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Viewpoint: Mark Willis on violent partners who abuse their children

Director of WillisPalmer Mark Willis on the correlation between domestic violence and child abuse following the death of Ellie Butler.

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The tragic death of six-year-old Ellie Butler at the hands of her father, which was reported for the first time last week, demonstrates once again the correlation between men who are violent to their partners and the increased likelihood of them physically abusing their children.

Ben Butler was jailed for life for murdering Ellie in October 2013. He had a history of violent behaviour towards not only his partner, Jennifer Gray, but also had convictions for robbery, intimidation of witnesses and several assaults on his ex-girlfriend - once when she was pregnant, for which he received a custodial sentence - and two strangers. He also had a conviction for possession of an offensive weapon in 2011. Butler’s neighbours apparently referred to him as a “coke head” and a “nutter” who had been banned from all the local pubs.

Yet the judge Mrs Justice Hogg deemed it fit to return Ellie and her sibling to their father despite knowing of his history of violence, even referring to him during the care proceedings as “a thoughtful, reflective person”. During those hearings the judge was told of the history of violent behaviour by Butler but dismissed those concerns stating: “I note the convictions include assaults on adults, not on children”.

Butler had a history of offending and getting into fights. He suffered from depression and frequently breached community orders. He had reported being sexually abused as a child (although he later denied this) and was referred for psychotherapy. He was rarely in employment. A previous psychiatric report commissioned in 2008 concluded “the potential risk to a child in his unsupervised care would have to be said to be high”.

Of course, as is now known, the outcome of the reunification ended in tragedy with Ellie being killed by her father in October 2013, less than a year after she was placed with him. It seems the local authority, London Borough of Sutton, were effectively hamstrung in their dealings with the parents by the judge’s assertion that any intervention by the London borough would be “doomed to failure” as a result of the mistrust held by the parent’s towards their social workers. On the recommendation of the Guardian an independent social work agency was appointed to oversee the rehabilitation of Ellie to her parent’s care. In the serious case review (SCR) the police offered the view that Butler was “a violent man who clearly saw the solution to difficulty in his life in confrontation and the use of violence”. Various hospitals treated Gray for injuries and the incidence of these was exceptionally high between 2010 and 2013. There was also a suggestion Butler had raped the children’s mother in April 2013.

Yet despite all this there does not appear to have been any decisive evidence presented to the court which would have supported the probability that Butler might pose a physical risk to Ellie or even towards the likelihood she would witness violent behaviour, with her mother the most likely victim. The overview report, as part of the SCR, refers to research that indicates domestic violence can increase during pregnancy – Mrs Gray had two terminations (at least) between 2010 and 2013.

Moreover, Butler was frequently aggressive and confrontational with the ISWs “including a pattern of sustained shouting or bursts of temper” but in the view of the overview report’s author such observations did not extend to consideration of how this might have had an adverse impact upon the children. The failures were compounded by the fact that the ISWs had not been given full information about Butler’s history.

A pattern of non-cooperation, manipulation and attempting to control others runs as a theme throughout the report into Ellie’s death. According to the social workers from Sutton the parents were if anything more hostile and less cooperative after the children had been returned to them than they were before. These are traits commonly seen in men who are domestically violent. As the overview report concludes: “Good practice would suggest that where parents are considered to be threatening or hostile, any presumption that they are different with their children should be rigorously tested”.

Tragedies such as the death of Ellie Butler almost always arise from a combination of myriad events that conspire against the proper protection afforded to the overwhelming majority of the children in the UK. Lessons can always be learned from failures and this case will be no different. The fact that the court had effectively ordered children’s services in Sutton to “back off” certainly compounded the agencies feelings of impotence.

However, in the final analysis, the various professionals involved with Ellie and her sibling appear to have been overly focused on the behaviour, challenges and demands of the parents rather than on the vulnerabilities of Ellie herself. A lack of robust assessment and decision making as to how violent men often pose a significant risk to their children appears to have been a predominant factor.

Research and practice over the past twenty years has repeatedly emphasised the importance of child protection professionals and the courts understanding the wider risks posed by men who perpetrate domestic violence - and violence generally - and the potentially harmful impact upon children. Although the Sutton social workers were clearly worried about Ben Butler and the risks he posed they were unable to convince the judge about his potential to perpetrate such terrible violence.

The sad case of Ellie Butler highlights the need for all professionals working with children to remain child focused and to recognise that men with profiles such as Butler – highly aggressive, uncooperative, with an external locus of control (which clearly contributed to domestically violent behaviour) together with a refusal to accept treatment - will always pose a risk to children.

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