Protecting my children

It is common for abusive men to use children and child contact as a method of control. They might try to turn the children against you, or make threats to hurt them or take them away from you. This can continue long after a woman has left her partner.

You are not alone. There is support available for women and their children. Below, you can read responses to some of the common worries women share with us. You can contact us so we can talk through your options and connect you with specialist services. You can also seek advice from a family law solicitor. Try to find one with experience in domestic abuse.

It is important to remember that children are very resilient. With support, they can overcome the trauma of witnessing or experiencing abuse, and go on to live safe, happy lives. On Refuge’s website, you can find guidance on how you can support your child to understand what is going on.

  • Unless the child contact has been decided by a court (see below), you do not have to let your ex see any children you share together. If you feel under pressure to allow your ex-partner contact, call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline so we can talk through your options and connect you with specialist services. You can also seek advice from a family law solicitor. Try to find one with experience in domestic abuse.
  • You or your ex can apply to the family court for a Child Arrangements Order. This is a court order that sets out who your children live with and where and how much time your child spends with your ex. It can also set out other types of contact, such as through calls, FaceTime or letters.
  • The court’s decision will be based on what they think is best for the child. Where there has been abuse, the court must consider a range of factors before deciding on the appropriate level of contact for your ex. For example the court might grant reduced, restricted or perhaps supervised contact in some cases. Or the court might say your ex can only see the children in a Child Contact Centre (more below). The order can also ensure that arrangements for drop-off and collection will minimise possible contact with your ex.

  • You should tell your solicitor as soon as possible that there has been domestic abuse.
  • As part of the court proceedings, the judge is likely to request that Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) prepares a report. It is their job to safeguard and promote the welfare of children going through the family justice system. The Cafcass officer will probably visit you, your ex and the children, then write a report and make recommendations to the court. Make sure Cafcass is aware of your ex’s behaviour at the earliest possible opportunity, and any concerns you have about his contact with your children.
  • The Cafcass officer will prepare their report with reference to the ‘welfare checklist’, which shows the things they will be considering when they make a recommendation to the court. The factors include: (1) the wishes and feelings of the child (2) physical, emotional and educational needs of the child (3) the likely effect on a child of any change in their circumstances (4) the child’s age, sex, background and any relevant characteristics (5) how capable both parents are of meeting the child’s needs and (6) the range of powers available to the court.
  • If domestic abuse is raised as an issue during the court hearing, the judge must refer to ‘Practice Direction 12J’, which is part of the Family Procedure Rules. If your ex denies any allegations of domestic abuse, then the court will probably want to hear all of the evidence from both sides and decide whether they believe the abusive incidents did or did not happen. This is called a ‘Fact Finding’ hearing.
  • The court should only order contact between your children and your ex if they are satisfied that you or your children will not be exposed to the risk of harm.

  • The process of applying for a Child Arrangements Order can be complex and take a long time. It is a good idea to find a solicitor to manage your case. Try to find one who not only specialises in family law, but also has experience of domestic abuse cases. Lawyers specialising in domestic abuse can be found here.
  • As part of the application to court for a Child Arrangements Order, there is a legal requirement to attend mediation. However if you are a victim of abuse, your solicitor should apply for an exemption. Make sure your solicitor is aware of this. Entering into mediation with your ex can be another opportunity for abuse.
  • You may qualify for Legal Aid for an application for a Child Arrangements Order if you are the victim of domestic abuse. You can check your eligibility here. The ‘Find a solicitor ’ section of the Law Society website is also useful to help you find a solicitor in your area, and it will specify whether Legal Aid is available.

Remember, if you think your partner might be tracking how you use the internet, read these tips on safer browsing before searching for support online.

