13:17, November 28 47 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-28 13:17:11
MPs call for change of law on rapist fathers after Rotherham case

A “perverse law” that allows rapists the chance to play a role in the life of children conceived through rape must be changed, campaigners and MPs have said.

Sammy Woodhouse, a campaigner and survivor of the Rotherham child exploitation scandal, told the Times that Rotherham council had invited the man who raped her as a teenager to apply for parental responsibility when the child became the subject of care proceedings.

She insisted she was far from the only rape survivor to find their attacker had been invited to have a say in the life of the child conceived in the rape. “This is happening all over the UK and must stop! An investigation and change in law is needed,” she tweeted.

Last year Rotherham council told Arshid Hussain – the ringleader of a child abuse gang who was jailed for 35 years in 2016 – that he could seek visits from Woodhouse’s son as part of family court proceedings to take the child into care, the Times reported.

The move was widely criticised. Lady Newlove, the victims’ commissioner, tweeted: “I stand by @sammywoodhouse1 to get this perverse law changed. Rapists leave their parental rights at the door the moment they commit their crime.”

The Labour MP Louise Haigh, who is working with Woodhouse, said: “Convicted rapists should have no parental rights. We’re campaigning for a change to the Children’s Act to stop the courts being used to re-traumatise victims and remove the rights of men who’ve fathered children through rape.”

Under the criminal practice directions, councils applying for a care order for a child should tell “every person whom the applicant believes to be a party to pending relevant proceedings in respect of the same child; and every person whom the applicant believes to be a parent without parental responsibility for the child”.

However, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said local authorities could apply to courts to request permission not to notify parents without parental responsibility about care proceedings.

Rotherham council suggested it was not aware of this exemption and asked for clarity on the law.

“We are in contact with the Ministry of Justice about how practice directions which apply to cases in the family courts should be applied, and we will be seeking further conversations with government officials about this as a matter of urgency,” the council said.

“It is imperative that clarity is realised as soon as possible, not just for Rotherham, but to ensure that other councils across the country who may face similar issues are able to act with certainty and no more survivors of abuse have to experience further trauma.”

Sarah Champion, the MP for Rotherham, said it would be easy for the government to change the guidance to stop a repeat of Woodhouse’s ordeal.

“A minister, by the end of today, could sign off new guidance on this that makes it crystal clear that any rapist, any abuser, anyone that is an ongoing risk to a child, does not have the right to comment on their future. They could do that today but they don’t,” she told BBC Two’s Victoria Derbyshire show.

“They sort of shove it out to the councils to make their interpretations and then just sit back and go, ‘oh well, it’s up to the councils, they interpreted it wrong’. It shouldn’t be about interpretation, it should be black and white.”

An MoJ spokesman said the right of councils not to tell a parent about care proceedings had been established in case law. Last year a family case known as “CD (Notice of care proceedings to father without parental responsibility) [2017] EWFC 34” found that a local authority was right not to tell a father that his child was subject to care proceedings. The father in that case had a historic of domestic abuse and had spent most of the child’s life in prison.

A family court heard the case of Woodhouse’s child last year, the Times reported. With her support, Rotherham council was seeking a care order after Woodhouse felt unable to cope with the troubled boy’s complex needs.

Hussain was not named on his son’s birth certificate and was never married to Woodhouse but he was listed as a “respondent” in the case even though the local authority knew that he had no parental responsibility for the boy.

The council was also aware that the child, by then a teenager, wanted nothing to do with his paternal family, the Times reported. It nevertheless contacted Hussain in prison to inform him of his rights.

Lorraine Harvey, a family lawyer at Slater and Gordon in Manchester, said that the default position for local authorities taking a child into care was for them to inform both birth parents, even if one doesn’t have parental responsibility. This is particularly important if a child is to be adopted, to stop a birth parent later complaining that they had not been informed or given the right to try to adopt them themselves.

Nonetheless there was a “backstop”, she said, “in which Rotherham council could have applied to the judge to say that in this case it is not appropriate to invite the father to apply for parental responsibility. They could have done that.”

Even if Hussain had said he wanted contact with the boy, he would have had to apply to the courts for parental responsibility, she said. There was no guarantee that would be granted if a judge decided it was not in the best interests of the child.

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