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How sex abusers who target their own children keep parental rights – and the mothers fighting back

London’s victims’ commissioner Claire Waxman tells The Independent she is tabling an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that would mean that child sex abusers who target their own children or stepchildren have their parental responsibility revoked (Getty)
London’s victims’ commissioner Claire Waxman tells The Independent she is tabling an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that would mean that child sex abusers who target their own children or stepchildren have their parental responsibility revoked (Getty)

A mother is desperate to change her child’s surname – so that they no longer share it with their criminal father.

But Emily* is being blocked from doing so by her ex, despite the fact that he is a convicted child sex offender. Her predicament is not unique.

Under English and Welsh law, child sex abusers are able to keep their parental rights in the UK, even if they target their own children. This allows them to retain influence over where the child lives, as well as their healthcare and education.

Getting parental responsibility revoked is an intensely protracted process that requires going through the family courts and can cost as much as £30,000 to £50,000.

But London’s victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, is tabling an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that would mean that child sex abusers who target their own children or stepchildren have their parental responsibility revoked.

“Sexual abuse by a parent or step-parent is one of the most psychologically damaging crimes that children can endure,” Ms Waxman told The Independent. “It is an abhorrent gap in our justice system that, when these offenders are convicted, they maintain their parental responsibility over their victims.

“The children in these cases and the adults caring for them should not be subjected to additional psychological, and potentially financial, suffering by having to make applications to family courts to have this parental responsibility revoked.”

Have you been affected by this? Email maya.oppenheim@independent.co.uk

Claire Waxman says it is ‘an abhorrent gap in our justice system’ (Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)
Claire Waxman says it is ‘an abhorrent gap in our justice system’ (Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)

The Independent understands that Labour is expected to call for measures that go even further, and will be supporting an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, tabled by their own MP Harriet Harman, which will mean that anyone who sexually abuses any child will have their parental responsibility suspended. The only caveat is that they were a parent when they committed the offence.

“I was 16 when I met him,” says Emily, who is in her twenties. “He was over twice my age when we met. He was abusive.”

Emily, who has one child with her ex, says he has a conviction for downloading hundreds of indecent images of children. “He was doing this before I was with him, while I was with him and after I was with him,” she explains. “He never went to prison. He was placed on the sex offenders’ register for five years, but is due to come off it soon.”

Until recently, Emily’s ex was permitted contact with their child, which was ordered through the courts but supervised by one of his family members.

He is currently on bail facing charges relating to rape and sexual abuse, taking indecent images of Emily when she was 16, and potentially coercive control, too, she says. For now, the family courts have ordered that he has no contact with their child.

“My child has his surname, and I can’t change it because he has parental responsibility,” Emily says. “He has refused to let me change it. I have spent £15,000 up to this point in the family courts. My whole life is on hold. My wages go on my solicitor’s bill. I don’t get to do anything nice for me or my child.”

She says she wishes she could get her ex-partner’s parental responsibility revoked, but that doing so is “impossible” – adding that a number of professionals have told her this is not achievable.

“They basically said the worst of the worst – murderers and rapists – still manage to keep it,” Emily says. “I do believe it should be an automatic thing. People like him pose too much of a risk. He has no self-awareness and shows no remorse – he is not going to change, as he doesn’t realise he has done anything wrong.”

Ms Waxman explained that the government has decided that murderers should have their parental responsibility removed at sentencing in cases of domestic homicide, and is ensuring that this will happen by introducing “Jade’s Law” into the Victims and Prisoners Bill – something that The Independent has reported on previously.

“The legislation must go further to protect children sexually abused by their own parent,” the commissioner added. “Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has a long way to go in addressing these crimes, and only a minority of child sexual abuse cases ever reach court – 11 per cent of all child sex abuse reports to police in England and Wales in 2020/21 were charged. In my experience, even fewer are charged when a parent or step-parent is the perpetrator.”

But some cases do lead to a conviction, and in those instances, victims must be safeguarded from their abusers, who currently maintain parental responsibility and subsequently play a role in their key life decisions, Ms Waxman said.

“Protecting children from parents who have committed the heinous crime of abusing children is absolutely crucial,” said Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary. “The Labour Party is committed to ensuring that the law steps in with these terrible cases, to ensure that an abuser’s own children are not put in harm’s way.”

Labour’s Harriet Harman has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to address the issue (PA Archive)
Labour’s Harriet Harman has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to address the issue (PA Archive)

Another mother, Frankie*, also wants to get her ex’s parental responsibility for their child revoked.

“He was very abusive to me,” the 30-year-old tells The Independent. “Physical, psychological, financial and sexual. He was controlling, manipulative, and unpredictable.

“My child came home and disclosed child sex abuse he perpetrated against her, which then led to going to the family courts, but this led to nothing. I was failed by the police system – nothing was found to [have happened], because of how the police mishandled the situation.”

Frankie says her daughter sees her ex, who has a conviction for downloading indecent images of children, regularly in supervised visits, but that she often cries afterwards because he has been emotionally abusive and controlling towards her.

Research has found that there are known links between coercive control, physical abuse and child sexual abuse, according to Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, director of the Shera Research Group, which conducts research on domestic abuse and the family courts.

“We are calling for parental responsibility to be suspended for convicted child sex offenders,” she adds. “It should not be incumbent upon victim-survivors to seek and pay for their own protection from these offenders via the civil courts. This is state-sanctioned abuse.”

Dalgarno says that she hears from mothers that the courts ignore child sex abuse convictions, adding that it is increasingly common for mothers to try to curtail an ex’s parental responsibility.

At the end of January, victims and safeguarding minister Laura Farris told MPs: “In cases in which a parent has been convicted of a child sexual offence, the family court has the power to strip out parental responsibility.”

The Tory MP later warned that choices about “suspending or restricting” parental rights hold substantial consequences for children, adding that this is “why judges prefer to consider each case on its individual merits and make a decision that is specific to the best interests of that child”.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The safety of a child is absolutely paramount. Family court judges will always put the welfare of children first, and can already make orders limiting the parental rights of those found guilty of such offences. We are also carefully reviewing the approach to parental access to make sure all children are kept from harm.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities