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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 05-Sep-16 10:30:37

Guest post: "I'm frightened for Helen - I know how helpless you can feel in court"

As Helen's case goes to trial in The Archers, domestic abuse survivor Zoe Dronfield shares her experience of going through both the family and criminal courts (trigger warning: upsetting content)

Zoe Dronfield

Domestic abuse survivor

Posted on: Mon 05-Sep-16 10:30:37

(17 comments )

Lead photo

"Helen's situation sounds all too similar. For survivors of domestic abuse, the family court is the perpetrator's final blow."

As I listen to Helen, I'm reminded of my own ordeal in the courts. I went through the criminal courts and the family courts at the same time – and the experiences were very different.

When the date was set for my ex-boyfriend's trial, I was confident that with my horrific injuries, the terrible crime scene and my evidence, we'd get a good result.

I asked for special measures in the criminal court so I did not have to face my ex-boyfriend Smith. Special measures mean you can arrive through a separate entrance, wait in a separate area, and give evidence from behind a screen – there is no interaction with your abuser. I did not want to see his face. How could I look at him after what he had done?

I was ushered to a witness protection room where my friends and family were waiting. The staff were fantastic. I knew giving evidence in court would be harrowing. The emotion when I walked into the courtroom was intense. I was shaking, crying, angry as I spoke. But I did it - and I felt safe, and supported.

While Smith was on trial, I was also being dragged through the family courts by my ex-partner Mike*, in an attempt to gain full custody of my daughter. The attack was his initial reason for Mike filing for custody, despite the fact that Smith was remanded immediately. His statement was full of lies; he said I drank too much alcohol and painted me as a bad mother.

Mike served me with family court papers when I was still in hospital, broken, following the attack. I've never been more vulnerable; I had suffered a bleed on the brain after being beaten for eight hours. I was lucky to be alive.

I had to discharge myself from hospital to defend the application. In the past few years, I'd had issues with him not returning my daughter after contact. He constantly used her as a weapon – as many abusive men do. I had learnt to manage his behaviour; however, the attack from Smith gave him the green light to abuse me by separating us as a punishment. He even said, "I'm teaching you a lesson".

Family courts are transactional. There is no emotion, no understanding. Listening to The Archers, I am frightened for Helen if she has to go through the family courts. An abuser can orchestrate their victim's downfall there.


It was a nightmare. I arrived in the family court and it was very different to the criminal court. There were no protection measures of any kind. I felt like the judge took one look at me and made an assumption about my character, because I had a bruised face and untidy hair, having just come from hospital. Every time I tried to talk, she shut me down completely. Mike had a voice. I didn't.

It was the worst day of my life; worse than the attack. Mike was able to cross-examine me because we were both litigants in person. A man who had abused me, a man with a criminal record for violence, drug abuse - was able to question me and undermine me. I felt the judge's attitude towards me suggested that she did not understand coercive control. She handed custody of my little girl – who only knew life with me – to him.

Criminal courts do not talk to family courts, therefore they didn't know the outcome of Smith's trial, that he was in prison and would not be anywhere near my daughter. It also meant that Mike's criminal convictions or history of abuse were not factored into the custody decision.

"The mother can see her daughter overnight on a Tuesday, and Saturday in the day for 6 hours."

I stood up to try to object. The judge walked out.

My world fell apart. I was a victim of a terrible crime, and the man who committed it was behind bars – but I was being punished for being a victim. I was in shock.

I hired a solicitor and a barrister. We got evidence of Mike's convictions, and gathered the abusive texts he sent to me in hospital, saying "You've done it now - you'll never see her again". I was not entitled to legal aid; it cost over £14,000.

In the time he had full custody, he didn't allow me contact – a breach of the court order itself. Not the act of a loving father. He was now in control – what he'd wanted all along.

Family courts are transactional. I felt there was no emotion, no understanding, and that I was spoken to in a derogatory manner. Listening to The Archers, I am frightened for Helen if she has to go through the family courts. An abuser can orchestrate their victim's downfall there.

Thankfully, I got my daughter back; we are thriving. Others are not so lucky and Helen's situation sounds all too similar. For survivors of domestic abuse, the family court is the perpetrator's final blow.

The Women's Aid Child First campaign is calling on the government and the family courts to make the family court process safer for survivors of domestic abuse, and to ensure that the safety of children is always put at the heart of all decisions made by the family courts. Sign the Child First petition here.

*name has been changed.

By Zoe Dronfield

Twitter: @ZDronfield

HumphreyCobblers Mon 05-Sep-16 14:37:12

Thank god you got your daughter back. I cannot imagine what that was like to go though.

100milesanhour Mon 05-Sep-16 14:38:03

I'm glad you and your daughter are together.

yumyumlama Mon 05-Sep-16 19:22:50

I don't understand how the fact he was being charged with attacking you was not laid before the family court. I have found the fact my ex has been found guilty of assault is mentioned at all appearances. I know what you mean about going from being a protected witness at the criminal court to completely unprotected at family court, but i.m worried that those reading will assume criminal convictions have no effect in family court, which I have not found to be the case.
Whatever, you have lived through hell - kudos for getting through it!!

