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Child contact arrangements,

 do they reflect the best interests of the child? 

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary concern. “

Article 3.1, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child


Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation (Women’s Aid Federation
Northern Ireland) is the lead organisation tackling domestic violence in Northern Ireland.  It consists of eleven member groups providing refuge and support to women and children who are suffering from violence in the home.  A 24 hour helpline is in operation 365 days per year. 

Women’s Aid Federation
Northern Ireland has over twenty years experience of working in the field of domestic violence.  In this time we have witnessed the many complex problems and mixed emotions that surround the process of establishing child contact arrangements i.e. where the perpetrator of domestic violence has been granted continued access to the children, subsequent  to the break up of the relationship. 

This document seeks to outline the complexity of establishing contact and to identify the difficulties involved, where there is a history of domestic violence.  It outlines recent legislative developments within Northern Ireland in relation to contact and seeks, also, to provide general recommendations which will reflect the best interests of the child.

 Difficulties associated with contact arrangements

Research has shown that the majority of women who have experienced domestic violence are, despite these experiences, keen to establish contact arrangements to enable the child to maintain a relationship with the father.  Hester and Radford (1995) in their study  “Domestic Violence and Child Contact Arrangements in England and Denmark” found this to be the case in both countries. 

When properly monitored with the implementation of appropriate systems for support, contact can be a positive development.  The child, in particular, can benefit from maintaining a relationship with both parents.  However, where there has been a history of domestic violence, the process of establishing contact arrangements can be complex , difficult and sometimes dangerous.  Hester and Radford (1995) found that, where there is a history of domestic violence, child contact usually fails.  This is because contact arrangements are often used by the perpetrator of domestic violence to continue the abuse of the women and/or of the child(ren) Various studies have shown that women are more likely to be at risk of domestic homicide directly after separating from the abuser.  In their study, Hester and Radford found that the majority of women  were assaulted after leaving the relationship.  All post separation contact was linked in some way to child contact. 

Children’s experiences of contact 

The child may also be at risk of further physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse through the continuation of contact with the father.  Studies have revealed close links between domestic violence and child abuse.  Many researchers would argue that where one exists the co-existence of the other is highly likely.  The Hidden Victims Study (NCH, UK 1994) showed that more than a quarter (27%) of the children had been hit or physically abused by the violent partner.  Stark and Flitchcraft (1988) analysed reports of children on the child protection register and matched them with hospital records of their mothers.  In this study 45% of the mothers had a medical history indicative of domestic violence. 

It is important to remember also, the emotional effects contact arrangements may have on children.  The period before and during contact can be a distressing and emotionally difficult time for a child.  This will depend a great deal upon, the child’s knowledge of and exposure to  domestic violence; the child’s relationship with the father and the level of support offered to a child.  

If a child has been subjected to physical violence by the father, there will, inevitably,  be feelings of fear prior to and during contact.  This may be manifested in many ways e.g. bedwetting, sleeping disorders, mood swings etc.  Witnessing domestic violence can have damaging emotional effects on children both in the short and long term.  If such violence continues during contact,  the resulting stress placed upon the child can  be difficult to cope with. 

Children may also feel that they are  “caught in the middle” during contact .  Often the child will be used as a weapon to further the abuse of the mother, the child may be encouraged to pass threats on to the mother or may be quizzed as to the mothers whereabouts and daily routines.  A child may also be subjected to constant criticism of the mother.  Such experiences may leave a child with feelings of confusion, fear and torn loyalties. 

The Northern Ireland Context 

The experiences outlined pose the question, how can contact arrangements be established which will accurately reflect the best interests of the child as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?.  Within the Northern Ireland context changes have already occurred in legislation which begin to answer this question.  The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (NI) Order 1998 has been developed to provide progressive and coherent policies and legislation which will in  turn provide effective and just remedies for victims of domestic violence.  Such remedies, it is anticipated will meet the need for protection of victims whilst still respecting their dignity and integrity.  The Order replaces features of previous legislation such as Family Law (NI) Order 1984 and the Domestic Proceedings (NI) Order 1980.  The Legislation also amends articles of the Children Order(NI) 1995. 

The Order provides a clear focus on children.  In relation to applications for contact or residency orders, the new legislation has the potential to have a huge impact.  When granting a contact order, a court must consider: 

“whether the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering any harm through seeing or hearing ill treatment of another person”Article 28

The Order provides an increased understanding of the effects witnessing domestic violence may  have on children and  recognises that where one parent has suffered domestic violence, there is a risk that children may also be vulnerable to abuse.   

The introduction of this legislation is a major development which will assist the acknowledgement of domestic violence as a crime in it’s own right.  In recognising the effects domestic violence may have on children, both physical and emotional it enables their experiences to be taken into consideration when contact orders are being considered.  The legislation, though still in early stages of development has the potential to be a major force in the protection of children during contact.  


For the best interests of children to be fully reflected, attention also needs to be given not only to legislation, but also to other issues relating to contact.   

1.    Providing support for women and children throughout the court process is an area which needs to be addressed.   

2.    Domestic violence training is essential for all those involved in the legal/court system to ensure that both women and children are receiving an effective and supportive service 

3.    The quality of the child’s relationship with the father should be examined before any decision concerning contact arrangements is made.  It does not suffice to assume that if a father wants contact he is a good father. 

4.    The child’s wishes regarding contact should be taken into account during proceedings.  It is essential that the child is supported during proceedings and has opportunities to talk about the situation and how they feel about it. 

5.    Where there is domestic violence it is essential that the women’s account of this is taken into consideration and that the safety of the woman and child is given priority at all times. 

6.    Where granted, contact should be carefully monitored for the possible existence of abuse.  Effective systems for doing this need to be  set up and adhered to. 

7.    Contact between parents should be kept to a minimum.  This could be facilitated by the establishment of contact centres where children can be “dropped off” and “picked up”. 

“In circumstances of domestic violence, contact should not be presumed to be in the best interests of the child. The starting point should be no contact with the possibility of contact only if this can be arranged safely for both mother and child”

Hester and Radford 1995

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Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland