Former social worker explains how perpetrators of domestic violence get custody of the children

Sinéad McGarry was appointed Project Lead forTranslational Simulation for Trauma Informed Care Research Project, St James’s Hospital Dublin last January.

In the past she has worked as a senior medical social worker in Naas General Hospital and in St James’s Hospital.

In a Twitter tread in response to the news this week of Rory Gallagher being arrested in relation to domestic violence, Sinéad McGarry explains how perpetrators of domestic violence can sometimes end up with custody of the children.

“I have no knowledge of the Rory Gallagher or his family life but some dangerous narratives are emerging around domestic violence, the role of social work, the police and the courts which should be challenged.

I was an Emergency Dept social worker for many years. I routinely worked with women who experienced brutal levels of violence. Many had addiction issues which developed as a coping strategy to survive the relentless emotional and physical abuse.

Mothers feared leaving their relationship as the perpetrator told them they would lose their kids. Their fears were valid. I provided medical evidence of assault in many cases & children were still placed with the perpetrator at the point of separation.

It was essentially a trade-off led by social workers with limited education in coercive control and the impact on kids. Kids were essentially deemed safer with father who abused their mother than with their mother who had addiction.

Gaining custody of the kids in NO way means that a man has not perpetrated violence against a woman. I can think of multiple cases where a man explained away, minimised, denied or admitted violence to police, courts and social workers and still got custody of his children.

As our knowledge of the serious impact of domestic violence on children who witness it improves, this may change. For now, perpetrators can continue to groom professionals to exert as much control as they can over family life.

Perpetrators are so skilled at grooming professionals.I have heard gardai & social workers use the exact language of the perpetrator to describe the woman ‘troubled, unfit, incapable.’ Professionals need much more support & training to manage perpetrator behaviour & influence.

In the meantime, please don’t use a decision not to prosecute or a custody decision as a reason to decide a woman is lying about domestic violence. I have known many women, beaten to a pulp, who lost custody of their kids and never saw their cases get to court.

This is one of the reasons why women stay. Leaving a relationship with children means that despite known violence, the perpetrator will in most cases,continue to have access to and at times, full custody of the children. Leaving is often less safe for mothers than staying.”

A 𝑅𝑒𝑝𝑜𝑟𝑡 𝑜𝑓 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑆𝑝𝑒𝑐𝑖𝑎𝑙 𝑅𝑎𝑝𝑝𝑜𝑟𝑡𝑒𝑢𝑟 𝑜𝑛 𝑣𝑖𝑜𝑙𝑒𝑛𝑐𝑒 𝑎𝑔𝑎𝑖𝑛𝑠𝑡 𝑤𝑜𝑚𝑒𝑛 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑔𝑖𝑟𝑙𝑠, 𝑖𝑡𝑠𝑐𝑎𝑢𝑠𝑒𝑠 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑐𝑜𝑛𝑠𝑒𝑞𝑢𝑒𝑛𝑐𝑒𝑠, by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls,  Reem Alsalem was published 12 May 2023.

The report examines ways in which family courts in different regions refer to “parental alienation” or similar pseudo-concepts in custody cases, ignoring histories of domestic violence, which may lead to the double victimization of victims of such violence.

The report also offers recommendations for States and other stakeholders on how to address the situation.

In preparing the report, the Special Rapporteur sought contributions from Member States, including Ireland, international and regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, academia and victims, and held a series of online consultations with stakeholders and experts.

The report states: “Given the prevalence of domestic violence in intimate relationships, separation from a perpetrator can also be a highly dangerous period for the victim.

Allegations of domestic violence tend to receive insufficient scrutiny by courts and to trigger problematic assumptions, for example that it causes little harm to the mother or child and that it ceases with separation.

The consequences of domestic violence and its effects on children are also misunderstood and underestimated by judges, who tend to prioritize and grant contact with fathers. In doing so, judges fail in their duty to protect children from harm,giving abusive fathers unsupervised access to their children, including in cases where judges have found that physical and/or sexual violence has occurred.”

A report by the National Women’s Council (NWC) launched 3 May 2023 by Simon Harris, minister for justice says domestic violence victims are “undermined and blamed” by Tusla social workers who use it as an excuse to take children into care.

The report says: “Social workers remain untrained in the dynamics of domestic violence and focus on removing children into care rather than supporting mothers.

“We were told on numerous occasions [victims] found themselves held responsible for a failure to protect a child or children of the relationship and … felt that they were themselves the wrongdoer, being left fearful that an application would be made to take that child or children from them,” say authors Nuala Egan SC and Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, adjunct professor of law at University of Limerick and former chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

“Such an experience runs entirely contrary to long-standing international research which makes it clear that a key principle in child protection is the protection of the adult victim.

“This research, unfortunately, has also tended to support our experience that victims are undermined and blamed for a failure to [protect] their children.”

A systemic lack of understanding of the impact of domestic and/or sexual violence on victims is one of the key factors leading victims to withdraw from the legal process, according to the report.

Other factors include the absence of a comprehensive court and non-court support service, long delays and the court-day experience.

Training in domestic violence is optional for social work students and should be mandatory, the authors say. “We also recommend that, post qualification, practising social workers undertake ongoing training to keep their knowledge up to date and in line with best practice”.

In private family law, the report says mothers who cite domestic violence risk being accused of fabricating the abuse to “alienate” the children from their father.

Recourse to this “parental alienation” model appears to be “increasingly popular in courts in Ireland … being raised by lawyers for alleged perpetrators as a means of cancelling out and even silencing allegations of domestic violence by a victim in the course of access or custody applications”.

“Increased use of this model in the courts … has impacted upon the willingness of victims to even raise domestic violence before a court in applications for access or custody,” the report says.

The effect “is to disregard a child’s voice, as the child was taken to be merely repeating the alienating parent’s views. If such a state of affairs prevailed … that would effectively contravene the constitutional imperative that the voice of the child be heard in proceedings affecting them”.

The parental alienation model appears to be “in favour with some or possibly many of the expert assessors” appointed by courts to determine children’s interests and wishes, the report says.

Given that courts “place considerable reliance” upon such assessors, “the impact of such an approach … is most significant”.

While there had been a “sea-change” in victims’ experiences with specially trained gardaí working in protective services units, there was an apparent “but unexplained reluctance” by some gardaí to prosecute offences under section 33 of the Domestic Violence Act 2018 – for breach of protective, safety or barring orders.”