In part one a particularly egregious rape case was used to illustrate how the widespread belief that victims frequently make false reports encourages rapists and undermines society’s efforts to prevent rape. In part two the author uses another outrageous case to illustrate how this same myth undermines the ability of family courts to protect children.
The Painful Cost of Disbelieving Women (and Children)
Many years ago, three brave children age seven, six, and four told their mother that their father was physically and sexually abusing them. The mother did everything a good parent should to protect her children. She reported the father’s abuse to the child protective agency (CPS), obtained a protective order, and sought custody. Initially, the children were protected and the abusive father limited to supervised visits.
The children told their law guardian, the evaluator, the judge, and the CPS caseworker what their father did to them. As often happens in these cases, the professionals assumed the mother encouraged the children to lie and she was threatened with a loss of custody if she didn’t stop. The judge ordered normal visitation to resume the next weekend.
Before the first visit, the father was confronted by the family babysitter in the presence of the law guardian and admitted kissing his two daughters on their privates. The law guardian immediately brought a motion to stop the visitation and I joined the motion on behalf of the mother. The judge consulted the evaluator who said the father used bad judgment but there was no reason to stop the visitation. The four-year-old was penetrated for the first time during this visit.
I called CPS to make a report since they were unaware of the father’s admission. When the judge heard, he yelled and screamed at me saying they already investigated and found nothing. A new caseworker was assigned who conducted a more thorough investigation and learned the father’s behavior was even worse than we knew. They brought charges against the father and he never was allowed unsupervised visits again.
The mother won custody and invited the caseworker and me to a celebratory dinner. The children had gifts for us but most important was the name they used. They called us “believers” because we believed them when all the professionals who were supposed to protect them didn’t. I learned as a young attorney that there is no greater honor than to be called a believer.
The Impact of Professional Disbelievers in Family Court
There is a large overlap between disbelieving reports of rape in the criminal justice system and domestic violence or child sexual abuse in custody court cases. Just as many found it hard to believe rape reports about Bill Cosby or Kobe Bryant, the father in the believer story was an eye doctor and born-again Christian so how could he possibly have committed the heinous acts the children reported?
A study led by Dr. Jennifer Hardesty found that a mother’s anger and emotion carry tremendous weight in family courts all out of proportion to what it says about her parenting ability. This is based on the stereotype of the emotional or hysterical woman. Similarly, the stereotype of the vindictive scorned woman influences mothers’ credibility.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the CDC found that one-quarter of children in this country are sexually assaulted before reaching 18. Significantly the methodology eliminated any possibility of false reports impacting the findings. Deliberate false reports of child sexual abuse occur less than 2% of the time, but 85% of sex abuse cases result in custody for the alleged offender. The court approach is so biased that attorneys routinely advise their clients not to raise concerns about sexual abuse even with strong evidence.
Family courts’ response to domestic violence is so uninformed that abusive fathers have a better chance of winning custody than good fathers. Shockingly, alleged abusers win sole or joint custody 70-80% of the time. There are many flawed practices, most of which were developed in the 1970s, that lead to decisions jeopardizing children. This includes the failure to integrate current scientific research; reliance on professionals with expertise in mental illness and psychology but not domestic violence or child sexual abuse; widespread gender bias; the failure to understand the importance of context in domestic violence cases and approaches that err on the side of risking children. The myth that mothers frequently make false reports is widely believed by inadequately trained court professionals and strongly contributes to the failure to protect children.
Court professionals have a fundamentally mistaken belief about the nature of contested custody cases. They assume these are high conflict cases in which the parents are angry with each other and act out in ways that hurt the children. In reality, a large majority are domestic violence cases involving the most dangerous abusers, men who believe she has no right to leave. They have developed a variety of strategies to gain custody by manipulating custody courts and the myth is an important part of their strategy. The success of these tactics makes it harder for victims to leave their abusers because mothers won’t leave without their children. The widespread failure of custody courts to respond effectively to domestic violence has undermined society’s response to intimate partner violence and reversed the previous trend when the homicide rate was going down.
The medical research that family courts have been slow to integrate demonstrates that domestic violence causes far more harm than previously understood. We know about the murders and serious injuries from assaults by abusers. Most people including policymakers and journalists fail to realize that living with the fear and stress from trauma like domestic violence, sexual abuse, and child abuse often leads to deadly diseases and social problems. The delay between the trauma and the full consequences masks the full extent of the harm. In addition to the human toll, our tolerance for domestic violence costs the United States over one trillion dollars every year. This is a high price for allowing our culture to accept the myth instead of believing the victims.
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.