Bill O’Reilly’s custody case shows what’s wrong with family courts

The news reports said Bill O’Reilly, the host of the O’Reilly Factor, lost his custody appeal. The court supported the fact that one of his daughters saw him attempt to strangle her mother and dragged her down the stairs. Based on the seriousness of his offenses, one would think the choice before the court would be whether the abusive father’s visitation would be supervised. Instead, having lost the case, O’Reilly maintains shared parenting that the Saunders’ study confirmed abusers use to maintain control over their victims.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a powerful book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which tells the story of a prisoner in a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most powerful part is that it describes an awful day that no one would want to experience, but the author keeps mentioning that this was a good day. The reader would not want to imagine what a bad day would be like. In the same way, the NY court made a good decision and yet permitted an arrangement that places the mother and children in tremendous jeopardy.

The Saunders’ study found that court professionals need specific knowledge about risk assessment. If the judges in the case had this knowledge they would have learned that attempted strangulation is a strong indication of potential lethality. In other words he is not safe for his ex-wife or the children. He needs to be held accountable, but that was never one of the options for the court to consider.

The Saunders’ study also found the serious problems with considering shared parenting in a domestic violence case. Dr. Saunders found that abusers use the decision making authority to control their victims since he will not agree to anything unless it is what he wants. Abusers also use visitation exchanges to harass or even assault their victims.

There is no legitimate research that supports the use of shared custody in cases involving domestic violence. This is because there cannot be true cooperation and sharing when there is unequal power because of abuse. New York Law would make an exception so that shared custody is not used in domestic violence cases, but in practice it is common. Judges and other professionals seeking to dispose of cases on a crowded calendar like shared parenting because it seems like an obvious compromise. Accordingly they minimize the abuser’s behavior or mistakenly assume the risk ends when the relationship ends. This case illustrates why it is a mistake to permit shared parenting before the courts reform their practices so that they learn how to recognize and respond to domestic violence.

The research is clear that in cases like O’Reilly, the arrangement that works best for the children is custody for the safe parent and initially supervised visits for the abuser. The problem is that courts are not making decisions based on the specialized body of research that is now available. They have been slow to integrate the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study and Saunders study which would dramatically improve the court response. Instead they rely on the uninformed personal opinions and biases of court professionals who often have a financial interest in minimizing or denying abuse reports. In this way the courts repeatedly err on the side of risking children.

Domestic abusers usually exhibit a strong sense of entitlement. Bill O’Reilly received an incredibly favorable outcome. Despite committing the most serious form of domestic violence he still was given the control provided by shared parenting and normal visitation. And still he was not satisfied. He want through the large expense and probably forced his victim to deal with a similar large expense in an attempt to get even more control that is totally unjustified under the circumstance.

I first came to understand the custody court system is broken because the courts were making decisions that were outside the reasonable possibilities given the circumstances. This case illustrates the problem. After the evidence of attempted strangulation it is clear O’Reilly is unqualified for any form of custody and unsupervised visits are problematic. But in a court system tilted towards abusive fathers it seems that shared parenting and normal visitation is the least he could receive and the courts were open to consider even worse arrangements.

But as Solzhenitsyn would remind us, this was one of the best decisions.

Barry Goldstein
Barry Goldstein

Research Director

Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate.
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.




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