Therefore, what we will do in this post is discuss:
- what do we mean when we talk about ‘abuse’ ?
- why do social workers get so worried about abusive relationships?
- why it is often hard to end abusive relationships
- what will the social worker do if worried about abuse in your home; and
- what orders can the court make to help?
- practical things that you can do if you are in this situation, to avoid having your children removed from your care.
What do we mean when we talk about ‘abuse?’
‘Abuse’ is a wide term that can cover a variety of behaviour; some will be considered more serious than others but ALL have the potential to cause harm. It is not true to think that just because someone doesn’t hit you, that means they are not abusive. Read the government’s definition of ‘abuse’ from 2013.
Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse:
Coercive control’ is now a criminal offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015.This is a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or familial relationship. It makes patterns of repeated or continuous coercive or controlling behaviour a criminal offence.
The section came into force on 29 December 2015 and the MoJ published statutory guidance to provide information about:
- identifying domestic violence, domestic abuse and controlling or coercive behaviour
- circumstances in which the new offence might apply
- the types of evidence which establish the offence
- the statutory defence
Why do social workers get so concerned about abusive relationships?
Because they cause serious harm. The risks of staying in an abusive or violent relationship are very serious and very real. Harm can be caused to children from either seeing or hearing violence. See what survivors of abuse say here.
You may also be interested in this report from the Early intervention Project which looks at the damaging consequences of domestic violence on children families and communities:
Our report finds that children who have witnessed Domestic Violence between their parents display increased fear, inhibition, depression, as well as high levels of aggression and antisocial behaviour which can last not only into their teenage years, but into adulthood too. The effect on a child of witnessing domestic violence between parents is similar to that of experiencing physical abuse themselves. And with 25% of young people witnessing domestic violence and abuse before the age of 18, the problem is not confined to a small section of the population.
If you have a violent or abusive partner and you are not able to take steps to remove that person from your children’s lives then yes, you are at risk of having your children taken away. Because the harm done to children who have to witness or listen to someone they love being abused, is potentially extremely serious.
Difficulties in ending abusive relationships
The problems and worries are made worse by the fact that abusive relationships can carry on for a long time. People have children together and may become financially or emotionally dependent on an abusive partner. They may know that their relationship isn’t healthy or happy for either of them, but they may have been together for a long time and sometimes it can be hard to walk away and not look back. Ending a relationship is often described as a ‘process’ not a one off ‘event’.
Or the victim of the violence/abuse may be utterly emotionally worn down by the abuser and find it very difficult to find the energy and courage needed to leave. According to Refuge, two women a week are killed by a partner. But the risks increase when a victim decides to leave.
But, for whatever reason, if the violence/abuse continues, the LA will have to act to protect the children. Children exposed to even just seeing or hearing violence suffer – there is no doubt about that.
This is often a difficult situation to manage and isn’t always managed well. This article from the Guardian Social Care Network sets out a number of concerns about the way professionals attempt to deal with situations where children may be at risk of violence in the home:
Her experience of chairing domestic homicide reviews for the Home Office – and quality assuring those carried out by others – has led James-Hanman to believe that social services are at best a neutral factor but more often a negative one in the most terrible outcome of all, where a victim, and sometimes their children, are killed. Well before long-standing abuse erupts into tragedy, she says, social services should not be “starting from a position of telling women ‘If you don’t do what I tell you we’ll take your children off you’ but ‘What do you need to help you and your children become safer?’ And that means safety planning done properly, not just handing over a list of things to take with you when you leave.”
What is likely to happen if a social worker is worried about abuse in your home?
Children should be living with their parents whenever possible, but if they are not safe with the parents, the LA may ask a court to make a care order to allow the LA to remove the children from their parents’ care. If only one parent is abusive, the concern about the other parent often is one of ‘failure to protect’ – i.e. you didn’t leave when you could have, or you didn’t report your abusive partner to the police.
However, removing children from abusive relationships is never automatic.
Please read this article by the Pink Tape blogger Lucy Reed. She says:
Indicative also is the statement that there is an “assumption [in the family courts] that children must be removed if their mum is a victim of violence: that their mothers have not protected them“. There just isn’t. That isn’t the law and it isn’t the practice either. Sometimes those of us working in the system wish there was more support available to facilitate mums to leave nasty partners, and to help them stay away, but the provision of such services is not within the courts’ gift – and there is no presumption.
In fact the presumption is in entirely the opposite direction – children should remain with their parents if at all possible, can only be removed if necessary on safety grounds, and if there is a risk of significant harm (I’m summarising the law, but hopefully doing so more accurately than the CiF article). So, no presumption, but it is sometimes necessary to remove children.
Please see this article, also on Pink Tape, which talks about domestic violence in family cases.
