Last week, I proposed a Bill in Parliament to remove the automatic parental right of men who have fathered a child through rape and to establish an inquiry into the treatment of abuse victims in the family courts.
This Bill is borne out of my work with Sammy Woodhouse to increase protections for victims of abuse. Sammy herself is a victim of child sexual exploitation and bravely testified against Arshid Hussain in a criminal trial in 2016, which helped to expose the Rotherham grooming scandal. Hussain was convicted, alongside two of his brothers and his uncle, of rape, indecent assault, abduction, false imprisonment and making threats to kill. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
During the trial, Sammy voluntarily placed her son under a care order. Because of the stress she was experiencing, she recognised that she was not, at the time, fully capable of looking after him. When the trial concluded, she believed her ordeal with the men who had groomed her as a child was over, but she was wrong.
Last year, at a routine variation of her son’s care order, Sammy was sitting in court when her social worker informed her that Hussain, still in prison, had been informed the proceedings and of his right to apply for access to her son.
Sammy actually considers herself lucky, if such a word can be used of someone who has been through what she has, because Hussain did not attend court that day. But after the court process had finished, Rotherham Council once again approached Hussain in prison to encourage contact with her son, without even notifying Sammy it was doing so.
It is inconceivable to anyone with any sympathy, empathy or a drop of common sense that Hussain should be encouraged to contact the child he fathered through rape. Had he been so minded, he could have used the court as a weapon to cross-examine Sammy and to traumatise her and her children all over again.
Sammy’s case is not unique. Pioneering research by Women’s Aid found clear examples of family courts prioritising abusers’ rights over survivors’ and children’s rights to life and freedom from degrading treatment.
In its report, ‘Nineteen Child Homicides’, Women’s Aid uncovered the deaths of nineteen children following contact granted to men who were known abusers. This research did lead to changes in the system but campaigners and survivors have concerns that family courts are still granting abusive men access to children.
It should not be down to charities to expose these issues at the heart of our justice system, so I believe we need an independent inquiry to establish the level of this discrimination in the courts and what needs to be done to address it.
The women and children affected by these cases are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Women such as Sammy have already been let down by the state time and again. We cannot allow their voices to continue to go unheard, silenced and ignored. We cannot perpetuate a system that discriminates against them and potentially places them and their children in harm’s way.
It is time for the voices of those who have suffered in silence for too long to finally be heard.