10 Routine Practices that put children at risk

Protective mothers are angry that custody courts so often place their children in danger. Many believe that only corruption can explain the frequency of risky decisions. At the same time no judge wants to hurt children, leading the judicial establishment to respond defensively to criticism.

Research confirms that the courts are not safe for children in cases involving domestic violence and child abuse. 58.000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers every year. In a recent two-year period, researchers found news stories about 175 children murdered by abusive fathers involved in contested custody cases. In many of these tragedies the courts gave the fathers the access they needed to kill the children. The National Institute of Justice will soon release research designed to quantify the frequency of family courts making decisions that place children at risk.

I believe the discrepancy in the perceptions of protective mothers and the judiciary is caused by the courts continuing to rely on practices developed in the 1970s at a time when no research about domestic violence was available. Many of these outdated practices have a hidden and unintentional bias towards beliefs and outcomes that place children in jeopardy. Below are 10 routine practices that make it harder for courts to recognize domestic violence and child abuse, minimize the harm of this abuse or both.

The widespread reliance on dangerous practices is illustrated by the delay in integrating important research that would make it easier to protect children. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and demonstrates the harm from domestic violence is far greater than previously realized. Physical abuse is not necessary in order to create catastrophic consequences to children and approaches that ask victims to just get over it have no chance to work.

The Saunders’ Study from the National Institute of Justice looked at the knowledge and training of evaluators, judges and lawyers regarding domestic violence. Although Saunders did not attempt to determine the frequency that courts rely on unqualified professionals, it is clear this problem is widespread and probably involves a large majority of the professionals the courts rely on.

While the courts have largely ignored this research which comes from the most credible sources, they have been strongly influenced and many would say poisoned by unscientific alienation theories that are not based on any research and have been condemned by every reputable professional organization that has considered it.


Standard practices that minimize abuse and encourage disbelief of true reports

Domestic Violence Dynamics

Many aspects of domestic violence are counter-intuitive, and many children have died because courts were unfamiliar with the dynamics. In Connecticut a judge denied a petition for a protective order because he thought the threat wasn’t continuous. Once an abuser engages in physical abuse the victim knows what he is capable of and he often uses legal domestic violence tactics to maintain control so the danger is continuous. The father used the access to throw the baby off a bridge to his death.

In Maryland the judge denied a protective order after learning the parents had sexual relations immediately before court. The judge thought that meant the father could not be so dangerous but never considered it might have been unsafe for the mother to refuse. The father used the access to kill the three children.

Of course most mistakes from not understanding domestic violence dynamics do not have as dramatic and immediate results; but they expose children to repeated abuse that often ruins lives. Many abusers bring in friends and relatives to say how safe and peaceful he is. The problem is most abusers act very differently in the privacy of their homes than in public. Many professionals take an alleged abuser’s ability to behave appropriately during supervision as proof they are safe. The problem is not that they cannot control their behavior, but they act differently when no one is watching.

Focus on Physical Abuse

When courts first started responding to domestic violence they limited their concerns to physical abuse. The ACE Research confirms what domestic violence advocates have said for years that other forms of domestic violence are often much more harmful. The essence of domestic violence is tactics designed to scare and intimidate the intimate partner. This naturally causes fear in the (usually) mother and the children which leads to the worst kind of stress.

Living with this stress leads to a lifetime of harm including cancer, heart disease, mental illness, suicide, crime, substance abuse and many other health and social problems. For many years the CDC used research that found the United States spends $5-8 billion on health costs for domestic violence every year. This figure only considered the cost of treating her immediate physical wounds. Based on the ACE Research, the actual annual cost is $750 billion. In other words, focusing only on physical abuse responds to one percent of the harm although obviously physical abuse also causes fear and stress.

Relying on Mental Health Professionals

Courts started relying on psychologists and other mental health professionals at a time when there was virtually no research and the assumption was the domestic violence was caused by mental illness and substance abuse. Subsequent research proves those assumptions are wrong. These professionals are experts in mental health and psychology and can make important contributions when these issues are critical to the case. They rarely have the level of expertise about domestic violence that is needed.

This causes them to disbelieve true reports of abuse, focus on less important issues and too often punish mothers who report abuse. When evaluations seek to determine how the children are doing, one of the problems is that children use a variety of defense mechanisms to survive and often do not act out in the obvious ways court professionals are expecting. This leads to denial of true reports.

Need for Multi-Disciplinary Approach

The Saunders’ Study supports the need for a more multi-disciplinary approach. They found that domestic violence advocates have more of the specific information courts need to respond to domestic violence cases than the court professionals presently relied upon.

