06:52, November 29 44 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-29 06:52:04
Rapist fathers should not have rights over their victims’ children

Sammy Woodhouse is an extraordinarily courageous woman. She is the victim of the most appalling crimes in the most appalling circumstances, and yet she chose to set aside her anonymity. Yesterday she told her story, one that must spark a powerful case for a change to British law.

Woodhouse was a victim of a serial rapist in a child-grooming gang and was 15 when she was raped and got pregnant. The man was jailed for 35 years in 2016, but her torment and fear did not end there. The system then worked against her as the victim and her desperate desire to protect her child, by giving rights to a man whose sickening abuse tormented and upended her life.

Woodhouse has revealed that she was seeking a care order with the support of Rotherham council because she was unable to cope with her son’s complex needs. Perversely, even though the convicted rapist was not named on her son’s birth certificate and had no parental responsibility, the council argued that it was legally required to contact the rapist and notify him of proceedings involving the child. This caused understandable shock to Woodhouse, who was terrified that she might have been forced to confront her abuser in court.

The council has faced much criticism over its decision. But the problem is with the law: the broad and enabling legislation, as it stands, gives rapists and other abusers the right to participate in these proceedings.

This will shock many, and most would agree that it is completely inappropriate to notify an individual of proceedings taking place in a private court when they have been convicted of raping the mother, they have no parental responsibility and are a risk to the child’s safety.

We cannot allow the law to be used to subject victims to further trauma like this. It is not justice and it is not right.

That is why I am committed to working with Woodhouse to strengthen and clarify the law.

First, the Ministry of Justice should urgently undertake a review to assess how often the utterly perverse notification of rapists in instances such as this is taking place. The shifting response of the government reveals how much ambiguity there is in the law; it initially said that only those with parental responsibility had a right to be notified, before correcting themselves and indicating that councils had the power to apply to waive the notification of a “parent” if it will cause harm to the child. This confusion leaves the system open to abuse.

That’s why we also need to look at amending the Children’s Act 1989 and related directions to ensure that convicted rapists do not have a role in the child’s future, including removing their right to be notified of decisions being made about the victim’s child and to apply through the courts for access. We are calling on the government to work with us to bring about a definitive change in the law so that it is crystal clear – the rights of victims supersede those of convicted rapists.

However, this is the symptom of a broader problem. Victims are too often forgotten in our legal system. The Conservative party has twice vowed at election time to enshrine victims’ rights in law, and twice they have let them down. Labour will place victims at the heart of the justice system by enshrining their rights in law and recognising the trauma caused by potentially being forced to face their perpetrator in court.

Woodhouse is a woman of remarkable and humbling bravery. In the worst circumstances imaginable she has used her experiences to fight for change for women like her. Now the government must listen.

Louise Haigh is Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley

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