UK Family Law Reform

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It nearly broke my heart

By Olga Craig 14th July 2004

In a landmark ruling last week, a divorced father won custody of his two little girls from their mother after she refused to let him see them. In this exlcusive interview, he tells Olga Craig about her campaign of lies and intimidation - and his joy at being renuited with his daughters

Mr V sank lower into the driving seat of the car that he had borrowed from a friend and wrapped a scarf around the lower half of his face. He switched off the engine, rearranged the wing mirrors to get a clearer view . . . and then he waited.

Parked at the end of a leafy street in a residential area of Westminster, in central London, he sat silently in his car, his gaze never leaving the front door of a nearby apartment.

Just after eight o'clock in the morning, the door opened. In the dim, early autumn light he saw two little girls, dressed in their school uniforms, hurtle outside and, hand in hand, race down the garden path in front of their mother.

"I felt my heart tighten, I felt such a rush of love I thought it would burst," he says quietly. "To see them yet not to feel able to speak to them, to hug them." He is silent for a moment, recalling that September morning last year when he had seen his two young daughters for the first time in almost nine months. His calm, measured voice softens and slows.

"Then I realised what I had been reduced to," he says, gazing down. "To skulking in borrowed cars, in makeshift disguises, for fear of being seen. Just to catch a glimpse of my own flesh and blood.

"For a moment there was a part of me that lost the will to live. Part of me that felt my life was not worth living, not without my girls. Then, in the next instant, my resolve returned. As a human being, as a parent, as a father, one cannot give up on one's children. They deserved better. And I deserved better."

In that instant Mr V (a businessman who cannot be named for legal reasons) made a decision. He had, he believed, only one option left: to apply to the courts for custody of his daughters.

It was a long shot, he knew. In the overwhelming majority of cases, child custody, following divorce, is awarded to the mother. He had accepted that willingly when he and his wife had separated in 2000, feeling that, as long as he had a place in his daughters' lives, it was in their best interests to live with their mother.

In the four years since, however, his former wife had constantly flouted his visiting rights, forcing him to return to court time after time. She had cancelled visits at the last minute, made false allegations of bullying and sexual abuse of the girls by his relatives, and subjected him to a campaign of intimidation and lies designed to stop him ever seeing his children again. He had become ground down, dispirited by the screaming and yelling fits she would fly into when he called to collect his daughters, and despairing of the litany of false allegations she made against him.

But what he would not do, Mr V vowed, was become another statistic: one of the 40 per cent of fathers who, pushed out of their children's lives by a bitter or vindictive mother, simply give up and lose all contact with their children.

That decision, made at that moment of anguish as he watched his little girls - yet was afraid to approach because of the scene his ex-wife would make, in spite of scores of contact orders the courts had granted him - was to result in a landmark legal decision that will have wide-ranging repercussions in British child custody cases.

Last week, Mrs Justice Bracewell, one of the most senior High Court judges in the family division, announced that custody of Mr V's two daughters, aged nine and seven, was to be transferred to him. Though she made her original ruling in May, Mrs Justice Bracewell took the unusual step of making her decision public to counteract what was, she said, a strong public perception that courts routinely exclude fathers from their children's lives. Her fear, the judge said, was that if the girls remained with their mother, the rows over access would continue and Mr V might become "battle weary" and give up his fight to see them.

Telling the court that Mrs V had "undermined contact and agreed to it without any intention of making it work", the judge said that the girls' mother had repeatedly lied and made false accusations to bar Mr V from seeing his daughters. In spite of Mr V's contact orders, his former wife accused one of his relatives of "sexually inappropriate" conduct with the children, and accused her former husband of beating the girls. Yet while she called the police repeatedly, no action was ever taken and the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated.

In a scathing judgment, Mrs Justice Bracewell said Mrs V had "little or no credibility" compared to Mr V and his family, whom she described as "sensitive, caring and truthful".

"I find the mother will say anything, however untruthful, to support her case," she told the court. "I find she has coached the children to make false allegations against the father and his family and she has subjected the children to repeated and intrusive examination by police, social services and doctors. She has attacked the reputation of the father's family without justification. She has involved the children in her lies and her deceit. She has shown an inability to put the interests of the children before her own."

For Mr V, 38, who, along with his former wife, was in court to hear the judge's ruling, that moment was one of intense, exhausted relief. He felt, he recalls, no sense of triumph. He had neither wanted nor provoked the vicious, acrimonious battle that has punctuated his life for the past four years. "I felt my heart beating wildly, my legs shaking uncontrollably," he remembers. "There were tears in my eyes. My ex-wife was standing three feet away but I did not see her. I was in my own world. One which I would now inhabit with my darling daughters."

Mr V's daughters now live with him and they see their 35-year-old mother for eight hours each Saturday. "I would never, ever deny her access," he says, shaking his head vehemently. "I could never do to her what she did to me. I could never do it to my girls. They love their mother. Even though the eldest has some awareness of what her mother did, she loves her and it is right that she does.

"But, yes, I feel justice has been done. When I first decided to seek custody, all my family and friends tried to dissuade me, on the grounds that my hopes would be dashed. Even my solicitor, who worked incredibly hard on my behalf, warned me constantly that I was likely to be unsuccessful. I am grateful to God, and grateful to Mrs Justice Bracewell, for the outcome. I just hope that it gives fathers in similar situations to mine the hope and the confidence to keep on trying, no matter what, for the sake of their children."

Mr V's story - one of great anguish and indefatigable tenacity - is echoed across the country. In Britain today, some three million of the nation's 11.7 million children live in single-parent families. Some 93 per cent reside with their mothers. Most mothers - and many, many fathers - believe that this is as it should be.

That belief, however, is based on the wildly over-optimistic assumption that, whatever the bitter issues that led to divorce, in a marital breakdown both parents will see their differences as secondary to the well-being and happiness of their children. Sadly, that is all too rarely the case. It is estimated that 40 per cent of fathers lose all contact with their children. A similar number of mothers, meanwhile, agree to visiting rights for the estranged fathers, before doing everything in their power to obstruct their visits.

Anna Wilson, a marriage guidance counsellor, says, "Bitter, vengeful partners - people who, hitherto, would automatically have put their children's needs far above their own - can, and do, use their children as bargaining chips, as methods of point-scoring in the acrimonious world of divorce.

"Sometimes they convince themselves that their children are being made unhappy by the visiting rights of the other parent. Often they don't even realise what they are doing. And in almost all cases it is the children who become the real victims."

In the past year, fathers' rights groups have adopted ever more aggressive methods of highlighting what they consider to be an unjust legal system. Families Need Fathers, which has more than 35,000 members in Britain, has long campaigned for more note to be taken of the rights of fathers in custody cases.

Yet it is the more militant Fathers 4 Justice, with 6,000 members, which has captured the headlines. In recent months its members have attacked Tony Blair in the Commons with flour bombs and, dressed as Spidermen, brought London traffic to a standstill - all with the aim of raising awareness. And while its law-breaking modus operandi has alienated many who would otherwise be sympathetic, it has succeeded in dragging bereft fathers' rights out of the shadows and into the public domain.

One of its biggest concerns is that the legal system is unable to stop mothers flouting the so-called contact orders which should grant fathers access to their children. Although judges possess the power to impose tough prison sentences upon mothers who persist in breaches of the orders, they almost never believe it is in the interests of the children to send the mother to prison. Thus, in the absence of punishments or incentives to encourage mothers to comply with the court orders, many mothers choose to ignore them.

For Mr V, it was that very flouting of the many court orders he was granted that led him to take the highly unusual step of contesting her custody.

Although not wealthy, Mr V ran a successful export company and to begin with, he and his wife enjoyed a comfortable life. Their elder daughter was born in 1995 and their second two years later.

"On reflection, I now think that my wife was not ready for a family," he says. "At first she would become difficult with my friends. She was rude, abusive and wanted us to shun all company. She would invite friends to dinner and then refuse to cook. She turned against me, railing against my placid nature, saying I was useless, boring . . ."

Within months the relationship had deteriorated drastically. "She lost all interest in the marriage," he says. "The house was always filthy, the children unkempt. I did what I could but all my wife would do was yell and scream. She began abusive scenes in public, accusing me of all sorts of poor behaviour. Nothing I could say would placate her.

"I would do what I could to help around the house and with the children, but sometimes when I returned home from work the babies would be toddling around in dirty, sodden nappies. If I tried to talk to her, to remonstrate with her, she would fly into an uncontrollable temper. She would shout, rip her clothes, scratch her face. Then she would call the police and tell them I had attacked her.

