Children’s tsar: Most vulnerable exposed to violent fathers

Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland Tam Baillie believes there is still a long way to go in protecting vulnerable children from fathers involved in domestic abuse. Picture: Neil Hanna

Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland Tam Baillie believes there is still a long way to go in protecting vulnerable children from fathers involved in domestic abuse. Picture: Neil Hanna

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Some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children are being exposed to fathers who have carried out domestic abuse on their partners, the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland has claimed.

Tam Baillie has said it is “alarming” that violent and controlling fathers, who have abused the mothers of their children, are getting contact with the youngsters after parents split up.

His claims are based on research which he has commissioned looking at the court system and children’s attitudes to their estranged fathers getting access to them.

As he comes to the end of his eight-year tenure as Scotland’s first Children’s Commissioner, Baillie has revealed his exasperation that not enough progress has been made on the issue.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Baillie said there was still “miles to go” when it came to protecting children from fathers who have been abusive towards their partners. Baillie’s concern centres around cases when families break up, because of domestic abuse carried out by the father.

The father then seeks access to his children against the mother’s will and the dispute ends up in court. The court then has to make an adjudication for court order contact with the children.

“One of my sadnesses, one of my regrets, one of my frustrations is that we have highlighted the issue but I can’t say that there’s been real changes in terms of the decision making of court-ordered contact arrangements,” Baillie said.

“I have been concerned about this, because of the quality of decision making on this. It is not all about the courts not making good decisions, there are a number of factors about how do we assess the views of the child. How do court processes deal with the children in these circumstances and ultimately how do the courts make decisions and what decisions do they make?”

According to Baillie, research conducted for his office looked at the attitude of children to their fathers getting access to them when domestic abuse had been the reason for the family breaking up. In 71 per cent of the sample of cases the views of children, even those as young as five, could be discerned from information given to the courts.

Baillie said analysis of the cases then showed that when children’s views were taken into account by the court, 60 per cent of judgments were that fathers should not have access.

When children’s views were not available to the courts a different outcome was observed. When children were not consulted, fathers ended up getting access in 60 per cent of cases.

“The tendency is that when the views of the children are not known it tends to be in favour of the dad getting contact,” Baillie explained.

The outgoing children’s tsar went on to point out that it was the youngest children who were unable to articulate their views on whether they wanted to see their father.

“It becomes alarming when you recognise that pool of children is the youngest and most vulnerable.

“What it means is that our babies – our most vulnerable children – are having contact with those fathers where there’s been reports, findings of domestic abuse. That should worry us, that our youngest, most vulnerable, children tend to have contact with the dads.”

Through his work as Children’s Commissioner, Baillie has attempted to highlight the issue. He has been working with Scottish Women’s Aid and is encouraged that court ordered contact is now being looked at in the Scottish Government’s Equally Safe programme, designed to protect female victims of abuse.

He believes a way of solving the problem would be for courts to adopt a less adversarial approach and “hone in” on the best interests of the children.

There are around 58,000 police-reported instances of domestic abuse in Scotland per year. But Baillie is concerned there is a lack of accurate data on how many children are affected by violence involving their parents.

Last night a Scottish Government spokesman said: “Keeping children safe from abuse is a key priority. This government announced a Child Protection Improvement Programme in 2016 to help ensure that every child in Scotland who has been harmed or abused, or who is at risk of harm or abuse, should receive the best possible support and protection, no matter their circumstances or where they live.

“An independently chaired review of the formal child protection system, which reported this month, concluded that the system generally works well to protect children or young people at risk of harm or who have been harmed. The government has accepted all the recommendations of the review.”

“The Scottish Government’s new Domestic Abuse Bill will, if approved, introduce a new offence of domestic abuse and includes a new child ‘aggravator’ which can be applied by the courts at sentencing to ensure the impact the offence had on the child is recognised. This will mean perpetrators of domestic abuse will in future have a specific domestic abuse offence on their record which may be relevant for consideration outwith the criminal justice system such as the civil law system.”

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