The research, led by Stephanie Holt, assistant professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin, found that in some cases children were witnessing or experiencing violence, when domestic violence had been a factor in the relationship before their parents had separated.
The study involved 219 mothers of 449 children answering a questionnaire and then face-to-face interviews of 61 children, mothers, fathers, and legal, health, and social care professionals.
The questionnaire responses revealed that one woman was so afraid of being assaulted by her former partner that she ensured the ‘handover’ of their child took place in front of a security camera at a garage.
Another respondent claimed that she had been raped by her ex-partner around the time of the handover and had become pregnant as a result, before then losing the baby.
Dr Holt said that many children involved were keen to continue to have a relationship with their father, despite harrowing experiences in some instances, such as being neglected, being returned home days later than planned, not having enough food, or witnessing drug and alcohol abuse during their visits.
The Barnardos and One Family groups had previously collaborated on a pilot project at two centres in Dublin which facilitated safe and supervised access. It allowed for handovers where neither parent had to see the other, monitored visits, and then fully supervised access.
However, the pilot project came to an end two years ago, and no statutory funding was forthcoming for it to be rolled out across the country.
Dr Holt said the study indicated that domestic violence does not necessarily stop being an issue after parents have separated, and that where there might have been social work involvement with the family, this can sometimes stop once separation has occurred — even though many problems might remain.
Similarly, access to mental health services for children in cases where it is deemed necessarily can be inhibited where the consent of both parents is needed.
“One of the problems is there is not a proper facility for supervised contact where domestic violence is a factor in the separation,” Dr Holt said.
She claimed that one issue was the perception of domestic violence as an “adult issue”, and as one which is often seen to have stopped when a separation takes place. However, she said the first six months following separation is often seen as a particularly dangerous time during which violence can still take place.
The research also highlighted a lack of attention from support services to the parenting of abusive men. Dr Holt said just one of the 16 children involved in the face-to-face interviews still had a social worker, even though in many of the other cases there would have been social work contact at various times but this stopped when the parents separated.
The research — published in the journal Child Abuse Review — also queried whether contact should automatically be considered to be in children’s best interests where there has been a history of domestic violence in their parents’ relationship.
Almost 70% of mothers who participated in the study expressed protection and welfare concerns for their children who were in contact with their fathers, particularly around their emotional welfare. They were also worried about exposure to verbal abuse, especially during handover points and during contact.
Four of the six fathers who participated in the study acknowledged their abusive relationship with their child’s mother. While some expressed guilt and shame, others had a sense of injustice and “indefensible marginalisation from their children’s lives”.
Dr Holt said she was not underplaying the experiences of men — including fathers — who are themselves victims of domestic violence, but for the purposes of this study she received responses from a broad cross-section of society with people contributing from different socioeconomic backgrounds, with many being contacted through women’s refuges.
She said the previous model operated jointly by One Family and Barnardos had been proven to work and had also been seen as cost- effective.