What would you tell family court officials?
By Barry Goldstein
Dear Maureen Sheeran, director of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges:
Dr. Dianne Bartlow conducted research to follow-up on news stories about 175 children murdered by fathers involved in contested custody during a recent two-year period. She interviewed judges and court administrators in communities where these tragedies occurred to learn what reforms were created in response to the murders. This was not a random sample. The judges who participated tended to be the best trained and caring about domestic violence which is why they took the time to be interviewed. Many of these judges were NCJFCJ members. Their discussion about DV was interesting and informative and demonstrated their broader understanding of the issue than most judges. And yet no reforms were created because they all assumed the tragedy in their community was an exception.
I was very impressed with the judges and other participants in the roundtable discussion I participated in August of 2014 co-sponsored by the National Council and OVW. There was a great deal of interest and familiarity with ACE and Saunders’ and we spent substantial time considering this life-changing research. Unfortunately the judges who work with NCJFCJ are not typical and most courts have not integrated this important research. Indeed I have seen many courts that seem hostile to the research because it would undermine the outdated practices they are familiar with. The widespread failure to update and reform practices from the 1970s has now become clear. I believe we have reached the tipping point where information and research are so overwhelming that the status quo cannot be tolerated. Please consider:
On January 30, 2016, the Boston Globe published the results of a lengthy investigation concerning child custody and sexual abuse. Although the story focused on the court and child protective failures in Massachusetts, it found widespread failure to integrate current research and use best practices that is true in every state.
On December 1, 2016, reporter, Laurie Udesky posted the first article from her lengthy investigation of custody in crises. Ms. Udesky is associated with the 100 Reporters web site and the GW Williams Center for Independent Journalism. Her investigation covered 9 states and demonstrated how poor practices and bias led to the widespread failure to protect children.
Included in the Udesky article was the preliminary findings from research by Professor Joan Meier for the National Institute of Justice. Although deliberate false reports by mothers occur less than 2% of the time, in 69% of abuse cases and 81% of sexual abuse cases the alleged offender is successful.
At least two other prominent journalistic institutions, one of which recently won a Pulitzer Prize are presently conducting extensive research about the failure of custody courts. One group of reporters is focused on sexual abuse cases and the other on cases where courts gave fathers the access needed to kill their children. One of the mistakes courts make is to look at each case and each issue separately. The reporters are finding the patterns that the courts are missing.
Even more convincing is the widespread use of practices that tend to err on the side of risking children and all have a bias that favor abusers. Here is a two-part article that provides twenty examples of standard court practices that make it harder for judges to protect children. [Part 1] [Part 2]
How can custody courts protect children when most of the courts still have not integrated the ACE Research and the Saunders’ Study? ACE demonstrates that domestic violence and child abuse are far more harmful than previously understood and physical abuse is not required. Living in fear which leads to the worst kind of stress causes a lifetime of health and social problems, but few courts even consider this life-changing information. At a time when domestic violence and child abuse have been proven worse than previously realized, the Saunders’ Study demonstrates that many evaluators, judges and lawyers do not have the specific domestic violence knowledge needed to recognize and respond to abuse. This research supports a more multi-disciplinary approach but limiting experts to mental health professionals is the equivalent of using general practitioners to respond to cancer or heart disease. I know your judges do a better job with this research than most of their colleagues, but systemwide children are not benefitting from this knowledge.
Every day I hear from more mothers victimized by the flawed practices used by custody courts. They are desperate because they know their children are suffering. The courts would rely on res judicata principles to assume the right decision was made, but in almost every case the courts failed to consider current scientific research and made decisions that go against best practices. Most of the mothers are absolutely convinced the courts are corrupt because no other explanation seems possible for the frequency of bad decisions that go against the evidence. Particularly harmful are the extreme decisions the Saunders’ Study refers to as “harmful outcomes.” These outcomes giving alleged abusers custody and limiting safe mothers who are the primary attachment figures to supervised or no visitation are always wrong and based on flawed practices. Many mothers have cited the Saunders’ Study to correct these mistakes but the courts often believe they know better.
Today and every day over 100 children will see their lives ruined by custody courts using approaches first developed in the 1970s. Some children are immediately killed by abusers the courts found to be safe. More children will die in their teens and early twenties from poor decisions related to ACEs such as substance abuse, suicide and crime. Most of the children will have painful childhoods that lead to premature deaths in middle age. Few people would connect most of these preventable tragedies to the flawed practices in custody courts.
You and I are in a similar position in that we constantly see things that are not the norm in the court system. You work with some of the best judges in the system and I work on some of the most horrific cases. Protective mothers sincerely believe the system is corrupt because no other explanation seems to justify the unspeakable abuse and pain the courts have delivered. I try to explain how the many routine flawed practices create these avoidable tragedies but it is hard to hear when they are in so much pain. We now have the research and the ideas that will make judges’ jobs so much easier and help them protect the children. We would like to work with you because of the enormous respect we have for the National Council to help create the needed reforms. The status quo involves the use of outdated practices that lead to bad decisions and the appearance of corruption. Reform is urgent because the flawed practices cause our children unspeakable pain and deny them a chance to reach their potential.
I once had a case in which a school nurse testified about the effects of a bad decision on a little girl. The nurse said that when the child lived with her mother she would skip around the hallways holding another girl’s hand laughing and giggling. After she was forced to live with her abusive father she walked the hallways alone, head down and depressed. Please work with us so that children can spend their lives laughing, playing and avoiding adverse childhood experiences.
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