Stop Abuse Campaign had the honor of submitting the following two pieces of testimony to the Connecticut Task Force Concerning Minors Exposed to Domestic Violence. Our message to the committee is simple. Prevent the violence. Prevent the murders. Keep domestic violence out of the courtroom. It’s that simple.
Testimony submitted by Melanie Blow on behalf of the Stop Abuse Campaign
It is an honor to submit testimony to a group of people who are so obviously and deeply concerned about children’s well-being.
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study from the CDC proves that preventing abuse from starting must always be our top priority. Always. This committee cannot ignore primary prevention of domestic violence when discussing the impact of domestic violence on children. When we can’t prevent ACEs, we must focus on preventing increased ACE scores. And we must ensure children who have suffered ACEs are cared for by people who will treat their trauma, not ignore it. Domestic violence crime is preventable. Preventing it prevents children from being exposed to it.
We urge this committee to implement domestic violence best practices that focus on zero tolerance, batterer accountability and a coordinated community response. These best practices, collectively known as The Quincy Solution, ensure abusers experience consequences if they abuse, making them less likely to do so. These best practices drastically reduce the rates of DV homicide and domestic violence crime in communities where they are implemented. They make DV victims feel safer and more validated. This means they are more likely to call the police, who will ensure the abusers experience consequences for their abuse.
We also urge the committee to support legislation ensuring that domestic violence stays outside of the courtroom. The Safe Child Act ensures that the health and safety of children is the top priority in family and custody courts. This ensures that the child’s ACE score gets more consideration than their parents’ credit score. It ensures people who abuse their children or partners aren’t granted custody or unsupervised visitation of their children- this prevents ACE scores from escalating And it ensures abused mothers will never need to worry that leaving their abuser will mean losing custody of their child to him.
These changes sound simple, and essentially they are. But simple changes can save lives. Little Aaden Moreno was killed in 2015 after a judge didn’t understand how much danger he and his mother were in when his mother applied for an order of protection. On some level, the judge believed that he knew how to assess how much risk Aaden and his mother were in when he didn’t. He didn’t purposely put a child at risk, but he didn’t know how much he didn’t know about domestic violence. Legally, he knew enough. And that is the crux of the problem.
Domestic violence is an epidemic, not an inevitability. By using tools we know work, we can prevent much domestic violence, prevent escalating ACE scores, and minimize the damage caused by these traumas. Connecticut’s children deserve no less.
Barry Goldstein was happy to provide the Committee with recommendations on keeping domestic violence out of the courtroom
Making the Health and Safety of Children the First Priority
My name is Barry Goldstein and I have worked in the DV movement since 1983 as a board member, lawyer, writer, batterer program instructor and supervisor, speaker, advocate, expert witness and Research Director for the Stop Abuse Campaign. I have written some of the leading books about DV and custody that are based on current scientific research. I appreciate the work the task force is doing and especially like your repeated mention of important terms like multidisciplinary approach, evidence based and trauma informed. A full integration of these important concepts would dramatically improve the lives of Connecticut’s children. At the same time multi-disciplinary cannot mean limiting input to professionals with expertise in law and mental health; evidence based is not reality when critical current research like ACE and Saunders have not been integrated into standard custody court practices and trauma-informed must mean that the focus is on protecting children from adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and helping them heal when they have been exposed to ACEs. Trauma-informed also means that society responds to the tragedies like the murder of Aaden Moreno by creating reforms that can prevent such tragedies.
The courts in Connecticut developed responses to domestic violence that were not evidence based for a very good reason—there was no research at the time. They developed responses based on popular assumptions that DV was caused by mental illness or substance abuse. This led courts to turn to mental health professionals as if they were the experts in DV. They developed practices based on the assumption that only physical abuse was harmful and the risk ended when the relationship was over. All of these assumptions proved wrong, but the practices based on these 1970s assumptions continue to undermine the courts’ ability to protect children.
Critical Current Scientific Research
There is a lot of valuable research that can improve our response to DV, but I want to focus on ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the Saunders’ Study. ACE comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its findings have been confirmed and expanded in five later studies. Saunders comes from the National Institute of Justice (US Justice Department) so I am speaking about research with very strong credibility.