The present approach is the equivalent of using a general practitioner for someone suffering from cancer or heart disease. Saunders found that court professionals without the knowledge they need tend to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports. Expertise in domestic violence and child sexual abuse would help courts to respond to this life-altering abuse. The ignorance is not neutral; it helps abusers, hurts victims and is often devastating to the children.

Custody court response to child sexual abuse is so problematic that many attorneys routinely discourage or refuse to present reports of sexual abuse out of fear the mother will be punished for even raising the issue.

High Conflict Approaches

Many court professionals have been taught to treat contested custody as high conflict cases. This is interpreted to mean that the parents are angry at each other and act out in ways that hurt the children.

Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably including some involving domestic violence. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that require a trial and often much more. Research demonstrates a large majority of these cases are really domestic violence cases involving the worst abusers. This is frequently not recognized because they usually don’t involve the most severe physical abuse.

These are the worst abusers because they believe their partner has no right to leave and so feel entitled to use any tactic necessary to regain control. This often includes efforts to take children away from safe mothers who are usually the primary attachment figures. High conflict approaches are often self fulfilling in that professionals find what they are expecting.

The courts often pressure victims to cooperate with their abusers and severely punish them if they try to protect their children. Better practice would be to pressure the abusers to stop their abuse if they want a relationship with their children.

The courts often fail to recognize litigation and economic abuse as a continuation of the history of domestic violence.

Considering Only Recent Abuse

The reason custody courts need to consider domestic violence is that children are profoundly harmed from exposure to these tactics. Some courts refuse to consider incidents of abuse that they consider too old to be relevant. This makes cases easier for courts and abusers but not for children.

Abusers use these tactics to coerce and control their partners. A variety of coercive tactics are often used to remind victims earlier physical incidents. The ACE Research demonstrates that the fear and stress from the abusive tactics leads to a lifetime of health and other risks.

Domestic violence is not caused by the actions of the victim. An older incident tells the family, and should tell the court, what the abuser is capable of. The passage of time does not change the beliefs that led to physical or other abuse, nor make the children feel safer. Older incidents are relevant to the risk and harm children in the family face and the passage of an arbitrary period of time after incidents of physical abuse is irrelevant to the danger posed by the abuser.

Harmful Outcome Cases

The Saunders’ Study includes a section on what they call harmful outcome cases. These are extreme decisions in which an alleged abuser wins custody and a safe, protective mother, who is the primary attachment figure for the child is limited to supervised or no visitation. These decisions are always wrong because the harm of denying children a normal relationship with their primary parent is greater than whatever benefit the court thought it was providing.

In most cases the court used flawed practices that led to disbelieving true abuse reports, but even if the father is safe, the attempt to punish the mother is really punishing the child. These are cases in which the court failed to weigh the usually speculative benefit with the certain risk it is creating.

The Saunders’ Study was released in 2012 and still harmful outcome cases continue to be common and many courts refuse to correct the error even after the research is cited.

Reliance on Cottage Industry of Biased Professionals

As mentioned earlier, contested custody cases are overwhelmingly domestic violence cases. Since control is a key part of domestic violence, abusive fathers seeking custody usually control most of the family financial resources. This means that the best way for lawyers and evaluators to make large incomes is to support approaches that favor abusers.

These professionals tend to be biased and ignorant of current research about domestic violence. In many cases they are appointed to neutral positions like GAL or evaluator which offer victims almost no chance to protect their children. Compounding the problem is that the misinformation provided by the cottage industry is often relied on in other cases thus spreading the poison into the system.

Manipulation by Abusers

Abusers tend to be very good at manipulating court professionals and their victims. When victims act angry or emotional because of the continued abuse, their behavior is viewed as highly negative.

Abusers will often act calm and cooperative, or even cry as if they are hurting, and the courts believe them. Their ability to control their behavior is treated as if it discredits reports of domestic violence.

Court professionals rarely consider the motives of an alleged abuser and instead just assume they are acting out of love for the child. Inadequately trained professionals often accept unlikely scenarios presented by abusers while using substantial skepticism against the victims.

Responding to Overcrowded Calendars

Context is critical to understanding domestic violence. At the same time courts often have limited time for each case and know most cases settle so the judge will not need to know the full story. Accordingly, the court seeks to limit the parties’ discussion to just the limited facts needed for whatever decision is in front of the court.

This makes a lot of sense with most types of cases, but works poorly in domestic violence cases. In many cases the abuser is using litigation and economic abuse to bankrupt the victim and pressure her to return. The judge needs to understand the pattern of abuse and motives in order to respond effectively but approaches that limit what each side can say actually benefit the abuser who has a simpler story to convey.


Barry Goldstein

Barry Goldstein

Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate

Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.

Barry has an ACE score of 0.

Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.