  • If your ex isn’t sticking to the terms of a children arrangements order, then an application can be made to the court to either enforce the order or vary (change) it. The court has a number of options to enforce it – they might impose community service, a fine or, as a last resort, a prison sentence.
  • If the court does make an order for contact you are not happy with, there are some steps you can take that might make you and your children feel more comfortable. For example, you could use a child contact centre. These are often staffed by volunteers, and usually provide weekly sessions of 1 to 2 hours, at weekends, where your ex can spend time with your child in a partially supervised setting. Your child cannot be taken out of the centre without your consent. You do not have to have any contact with your partner/ex-partner as you can hand over and collect your child from the contact centre staff. Your solicitor can give you more information about these centres and make a referral to a contact centre on your behalf. You can also seek support from a specialist domestic abuse service, which can advise you around safe child contact. It doesn’t matter if you have been separated for months or even years – you deserve support. Remember, if at any time you are worried about your ex’s behaviour towards the children, you can call social services who should investigate the matter further.

  • If your ex is threatening to take your child abroad, remember that it is a criminal offence for a father of a child under the age of 16 to take or send that child out of the UK without the mother’s consent. If you are worried that your child may be taken out of the country without your consent you should consult a solicitor as soon as possible. The solicitor might be able to apply for a Prohibited Steps Order preventing your partner from travelling with your child.
  • If you are not married and your partner is not on the birth certificate, then he is unlikely to have parental responsibility and therefore will not have the legal right to take your children from you, anywhere, or to make any parental decisions in your child’s life.
  • Even if you are married or your partner is on the birth certificate, he still should not take your children anywhere (including within the UK) without your consent. If you have cause to believe your partner is likely to do this, then you can apply to the family court for an emergency Prohibited Steps Order. There is a good chance you will be able to obtain legal aid for such an order (provided your means are within certain limits, and you have some sort of proof of the domestic abuse) – you can find a family law solicitor who can take this matter further.
  • If your partner is threatening to take the children from the UK in the next 48 hours, you can call the police who can alert all UK points of departure to try to prevent an abduction. This is called a ‘Port Alert’. This initial remedy will remain live for 28 days and will allow you to seek legal advice. More useful information about port alerts can be found here.
  • You can also make an application to the High Court for a Port Alert (if the Police have not put one on) and for a Location Order and Passport Order which will enable the police to locate your child and seize their passport. This application can be made out of hours if necessary, by telephoning a duty Judge.
  • Should an All Ports Warning not prove successful, or if your abuser has already left the country before the warning was put in place, you should get urgent legal advice on the procedure for the child’s return as this varies depending on the country that they have been taken to.

  • A threat like this is another form of coercive control; and many abusive men try to manipulate their partners in this way. It is definitely not unlawful for you to go to a place of safety such as a refuge, or a friend of family member’s home he does not know, and to take your children with you.
  • If your partner does call the police after you leave, the police may contact you to check you and your children are safe, but they will not reveal your whereabouts to your partner.

Useful tips for child contact proceedings:
  • Gather as much evidence as possible and give to your solicitor. If you are able to, it is helpful to report any incidents to the police or GP, as this will provide a good source of evidence.
  • If your ex is already having contact with the children, keep a diary. In particular record the reaction of your child after contact with him, the dates and times of any incidents of abuse, and the dates and times that he fails to turn up for contact.
  • Make sure that your solicitor is asking for a Findings of Fact Hearing under ‘Practice Directive 12J’ at the earliest possible opportunity.
  • Obtain a copy of your Cafcass report as soon as it is available. You are entitled to a copy at least five days before the final court hearing. If you disagree with the report, start a complaint to Cafcass.
  • When it comes to the Child Arrangements Order itself, make sure it contains clear arrangements that will help keep you safe from your ex, such as: who is to collect the child/from where; who is to drop off the child/to where. If your ex is not keeping to the times, talk to a solicitor about applying to ‘vary’ (change) the order.
Useful websites:

Remember, if you think your partner might be tracking how you use the internet, read these tips on safer browsing before searching for support online

  • Rights of Women have fact sheets on residence, contact and parental responsibility that can be downloaded for free from their website. Remember that any downloads will show up in your downloads history – use a device your partner does not have access to.
  • Child Law Advice is operated by Coram Children’s Legal Centre. They provide specialist advice and information on child, family and education law to parents, carers and young people in England.
  • Support Through Court. Some courts have a Support Through Court (formerly called PSU) Unit in the building. This is a charity run by volunteers who offer practical support in court and can attend hearing with you if necessary.