The House of Commons Education Committee Fourth Report ‘Children First: the child protection system in England’ said this in 2013:
72. In cases of domestic violence, there should be no presumption that an abused parent cannot be a good parent. Wherever possible, the focus should be on supporting that parent and helping them to protect their children themselves, rather than on removing the children. But the interests of the children must come first. Guidance and specialised training in this sensitive area should be reviewed and updated and highlighted to all social workers. The Department for Education must liaise more closely with the Home Office on issues relating to child protection and domestic abuse.
How can the family courts or the police protect you from violent relationships?
The police can arrest abusers. This may lead them being charged and convicted of a criminal offence. The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme or ‘Clare’s Law’ is in full operation across the country as of 8th March 2014. It is named after Clare Wood who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2009. The scheme allows the police to disclose information on request about a partner’s previous history of domestic violence or violent acts. But some criticise the scheme as most abusers do not have a previous police record.
The family court can make orders about who has contact with children or where children live. It can also make non molestation or ‘occupation orders’ which can force an abuser to leave the family home. Issues around violence and contact with children must be taken seriously by the court. The 2016 Review of Practice Direction 12 J sets out how the family court must deal with cases involving allegations of violence. See the revised PD12J here.
There is criticism from a variety of sources including Women’s Aid about how useful the family courts are in dealing with violent parents. See Pink Tape’s response to the Women’s Aid report ’19 Child Homicides’.
The Domestic Abuse Act now prohibits direct cross examination of vulnerable witnesses by an actual or alleged perpetrator of violence who is acting in person.
See also Practice Direction 3AA of the Family Procedure Rules about dealing with vulnerable witnesses in court.
The court may decide to hold a ‘finding of fact’ hearing about allegations of violence, but it is clear that the findings sought have to relate directly to the children’s welfare, and not about general dissatisfaction about the adult relationships. See Re H-N and Others (children) (domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings) 
Non Molestation orders and Occupation Orders
You can apply to the court to get a non-molestation order and an occupation order under the Family Law Act 1996, to have an abusive person ordered out of your home. You can still get legal aid for these kinds of applications and it is a very good way of showing your social worker that you are serious about doing something to protect yourself and your children.
There is a useful case – DS v AC  EWFC 46 (29 March 2023)- which sets out the basic principles and the strict criteria that apply to applications without notice to the other side.
- For more information about non molestation orders etc, see the Custody Minefield site.
- See the Women’s Aid ‘Survivors Handbook’ about non molestation and occupation orders.
The Government have also recently introduced Domestic Violence Prevention Orders (DVPO) to help protect people immediately after an attack by stopping the abuser contacting the victim.
If the police want to investigate what your ex partner has done, please co-operate with them. If you want to withdraw your statement or refuse to make one in the first place it is sending a very worrying message about your insight into the problem and your willingness to protect your children.
LEGAL AID FOR VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE
Legal aid has been removed from most family cases. But it may still be possible to obtain legal aid if you are alleging you are a victim of violence.
On January 8th 2018, new evidence requirements to show that there was domestic violence in a relationship came into force. Key changes include:•
- the removal of the time limit on evidence;
- the recognition of evidence from organisations providing domestic violence support services
- evidence from housing officers, and
- evidence of violence towards a previous partner as risk of abuse
To see if you are eligible for legal aid visit www.gov.uk/check-legal-aid or call 0845 345 4345
Advice from one of our readers
We are grateful for this contribution from one of our readers who works in this field. She discusses what commonly happens when a mother reports DV and what women can do to take back their control and ensure the safety of themselves and their family.
What happens if you report DV?
Most mothers who flee abuse do so because they realise just how damaging domestic abuse is to their children. It’s one of the main reasons given for finding the emotional resources to leave. Often the point of leaving (or saying help me I need to leave) will be the first time they have openly admitted they are experiencing abuse or been open about its impact.
This sets in a chain of events usually started by a referral to children’s services by the agency you approach for help. Sometimes this will just prompt a letter saying “we have a report of a DV incident, we are not taking any action at the moment but please call if you want to.”
Sometimes it results in a phone call or visit. It would be quite usual, even expected (and desirable), to offer supportive intervention to a victim of rape and DV. The vast majority of the time this support is very useful to the family.
Sometimes there may be a concern that the non-violent parent is unable to protect the children from the violent parent or from witnessing further abuse or that the non-violent parent is so traumatised by the abuse they need more intensive support. Again, this support is usually a good thing.
It can be very frightening but in the vast majority of cases it really is just a case of offering help, support and guidance during a very stressful emotional recovery.
What can you do to help yourself?