The ACE Research found that children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will live shorter lives and suffer more illness and injuries throughout their lives. Aside from the immediate risk of bodily harm, there is nothing that goes more to the essence of the best interests of children. Significantly physical assault is not needed to create these catastrophic consequences. The essence of DV is that abusers use a variety of tactics to coerce and intimidate their partners to do what the abuser wants. This inevitably creates fear in the direct victim and the children. The children are afraid for themselves and for their mother. Living with this fear causes the worst type of stress because they have no control over when the abuser engages in these scary tactics. Courts that tend to focus on physical abuse and individual incidents are only looking at what acts a parent committed. In doing so they miss the pattern and most important for the well-being of children they fail to focus on who is afraid. A victim might lash out at the abuser in frustration or self-defense and the abuser may embellish or make up assault claims so that courts mistakenly treat his abuse as if it were mutual. In the Ray Rice case both parties were initially arrested. Only one parent is afraid and the children are afraid for that parent. And usually the victim is the primary attachment figure that the children most rely on to meet their needs.
Just as the Surgeon General’s report linking cancer and smoking demonstrated the enormous health consequences for our tolerance of smoking, the ACE Research demonstrates the enormous consequences of tolerating and minimizing DV and child abuse. Our present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, substance abuse, crime, school drop-out, suicide and other health and social problems is based on our long tolerance of these ACEs. When custody courts fail to recognize or minimize abuse issues and focus on less important issues they are maintaining the present level of illness and social problems with unspeakable human consequences. The courts in Connecticut are not using trauma-informed practices and we know this because ACE has not yet become central to the discussion of DV and child abuse issues.
The Saunders’ study looked at the knowledge of evaluators, judges and lawyers regarding DV. They found that DV advocates have far more of the specific knowledge courts need to respond to DV cases than evaluators, judges or lawyers. This is one of the reasons a multi-disciplinary approach is so important and must include genuine DV experts when there are reports or information about possible DV. It is useful for other court professionals to receive training regarding DV but that does not provide them with the level of expertise needed to respond effectively to potential DV cases.
One of the problems we have seen is that DV training means different things to different professionals. The Saunders’ study found that the courts need knowledge in four very specific areas that include screening for DV, risk assessment, post-separation violence and the impact of DV on children. We have seen many professionals discredit true reports of abuse based on information that is not probative such as a victim returning to her abuser, failing to follow through on a petition for a protective order and the lack of police or medical records. All of these are common responses from victims for safety and other good reasons. At the same time many court professionals fail to look for the pattern of coercive and controlling tactics. Professionals without knowledge of post-separation violence tend to assume the danger ends when the parties separate or after a few years without further physical abuse. These mistaken assumptions routinely lead courts to disbelieve or minimize true abuse reports. This is especially problematical for judges because they may be unaware the professionals they are relying on based their recommendations on information that is not probative.
The Saunders’ study found that evaluators, judges and lawyers who do not have the specific knowledge and training tend to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports, unscientific alienation theories and the assumptions that mother’s attempts to protect their children actually harm the children. These mistaken beliefs lead to recommendations that harm children.
The Saunders’ study also has an important section about the extreme cases in which a court disbelieves mothers’ reports of abuse and then limits mothers who are the primary attachment figures and always took good care of the children to supervised or no visitation. Dr. Saunders’ refers to these as “harmful outcome” cases. These decisions are always wrong because the harm of denying a child a normal relationship with their primary attachment figure, a harm that includes increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide when older is greater than any benefit the court thought it was providing. The Saunders’ study found these extreme outcomes are caused by the use of very flawed practices so that often the opposite result would have benefited the children.
Research on Child Murders: Erring on the Side of Risk
One of the systemic problems with custody courts is that they tend to look at each case and each issue separately and thus miss the patterns that can help officials recognize problems. The tragic, but preventable murder of Aaden Moreno illustrates the need to look at research about child murders. In a recent two-year period we found news stories about 175 children murdered by fathers in contested custody cases. Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges and court administrators in the communities where these tragedies were committed. The judges who participated tended to be those with the best training and most interest in DV which is why they took the time to be interviewed.
Dr. Bartlow asked the question that should be the focus of court officials in response to these murders. What reforms did the courts in these communities implement in response to the tragedies? The surprising answer was nothing because they all assumed the tragedy in their community was an exception.
Unfortunately the response to Aaden Moreno was similar. Instead of focusing on what reforms could be implemented to better protect children, the court system sought to justify the actions of Judge Barry Pinkus. I have no doubt that Judge Pinkus was sincerely horrified at the outcome and was simply following common practices, but the murder could have been prevented. The defensive response claimed the evidence did not support the requirement for a continuous threat of physical pain or injury. This mistaken assumption is based on the lack of an evidence based approach and failure to use a multi-disciplinary response. If Judge Pinkus had received necessary training from DV advocates or could have consulted with an advocate, he would have learned that abusers often use physical violence only once or a few times, but that is enough to make the victim aware of what he is capable of. The other non-physical tactics serve as a reminder of the continuous risk of physical pain or injury.
