When her daughter’s father was sent to prison for child sexual abuse, Bethan was horrified to discover he could still be allowed access to their child after he was released. It was a risk she wasn’t willing to take.
Outside a Cardiff courtroom, a smartly dressed young woman sits waiting, anxiously. Bethan has never been inside a family court before, but she is here to try to protect her child – whose father has been convicted of paedophile offences and is currently in jail.
When he was sentenced, some months ago, he was given an order banning him from any future contact with children – but that ban does not prevent him seeking contact with his own child.
He and Bethan were married when their daughter was born and so he retains parental rights, allowing him at least a say over his child’s health, education and living arrangements.
Bethan is “absolutely petrified” about what will happen once he is freed from prison. She fears he might take their daughter out of school one day without her knowledge, and the only way to get the child back will be to go through the family court. While her ex-husband has their child, he could do to her what he did to the other children he abused.
“You’d never forgive yourself,” she says.
With the support of her parents, Bethan has taken the exceptional step of asking the court to remove her ex-husband’s parental rights and ban all contact – direct, indirect and through social media – until their daughter turns 18.
Despite the severity of her former partner’s crimes, Bethan has been advised this process is likely to be difficult. She describes him as “manipulative” and fears he will be able to convince the court of his remorse.
She is not entitled to legal aid, and even before the first hearing, the costs for her solicitor and barrister are already mounting.
Bethan’s case will be heard at a family court, where disputes between parents – often involving vulnerable children – are handled. Until recently, cases have been heard in private and journalists have not been permitted to report them.
But since January, accredited reporters have been allowed inside family courts in Leeds, Carlisle and Cardiff – allowing closer scrutiny of the actions of local authorities and the courts, subject to strict rules of anonymity.
BBC News has been following Bethan’s case for the last six months.
More reporting from family courts
In court, Bethan sits behind a partition so she cannot be seen. The father of her child – who has no lawyer – appears by video-link from prison, shown on a big screen. He looks small, sitting behind a long table, with papers spread out in front of him.
A social worker from Cafcass Cymru, the children and family court advisory service for Wales, is also there.
Bethan’s former partner tells the court he accepts he is in prison for crimes of a “very serious nature” and says he “wants to be present for his child”, should she want to have a relationship with him. He has been writing letters to her every week, which he cannot currently send.
Later, he makes what appears to be a heartfelt appeal – he is a father “who loves his child without end” he says – his voice breaking as he tells the court he “wishes he could be there” for his daughter.
For Bethan it is “just unbearable” to listen to, and “incredibly painful” to try to reconcile this man with “the horrors that he put those children through”.
Bethan’s child is one of more than 80,000 caught up in private family law proceedings.
In 2022, the average private family law case in England and Wales took around 10 months, or almost 45 weeks – it is a system “in crisis”, according to the Law Society.
But the rights of a parent are “absolute” in law and can only be managed through court order, explains Hannah Markham KC, chair of the Family Law Bar Association.
“Even if somebody is in prison for very serious paedophile offences, they retain the parental responsibility,” she says – describing Bethan as “brave” for going through with this.
Over the coming weeks the social worker spends time with Bethan and her daughter, and visits the father in jail.
The case progresses quickly, and Bethan is back at Cardiff Family Justice Centre three months later.
The social worker’s report is highly critical of Bethan’s ex-husband. He appears to break down and says he is “sorry he cannot be the father his child deserves”, before thanking the court.
He hopes he can be reassessed when he’s released and requests an annual report detailing how his daughter is doing.
For Bethan, this kind of indirect contact feels unacceptable. When her barrister questions what value such a report would have, the father of her child interjects.
“It would have exponential value to me,” he says.
As the case progresses, Bethan’s legal bills continue to stack up. To help her with the fees her parents extend the mortgage on their home, something that will “significantly change their future” – but their priority is protecting the family.
“I feel sorry for people who can’t find that money,” Bethan’s father says. “They are in a horrible situation.”
The case has “taken over” all their lives, but compared to many other family court cases, it is moving fast – the final hearing date is in less than two weeks.
Back in court, the judge summarises the social worker’s findings. Bethan is “hugely relieved” they decide her daughter should always live with her, while her former partner’s parental responsibility is “comprehensively restricted”.
As well as the crimes for which he is in jail, the judge says the man has also admitted watching child sexual abuse material featuring incest, and grooming a vulnerable young person.
He is “an extremely high risk”, the judge says, and does not allow the father’s request for yearly reports. A barring order, which will make it more difficult for Bethan’s ex-husband to apply to change the judge’s decision once he is released from prison, is granted.
He will be informed if his daughter is terminally ill, or if they have moved to a different country – but not where they are.
For Bethan – who has spent hours researching family law and who has read many accounts from parents who do not get the decision they hoped for – it is an “enormous relief”.
“I was just so grateful,” she says.
Bethan’s parents are very pleased, too.
“For the first time in three years they freed my daughter to be able to raise her child in a normal, happy, healthy way,” Bethan’s mother says. “We can’t explain how excruciatingly painful it has been.”
As well as the emotional impact of bringing the case, it has also come at a significant price – costing more than £30,000.
The family believe others could avoid similarly costly court cases if the law is changed to automatically suspend parental rights from paedophiles when they are sentenced, and only restore them if the offender applies to a family court.
The Ministry of Justice told the BBC they are “carefully reviewing the approach to parental access to make sure all children are kept safe”.
For Hannah Markham KC, changing legal aid could be a quicker, more effective way to enable more parents like Bethan to go to court – and she hopes this case will serve as a precedent.
“The more it’s published and talked about, the more it will educate other people to know this is the right thing to do,” she says.
Bethan and her parents believe the presence of journalists in court under the new transparency scheme has really benefitted them, and will also be helpful to others in future.
Bethan’s mother says the girl now “can have a normal childhood – she can be safe”.
One day, Bethan will carefully tell her child about their father – she says she will do so when she is old enough.
This story uses a false name to protect Bethan’s privacy.
If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this story, there is information and support available on BBC Action Line.
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Elaine Hadley is a dedicated journalist covering the ever-evolving landscape of U.S. news. With a keen interest in politics and a commitment to uncovering the truth, she provides insightful commentary and in-depth analysis on domestic issues. When not reporting, Elaine enjoys exploring the diverse cultures and landscapes of the United States.