ShiftyLookingBadger Mon 05-Sep-16 20:35:04

This made me so angry to read that you had to go through that. So glad you got her back eventually but so sorry that the court failed you.

katienana Mon 05-Sep-16 21:47:20

So glad to read you got your daughter back. What you went through sounds like a terrible ordeal.

KarmaNoMore Tue 06-Sep-16 00:34:56

Couldn't agree more with OP.

Problem is, courts are already supposed to put children first, they only need to find better ways to check whether either parent is telling the truth. Family courts are not criminal courts, nobody checks in detail, nobody read the hundreds of pages bundles can have, they go by intuition.

It is not unusual for an abuser to present themselves calm, collected and even charming in court. While the abused parent looks dishevelled shaking in fear of being in the same room as the abuser. Naturally, when intuition is in charge... The one that looks more balanced (or can pay the legal fees for longer) is the one that wins.

BitOutOfPractice Tue 06-Sep-16 08:52:16

That sounds like a terrible ordeal. So glad you got your daughter back

It might be worth mentioning who Helen is in your op though. Not everyone will understand the reference

Bubblebloodypop Tue 06-Sep-16 12:16:01

Bit I'm glad you said something because I have no idea who Helen is confused. I'm very glad OP has her DC back though.

BitOutOfPractice Tue 06-Sep-16 12:32:38

On the desktop site there's a picture and a bit of blurb about it - it's referring to a storyline from the Archers

But on the app that doesn't show up so it makes very little sense unless you're an Archers fan

SandyPantz Tue 06-Sep-16 16:11:04

Yumyum I think there's 2 abusers in the OPs story? the father of her child and current recent ex/abuser who was imprisoned?

SandyPantz Tue 06-Sep-16 16:11:07

Yumyum I think there's 2 abusers in the OPs story? the father of her child and current recent ex/abuser who was imprisoned?

SandyPantz Tue 06-Sep-16 16:11:09

Yumyum I think there's 2 abusers in the OPs story? the father of her child and current recent ex/abuser who was imprisoned?

SandyPantz Tue 06-Sep-16 16:11:10

Yumyum I think there's 2 abusers in the OPs story? the father of her child and current recent ex/abuser who was imprisoned?

Makemineacabsauv Tue 06-Sep-16 20:41:13

What a horrendous experience for you and I am so glad you got your daughter back. It cost me £30,000 (which I am still repaying) to Leto my children safe and with me well away from a psycho. I will sign the petition right now.

Makemineacabsauv Tue 06-Sep-16 20:41:52

What a horrendous experience for you and I am so glad you got your daughter back. It cost me £30,000 (which I am still repaying) to Leto my children safe and with me well away from a psycho. I will sign the petition right now.

ZoeDronfield Wed 07-Sep-16 12:23:40

Thank you for all your words of support. To clarify Helen is the character in the recent storyline of #thearchers

It was a terrible ordeal, I have to say what I went though. The issue I feel is, there is a lack of continuity in family court procedures. The outcome can be dependant on many things; the judges, the professionals involved, the procedures they decide to follow as its not as robust as criminal court i.e. evidential and also there is no connection between family and criminal court. Someone mentioned that their ex's convictions were brought up in their family court hearing, this was not the case with mine as my ex-partner submitted the application while I was in hospital, it was an ex-parte hearing meaning I was not in attendance therefore no criminal background checks were done or asked for as he went to court as a litigant in person and got an 'emergency' hearing.

He was 'perceived' as a caring, loving father who was worried and I was the villain. The court did zero due diligence before ordering an interim residency order in his favour. His statement was full of lies and perjury to the court. The order should never have happened without checks being done prior. This also separated a brother and sister who only knew life together and have been raised very close. It was truly devastating. My ex-partner then used this power given to him by the court to abuse me while yes - I was recovering from the 2nd perpetrators attack. You couldn't write it. Too very different perps (one emotional, one physical) but both with the same objective.

This is the reality. Its hard for those who have not been through this process to understand and certainly those without any knowledge of domestic violence. They just do not believe this can go on. I understand this however look at the statistics.

Domestic violence is a complex issue and perpetrators are also not all the same. We need the family judiciary to be educated on the personality complexities of abusers and not make assumptions based on statements not verified. Usually by the time a victim has got to family court, they have already been traumatised and to then possibly be cross examined by their abuser is very traumatic and a re-victimisation. How can you be expected to give accounts of abuse IN FRONT of the abuser and then justify it?! Its a no win situation.

There are many loopholes in family court which are quite frankly extremely dangerous and are often used against victims who no longer have any fight left. As I said. Family court is often a perpetrator's final blow. I hope that by speaking out we can get the change needed to get transparency around family court hearings and put our children first. #openfamilycourt #childfirst

Zoe x

AuntyElle Thu 08-Sep-16 19:15:07

Thank you for sharing your story, Zoe. How appalling that the family courts operate like that. I will sign the petition straight away.

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