One of the tragedies considered in the Bartlow research was a case involving Katie Tagle. Ms. Tagle sought a protective order based on threats by the father to kill Baby Wyatt. Judge Lemkau repeatedly said he believed the mother was lying and gave the father the access he needed to kill Wyatt. Judge Lemkau apologized to the mother, expressed how sorry he was about the murder but said there was nothing he could have done based on the circumstances. In a sense, he and Judge Pinkus are correct, as long as we continue the outdated and discredited practices that are commonly used in custody courts, we cannot protect the children.
One of the points some of the good judges who participated in the Bartlow research made was the importance of erring on the side of safety. I recently wrote a series of articles about this concept, because so many of the standard practices tend to err on the side of risk. Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably. Even cases involving abusive fathers often settle because the fathers still love their children and are not willing to hurt them by denying them a relationship with the mother. These cases are often settled with the abuser gaining an unfair financial settlement in return for the children living with their primary attachment figure. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that go to trial and often far beyond. Court professionals are taught to treat these as “high conflict” cases by which they mean the parents are angry with each other and act out in ways that hurt the children.
An evidence-based approach would recognize that between 75-90% of contested custody are really DV cases involving the worst abusers—abusers who believe she has no right to leave, so they are entitled to use any tactics necessary to regain what they believe is their right to control her. “Fathers’ Rights” groups which are really controlled by the worst abusers encourage members to seek custody as a way to regain control and punish victims for leaving. A cottage industry of psychologists and lawyers has developed to help abusive fathers win custody. We are dealing with DV cases and economic abuse is an important part of DV. The cottage industry understands that abusers control the family resources so the best way to make large incomes is to support practices that help abusers.
The unscientific alienation theories referenced by the Saunders’ study were concocted to give the cottage industry a way to support its clients. It is based on the myth that most abuse reports are false and the remedy is to create “harmful outcome” cases- again, referenced by the Saunders’ research. Too often courts use these biased professionals as if they were neutral, and their misinformation poisons other cases. Treating these bogus professionals as if they were credible contributes to widespread concerns about corruption.
The mistaken “high conflict” analysis contributes to approaches that err on the side of risking children. Instead of pressuring abusers to change their behavior if they want a relationship with the children, courts routinely pressure victims and their children to accommodate the abuser. When victims object to interacting with their abuser, they are treated as uncooperative and often punished. In reality punishing the victims is also punishing the children.
I appreciate that court officials are proud of the difficult work they do and want to believe they are doing a good job. It is normal to be defensive in response to criticism, but one of the first things I learned in the batterer program I teach in is that defensive responses always lose. The task force spoke of the training judicial officers receive, but clearly there is a disconnect between whatever training is provided and the actual results. I respect that court officials in Connecticut believe they are doing a good job under difficult circumstances, but this is not supported by any evidence based analysis.
Like the good judges in the Bartlow research, the Connecticut Judiciary responded to the Aaden Moreno tragedy by defensively seeking to avoid responsibility rather than an inquiry about what can be done differently. More often, the same mistakes that lead to child murders result in children living with abusers and suffering longer-term but still harmful consequences. In other words reforms that would immediately save the lives of children like Aaden will also benefit thousands of children whose names we will never know.
Nationally, the statistics show that every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. Although mothers make deliberate false reports of abuse less than 2% of the time, in cases involving reports of child sexual abuse, the alleged abusers win custody 85% of the time. The ACE research found that at least 22% of our children are sexually abused by the time they reach eighteen. Similar statistics are not new, but by eliminating any possibility of false reports the ACE research is compelling on this issue. Clearly society must improve the response to child sexual abuse.
Lest defenders try to suggest the national statistics don’t apply to Connecticut, the standard practices are incompatible with any assumption that children are safe in Connecticut’s courts.
Connecticut is not using a multi-disciplinary approach: The task force wisely encouraged court professionals to learn about DV from DV advocates. But right now most training of judges is done by other judges, lawyers train lawyers and psychologists train psychologists. Expert reports and testimony come mostly from mental health professionals. Children will be better protected when judges consider what specific expertise is needed instead of just turning to mental health professionals.
A recent tragedy in Westchester County, New York illustrates the problem of limiting an inquiry to mental health approaches. A decorated, recently retired police officer killed his two teenage daughters while they were sleeping before committing suicide. All the reports were that he was a wonderful man and father so much of the focus of the reporting concerned how he could have committed such a horrendous act. The local Gannett Newspaper assigned a reporter to try to answer this question.
The reporter spoke to law enforcement professionals, some of whom knew the officer and they couldn’t fathom why he would do this. The problem was that most abusers act very differently with the rest of the world than they do with their immediate family. The reporter interviewed various mental health professionals. They tried to concoct some unlikely psychological explanation but even they admitted their speculation was unlikely. Then the reporter interviewed me. I was able to draw from the Bartlow research about the pattern of child murders in contested custody cases. The most dangerous abusers are those who believe their partner has no right to leave. It turned out his wife had recently requested a separation and made a report to the police.
