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After 13 years of escalating coercive control and abuse, it was my daughter who eventually gave me the impetus to leave my husband, James*. Sarah*, who is under 10, had been struggling with anxiety, lashing out at her friends and walking out of class. On my request, a teacher asked her what was wrong.
No parent wants to hear the words that tumbled out of her mouth.
"My Dad has grabbed me, it scares me. He has pushed my sister and has to have his own way," Sarah told her teacher. "When he's not around, that's when I feel safe."
The teacher asked for consent to refer our situation to social services. Enough was enough – my daughter's words had given me the strength to leave. I said yes to the referral, phoned my parents, and packed a bag.
Almost two years later, I am still dealing with James' coercive and controlling behaviour – in the family courts.
This week, more than 120 MPs have demanded the government launch an inquiry into how family courts treat survivors of domestic violence. More than 124,000 people have signed a petition to "stop domestic abuse through the family courts" as scores of victims have spoken about how they have had to face abusive ex-partners in custody battles. In the past five years, at least four children have been killed by a parent who was given access in these courts, according to the BBC.
It is this court that granted my ex access to our children – even though Sarah says she doesn't want to see her father.
I met James through a local church group. We started dating in our early 20s and got married a year later. He first abused me on our honeymoon when he tried to sexually assault me. I forced him off and ran to the bedroom in tears. He apologised and I forgave him – but it was just the start.
What began with belittling comments and put downs about my career in the public sector and family background, soon became constant emotional abuse. Then it was financial control and attempts to isolate me from family and friends. I needed his permission to do anything; if I didn’t seek it there would be arguments about why I had disobeyed and not ‘submitted to him as my husband’. When I went out, James would often demand to see receipts, asking who I had been with, and then checking my bank statement. I was earning money but didn't have any control over my own finances. It was a constant state of trying to keep the peace by obeying his ever changing ‘rules’.
He started pushing me or shoving me into doors, and getting angry about little things.
It got worse when we had our two children, who are both under 10. James was jealous and wanted my attention. Two weeks after a traumatic labour, he demanded that I have sex with him. I was in pain and still bleeding, but he threatened to tell people I was asexual or a lesbian if I refused. As time wore on, my body became my last form of control. Sometimes he would hit me if I refused to have sex with him. On other occasions I would just lie there and let him, because it was easier to comply than worrying what the children might see or hear if I didn’t.
The abuse didn't stop with me. James was controlling to our children and, on several occasions, became physical. If they woke during the night, he would intimidate and grab them for disturbing his sleep. He would ply them for information if we went out, asking where we had been, who with, and whether or not 'Mum had spent anything'. Then, he would start arguments about us wasting his money – even though I had my own income. The children often felt it was their fault.
James would react unreasonably if the children got upset or challenged him, grabbing and pushing them or shouting. He would call them derogatory names and would punish them financially, for example, making them spend their birthday money to replace items of clothing broken by by accident.
To the outside world, he was a lovely family man – at home we tiptoed around him.
My parents accompanied us on the day we left, and looked after us for a few days. James refused to leave the family home, so I had to find temporary accommodation for the children to continue at school. Refuge supported us to look for a place, but eventually a friend said we could stay with her. It was chaotic and we changed beds a dozen times in eight weeks. I was working part-time and James started removing funds from our joint accounts – I had to borrow money from my parents for food and bills until I was paid. My first trip to family court was to ask for myself and the children to be able to move back into our home. Thankfully, we were successful.
Even though we have now left the situation, we haven't escaped James' control. Last summer, the family court granted him permission to see Sarah and Alice once a fortnight in a public place, moving to unsupervised contact. Sarah expressed an intense desire not to see her father, but as a child she wasn't allowed to speak in court. Rather than understanding the evidence of abuse, the family court put our divisions down to adult acrimony.
My hands are tied. I have already spent about £15,000 trying to make sure my children are listened to and kept safe. If I don't take them to their father for visits, I could go to jail for violating a court order. The courts repeatedly say it is in the best interest of the children to spend time with both parents and that we just need to 'get on'.
Recently, both children were visibly upset when they came home from their father's. One daughter was unwell and asked to come home to me, rather than spend the night at James'. The court has said contact should be at their pace. She told a counsellor that he had intimidated them and threatened to involve the police if they didn't stay. The counsellor raised concerns to social services again but nothing was done in court about yet another breach.
Most separated fathers wouldn't threaten a sick child. He should be held to account for how he behaves around our children. I recently told the courts again that I believe my children are at risk of emotional abuse and coercive control from James.
James has accused me in court of alienating him from the children, but he has been seeing them regularly since the courts became involved. It is he that continues to breach the rules. I would like to have a civil relationship for the children's sake, but he's controlling and abusive – I cannot co-parent or have a rational conversation with him.
The courts don't understand the dynamics of abusive relationships and the odds are stacked against you from day one. They ignore your concerns and denigrate you as a victim, which is soul destroying. They don't understand how much courage it takes to leave and how terrifying it is to have to face your abuser again. You're seen by a different judge every time and feel like you constantly have to describe the situation.
There are systemic failings worse than ours, too. I know of women who have been threatened with knives. then lost their children after a judge deemed them "unfit" because they were taking medication for PTSD.
It isn't just judges that fail victims. A barrister working on my case said my witness statement "read like a woman's novel" and asked if I could "get my father on the phone because he was easier to talk to than me". He called me difficult and couldn't comprehend my situation. My support worker said the behaviour was awful but also common.
Family courts need to understand domestic abuse and how to treat those who have survived it. They need to work with social services so they know when it isn't safe for a child to be with a parent. Yes, parents have a right to see their children, but if a child is saying they are frightened, that should be questioned.
Until the court puts clear boundaries in place that offer my family a way to keep James' controlling behaviour in check, it is likely we will continue to be abused. I jump when the phone rings and sometimes find it difficult to eat or sleep. Sarah is still seeing a counsellor for her anxiety but otherwise the girls are thriving. I still hope that we can find a way to move forward – and that my children will be safe.
I will never forget the words of one supportive barrister as we walked into a hearing: "You don't have to look him in the eye, but do look at him. He's only a man." When I feel anxious, I remember he is only another human being and I don't need to be worried.
*Names have been changed
As told to Cara McGoogan