Women and children who have left homes where they were abused, risk further abuse because of post-separation contact between children and their fathers, a new study has found.
A researcher at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) looked at post-separation fathering in families where the father was known to have abused the mother. Some 219 mothers with 449 children filled in questionnaires, and 61 children, mothers, fathers and relevant professionals, such as social workers, were interviewed.
The study found ‘clear evidence of post-separation contact facilitating the continued abuse of women and children'.
Different types of father-child contact after a separation were reported, ranging from emails and telephone calls to overnight visits. Almost seven in 10 (68%) mothers who participated in the study said they had concerns about the welfare of their children who had contact with their fathers.
The main concern centred on the emotional welfare of the children.
Participants also noted that children continued to be exposed to ‘verbal abuse and denigration of their mothers' when contact was being arranged or during contact, such as when the children were being handed over.
Six fathers took part in the study and four of these acknowledged that they had abused their children's mother. While some felt guilt and shame, others reported a sense of injustice and marginalisation from their children's lives.
The study questioned whether contact between children and their fathers should automatically be considered in the children's best interest if there has been a history of domestic abuse.
It also highlighted a lack of support services for abusive men who were ‘struggling to realise their fathering aspirations'.
According to Dr Stephanie Holt of TCD, who carried out the research, professionals involved in allowing post-separation contact need ‘to focus on the reality of abusive men's behaviour rather than an ideology of involved fatherhood in children's lives'.
"This demands a significant paradigm shift to prioritise the construction of fathers as ‘risk' in the context of post-separation father-child contact. Doing so does not mean finding ways to exclude fathers from children's lives; rather what is critical is to find ways to ensure and be assured that children are safe and that abusive men can be ‘good enough' fathers," she commented.
Details of these findings are published in the journal, Child Abuse Review.