"The first time she did it she became aggressive towards the police when they arrived, and they ended up arresting both of us and putting us in cells for the night. That was one of the lowest points. My darling children were taken into care by Social Services for a few days. I could not believe this was happening to me."

Time and again Mrs V called the police. Time and again they would investigate. Mr V was never charged with anything. "When my wife flew into violent rages the girls would be terrified," he recalls. "Then she would insist I left the house. I ended up with relatives for weeks at a time."

The couple finally separated in 2000. The girls moved back with their mother, and Mr V, to whom the courts willingly gave a contact order, lived in south London with his cousin's family.

"That was when things became very bad," Mr V says. In the ensuing silence he wrestles with his thoughts. It is difficult, clearly, for this private, self-effacing man to lay bare the agonising details of a failed marriage . . . and of a relationship that descended into a bitter war.

Slowly, he marshals his thoughts. "First came the last-minute phone calls, saying I could not have the girls. Then came the screaming, ranting abuse. When I arrived to collect them she would begin a vulgar tirade that would terrify the girls, leaving me no option but to leave without them.

"Then she began following me when I took the girls out. Once she thumped me repeatedly with a Coca-Cola bottle. All the time she would be screaming and ranting.

"Then there were the lies. Once, when the girls were with me, the elder girl went out into the road without telling anyone. I tried to gently chastise her, telling her how dangerous that was. She was standing by the window and I was sitting on the bed. There was a coat-hanger on the bed and I picked it up and wagged it at her, using it to emphasise my point.

"My wife would interrogate the girls when they got home. I got a phone call from her saying I had battered our daughter with a wire clothes-hanger. Another time, when I helped one of them put on her slippers, my wife turned that into me beating her with a slipper.

"And still there were the calls to police saying the children were not safe in my care. She phoned them and told them my house was a brothel . . . that it was a hiding place for illegal immigrants. Police would come and apologise for bothering me. They had to check out these calls. But they never accused or charged me with anything, of course.

"I have lost count of the number of times I returned to court to press my contact order, but what could the courts do?"

Eventually Mr V received a shocking letter from his former wife's solicitor in which she accused his brother-in-law of sexually abusing the girls. Again police and Social Services were called. Again her accusations were shown to be untrue. "It was obvious to both police and Social Services that the girls had been coached. They were just little children. They were bewildered, they would forget what she had drummed into them."

By now the constant warfare had taken an emotional toll on Mr V's daughters: "The elder girl was withdrawn, the younger quiet." They told their father that they cried at night. They loved their mother but did not want to be involved in making their father sound like a liar. The girls, Mr V realised, felt torn in two.

"When I had them I would take them to Legoland, to Thorpe Park, to exhibitions. To places where they could enjoy themselves and try to forget the pressures. By the time I was taking them back home to their mother they would have recaptured some of their carefree natures. But once we got to the door the yelling and abuse would start and they would be terrified."

Then, in January 2003, Mrs V refused her former husband any contact at all with his daughters. In the next nine months he was reduced to standing in doorways and hiding in borrowed cars to see them from a distance. "Even though I had the court orders, I couldn't let the girls be exposed to her scenes. What could I do?

"Custody was the only avenue left to me," he says. "I could not bear for my girls to grow up without their father, for them to believe, wrongly, that I had abandoned them."

His victory last week was lauded as "long overdue" by fathers' groups, which believe the ruling demonstrates why the Government needs urgently to introduce mandatory mediation in custody cases to ensure that children have access to both their parents.

Their lobbying has been instrumental in the launch this month of a new Government body, whose remit is to improve the family justice system. Their hope is that it will make child contact issues a priority.

Mr V nods his head vigorously in support. "It is long overdue," he says. "I did not want to see my former wife carted off to prison for flouting my contact orders. But what was I to do?"

As he speaks, his gaze lingers on a school photograph of his daughters. Smiling broadly, their hair in bunches, the girls look smart and happy in their school uniforms. "Since they have been living with me they have become more outgoing, recapturing some of their spirit," he says, smiling down at the photograph.

Through the French windows, in his back garden, the once empty lawns are now cluttered with pink bicycles, Wendy houses and children's toys. "They are real girls," he laughs. "They love pink, they love nice clothes, they like pretty things.

"With me, they are learning to be children again. To forget the bitterness, the hurt, the tears. And, I hope, they are happier in their mother's company. I just wish so much, for their sakes, that it had never come to all this."

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