The story of Sammy Woodhouse caused jaws around the world to drop on Tuesday when it emerged that the jailed man who groomed and raped her had been offered the chance to seek access to their son, conceived through rape.
Woodhouse, now a campaigner on this issue, was among those involved in the Rotherham child exploitation scandal. At the age of 15, she was raped by Arshid Hussain, who was jailed for 35 years in 2016 for multiple sex offences, and became pregnant with his son. Hussain was not named on her son's birth certificate, had no previous parental involvement, and Rotherham council knew that the son (now a teenager) himself wanted nothing to do with his paternal family, yet social workers offered Hussain the chance to visit him as part of proceedings to take the child into care, The Times reported.
On Wednesday, Woodhouse waived her anonymity in a Twitter video to raise awareness of the fact that her story is far from an isolated case: councils "all over the UK" are offering rapists the chance to apply for access to children. "This story is about me, my son, the man that raped me, Rotherham council and the fact that my rapist has been offered [the chance] to apply for parental rights even though he’s in prison for abusing me for several years," Woodhouse said. "This isn’t just happening to me. This is happening to people all over the country. It’s wrong and it’s got to stop."
The law as it stands gives rapists and other abusers, including those without parental responsibility, the right to participate in care order proceedings. But since a family case last year, councils do have the right not to inform a parent without parental responsibility of such proceedings. Rotherham council suggested it was unaware of this and said it was asking the government for "urgent" clarification of the law.
Rotherham council has faced a huge backlash, with MPs, women's charities and the general public sharing their shock and disgust at how Woodhouse was treated and made to fear that she'd have to confront her abuser in court. She's now campaigning with Labour MP Louise Haigh for a change to the Children Act that would ensure rapists can't gain access to children conceived from abuse, and that "the rights of victims supersede those of convicted rapists".
Labour MP Sarah Champion said the case was an example of "how victims are re-traumatised again and again by the system designed to protect them" and suggested the law was designed to "favour perpetrators rather than victims". It's well known, she told the BBC, that the UK's family courts "are used by perpetrators to get access to their victims [and] to re-traumatise [them]". The situation, she argued, has worsened since government cuts to legal aid, with perpetrators able to cross-examine the women they've traumatised.
One woman with a similar experience to Woodhouse of the UK's notoriously secretive family courts is 39-year-old Susan (not her real name), whose ex-husband was invited by the local authority to take part in care proceedings of their two children from prison, where he was serving a six-year sentence for raping her. Her children were removed from her by social services in November 2013 and she hasn't seen them since.
Ahead, she shares her story with Refinery29.
"Back in 2012, there was an incident in which I asked my ex to leave and he strangled me while I was holding my 2-year-old. I managed to escape, got the police involved and social services followed. The social worker blamed me, saying that because I'd left my children in the property with him while I dialled 999, I'd failed to protect them. Social services told me to sign a non-legally binding agreement saying that I wouldn't have any contact with him, and I would go to court to get a non-molestation order [a type of injunction] against him ex parte [decided by a judge without all of the parties to the controversy needing to be present]. I did this, but when that order was upon him, he contested it. It was his legal right to do this, but he then took me to court and also went for custody of the children.
During this time, he was convicted for that instance of strangulation but was spared prison. I'd also told police of the multiple times he'd raped me, and the circumstances surrounding those assaults. He was arrested, charged and bailed for those offences, pending further investigation. But when we went to the family law court – bear in mind that he had attacked me several times, been convicted of strangulation and was on bail charged with rape – I was placed in a small courtroom with him cross-examining me over a table.
The judge said we had to work together to parent the children for the sake of their welfare, taking no consideration of my ex's history of violence against me or that I'd been asked by social services to agree that I wouldn't have contact with him. So I was left with social services saying one thing and the judge saying the complete opposite.
I'd had contact with my ex to allow him contact with the children, as the judge told me to. Social services found out and said they were going to hold a meeting to discuss how I could keep my children in my care, and keep out of court. During this meeting, they told me they were going to "remove my children" [take them into care] within about two weeks and that I'd need to get a legal team. I thought, You're not having my children, so I left, put my children in a car and drove them to Ireland.
Social services then contacted my ex to tell him I'd internationally abducted his children and that they'd arranged a meeting between him, the police and Cafcass [the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service]. They gave him my address in Ireland and encouraged him to get his children off me. I don't know how he managed to legally leave the country, being on bail, but he did.
The case went through the high courts in the UK and I exhausted Ireland's court system within six hours, taking it to the high court and appealing within the supreme court, where I lost. The children were returned to the UK, which is when care proceedings started. My ex was at every court hearing, sat next to me and my mother and allowed to speak. In the crown court, I was afforded the right to special measures, so he had nothing to do with me there, but in the family law proceedings that ran parallel, he was very much involved.
Social services ordered for him to have contact with the children at a contact centre. I wasn't happy about it. I told the social worker I didn't think it was a good idea and to watch him closely. Then during one of the visits, he made a threat – I wasn't there so I don't know what it was exactly – and a concerned social worker phoned the police. He was then remanded in custody. During the process in the family courts, which went on for some time, he'd be picked up by a prison van, driven to court, and would sit in the same room as us, in his chains.
Eventually, he was sentenced to six years in prison for rape and I was awarded a six-figure sum for being the blameless victim of crime. But stood in a courtroom two weeks later, I was told by a judge that I'd failed to protect my children from his violence, that it was all my fault, that I was the one to blame. A week later, I got an email to tell me I had lost my kids to adoption. Social workers said I'd been through so much trauma that I'd be unable to parent my children and that I was suffering with mental illness, despite them not being clinically qualified to argue this. I won permission to appeal and was made to sit face-to-face with my rapist via video link from his sex offenders' prison in Bristol, on four 32-inch television screens.
I lost the appeal. When I walked out of that courtroom, if I'd been hit by a bus and killed, I wouldn't have cared. I probably would have said it was for the best. I can't begin to explain the trauma of a rape trial, sitting in a courtroom with your rapist onscreen. We wouldn't put up with that in a criminal court but we do in family court, and it's all held in secret so nobody knows what goes on. My ex and I were given the same access to our children – one written letter to them per year.
I don't think I'll ever get over what I went through, and I can't reiterate enough the difference between criminal proceedings and family law, which is based on the rights of both parents. It doesn't matter if the father is a rapist, a paedophile, is on bail, has been charged or is in the process of being convicted – he has rights when it comes to care proceedings. As a rape victim, you have an expectation of how you'll be treated within the justice system. When you get involved with family law courts, you realise you don't get the same protections.
My children are 7 and 8 years old now and I haven't seen them since November 2013. Not only do I have to live with the lasting trauma of the domestic abuse, rape and sexual abuse, I'm also living with the loss of my children. Every Mother's Day, Christmas, Easter and birthday has been taken away. Time has been taken from me and there are no words that could make that better. Every day I wake up to is not the day I signed up for, not the day I should be living, and that's always in the back of my mind."