We desperately want to be able to prevent the kind of tragedy that occurred in Harrison, NY, but we must be able to understand the cause in order to prevent future tragedies. The mental health professionals could not understand the cause because they were limited to psychological explanations, and DV is not caused by mental illness. Courts must have access to DV expertise if they are going to recognize and respond effectively to possible DV cases.
The Connecticut courts have been slow to integrate important research like ACE and Saunders into their response to custody cases. This means they are not using evidence -based practices. The inevitable result is courts failing to recognize and believe true reports of abuse; minimizing the significance of a pattern of DV; and focusing on far less important issues.
The courts are willing to consider unscientific alienation theories that were concocted not based on any research but rather the beliefs, biases and experiences of the founder of the cottage industry. These beliefs include many statements to the effect that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. I suspect few judges would want to be associated with such beliefs if they knew the origin of these bogus theories. While bogus theories are allowed to poison the system, important, peer reviewed scientific research from the most credible sources is not used.
The Saunders’ findings about harmful outcome cases are critical to understanding the problems with the court response to abuse cases. Harmful outcome cases are all too common in Connecticut. The existence of these cases continues only because flawed practices are permitted to continue, but the harm is even greater.
I have heard all too many stories from battered mothers and children about the impact of these harmful outcome cases. The pain and the suffering are unspeakable. The children are forced to endure horrific abuse and denied a relationship with their loving mothers. Abusers use the power provided by the courts to undermine the mothers’ relationships. I don’t know if the worst thing in the world for mothers is being denied any meaningful relationship with their children or knowing their children are being tortured.
It is these horrifically mishandled cases that lead to the widespread belief that the custody courts are corrupt. It is hard to imagine any other explanation when courts seem to ignore overwhelming evidence of abuse and repeatedly retaliate and punish victims for trying to protect their children. As an expert I can recognize the many unintentional mistakes that lead courts to impose these tragedies, but it has to stop.
Courts cannot protect children when they are not trauma informed. The ACE research demonstrates that exposure to DV and child abuse is more consequential than any of the other factors the courts are asked to consider. And physical abuse is not required to create the catastrophic consequences. But when court professionals are largely unaware of the consequences and don’t know best practices to recognize DV, they can’t protect the children.
The precious children of Connecticut will never be safe in its courts until they integrate and prioritize evidence based practices, multi-disciplinary approaches and trauma informed responses. Fortunately there is a direct way to make sure the children are protected.
The Safe Child Act is a modern, evidence-based solution to the problems custody courts face in responding to domestic violence and child abuse cases. It requires what should be obvious; that the health and safety of children must be the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. This is accomplished by integrating important scientific research like ACE and Saunders, relying on a more multi-disciplinary approach when specific expertise is needed, and barring unscientific theories that only poison the process.
The Task Force has emphasized the need for training of judges and other professionals, but the research demonstrates present training approaches have not been effective. Professionals need to unlearn misinformation based on earlier mistaken assumptions and deliberately promoted by the cottage industry that makes its money helping abusers.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges recently invited me as one of the experts to discuss child custody evaluations. I asked a judge from Colorado how a new law that had some aspects of the Safe Child Act was working. He said judges who previously sought to avoid training were begging to attend trainings about how to implement the new law. In other words passing the Safe Child Act will cause judges to want the information needed to protect Connecticut’s children.
I have noticed that there has been a lot of anger and controversy in recent discussions in the legislature about custody court reforms. Victims have angrily complained about widespread corruption and court professionals have responded with defensiveness and anger. While there is corruption within the cottage industry, I have seen no proof that judges are being paid off. Instead, the appearance stems from outrageous decisions that seem to have no basis in the evidence or the well-being of children and so create the appearance of corruption. The Safe Child Act will eliminate the outdated and discredited practices that sully the reputation of the court system and undermine the public’s faith in the judiciary.
Lawyers on both sides of a case and the judges often phrase their arguments in terms of the best interests of children, but the Safe Child Act will actually make a wonderful difference in children’s lives. The lead author of the original ACE Study said that prevention is the best use for his research. The Safe Child Act creates objective standards supported by evidence based research to determine the well-being of children. Connecticut’s children will live longer, healthier and more satisfying lives when the Safe Child Act is passed. I have been in tears too many times hearing the horrific stories that could have been prevented. It is up to the legislature to make sure the custody court system is not just about the judges, lawyers, evaluators or abusers. We must protect our children.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.
COO, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.