There are a few things anybody in this situation can do to really help themselves and make it clear to children’s services that they are not at risk of returning to the abusive situation and exposing their children to emotional harm and physical risk. Things like:
- obtaining protection orders (or trying to);
- cooperating with the police if needed;
- Engaging with the social worker and other advised sources of help, not communicating with the abuser or meeting up with them;
- the Freedom Programme;
- being aware of security:
- specialist support from a respected organisation (either face to face or otherwise)
- as odd as it sounds a respected parenting programme can be very useful. Even if you are a experienced parent, one of the aspects of DV is the very effective grooming that is a part of it and without you even noticing it can really effect how you parent.
- avoiding seeking a new relationship until you have completely emotionally healed and are able to identify early warning signs is also helpful.
- of course real life quality respected legal advice and keeping accurate records and relevant paperwork is vital.
Don’t be afraid to get help – show others you want to take back control
Whilst the vast majority of social workers follow the rules and are decent sensible people they are human beings and as such, just like any other group of people, some may make mistakes and some may be arses. Please don’t let fear of them put you off seeking support. Without a doubt the single most effective method of removing the risk of abuse to your child if you are experiencing domestic abuse is to leave and do it safely.
A woman is significantly more at risk of serious harm at the point of leaving and shortly after than at any other time. Support to do this from qualified professionals will usually make it much much safer.
Over the years the vast majority of my service users who either have no intervention or very limited intervention from children’s services are the ones who actively seek support and take the necessary steps without delay or without needing it to be arranged by CS.
To clarify what I mean by do things yourself without waiting is, seeking the support yourself ASAP preferably within days. Women’s Aid (if you do not have a face to face specialist service locally) are incredibly useful for signposting both to local services and online respected ones.
It’s incredibly difficult to wrongly assume someone is not committed to changing their future based on preconceived feelings or any thing else if that person is already on the waiting list/has just started/ has an appointment booked/ is engaging with every single almost automatic suggestion any social worker would be talking about under these circumstances. And doing so can really aid your recovery and help put you back in control of you.
And it sends a very clear positive message to professionals working with you.
Men as victims of violence from women
The majority of victims of violence in the home are women – 70% of victims of domestic homicides are women. An estimated 1.9 million adults aged 16 to 59 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year, according to the year ending March 2017 Crime Survey for England and Wales (1.2 million women, 713,000 men).
Although it seems beyond doubt that violence is more a problem for women, there are clearly significant numbers of male victims of violence and abuse from women and other men. Unfortunately there appears to be less available in terms of support for male victims as traditionally domestic violence is seen in terms of men hurting women. This may be because most men are considerably stronger than most women and therefore are more likely to be perceived as the aggressor and more likely to cause serious harm if they are physically violent. Or shame/stigma at being a male victim of abuse makes it even less likely that victims come forward.
Contact the Mens Advice Line – advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Call 0808 801 0327.
Further Reading/Other issues
- Applying for legal aid as a victim of domestic violence – see the guidance at the GOV.UK site.
- Concern that the ‘domestic violence exemption’ which allows applications for legal aid has lead to increased rates of false complaints against men.
- For the debate which followed the decision about violence towards children in a ‘cultural context’ in re A (Wardship, fact finding, domestic violence)  see this article from Family Law Week.
- Listen to the CEO of Refuge talking on Womans Hour on Radio 4 on 3rd February 2015 about the current ‘dire’ situation with funding being withdrawn from refuges and inadequate response from agencies such as the police and children’s services.
- The CAB survey finds that restricted access to legal aid is one of the biggest barriers to support for victims of domestic abuse in England. In their work helping victims of domestic abuse only 12 per cent of advisers reported being unaffected by the changes that came into force from April 2013.
- For guidance on how to apply for legal aid in family cases involving violence, see this useful summary in Family Law Week, published in April 2015.
- See the Mothers Apart project -The aim of this project is to develop a multi-agency workshop for professionals responding to mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children. Mother-child separations often occur in a context of domestic and/or sexual violence and abuse (DSVA), particularly the non-physical kinds of abuse that involve coercive control.
- Considering substance abuse and issues of violence see drugrehab.com
- Download this brochure from the Family Rights Group
- New sex and relationships guidance for schools, July 2018
- Statistics on prevalence of DV in England and Wales, year ended March 2017
- Why do we separate the mother and child victims of domestic abuse? November 2018 Louise Tickle
- Response to Louise Tickle from a social worker on The Transparency Project web site November 2018
- CAFCASS tool for assessing domestic abuse
- Assessing risk of harm to Children and Parents in private law cases – commentary on the MoJ report July 2020.
- R (no order for contact after findings of domestic abuse)  EWFC B57 (03 December 2020)
- A judge who got it wrong A (Domestic abuse: incorrect principles applied)  EWFC B30 (08 June 2021)