CUSTODY COURT SCANDAL FINALLY EXPOSED
By Barry Goldstein
I have long believed that whoever exposed the custody court scandal would be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Today, Boston Globe reporters Nestor Ramos and Evan Allen produced a well documented story showing the pattern of ignorance, bias and harmful practices by the custody courts and child protective agencies in their response to child sexual abuse and domestic violence. The custody courts should never be the same and considering the enormous harm they have caused the needed reforms must take place immediately.
The reporters focused on the story of a now eight-year-old girl who suffered five years of sexual abuse and systemic failure despite her repeated reports about her father’s abuse. The reporters interviewed national experts to demonstrate that the mistakes made in this case are part of a larger pattern of custody courts and child protective agencies mishandling child custody cases involving abuse. Especially revealing was their comparison of the flawed practices used by court professionals and child protective caseworkers with the best practices described in the Saunders’ Study from the US Department of Justice.
The failure to believe the child’s reports of her father’s betrayal were based not on the circumstances in the case but the mistaken assumption by the professionals that false reports are common. One of the most important findings in the Saunders’ Study is that court professionals without the needed training and expertise tend to focus on the myth that mothers and children frequently make false reports. This is an important factor that results in the alleged offender winning custody in 85% of child sexual abuse cases. Near the end of the article, the child is quoted as saying, ” I think my mom believes me.” Her mother did believe her, but the authorities who could have saved her from further torture failed to believe her. They work in a system that routinely errs on the side of risking children. Needless to say the failures of the custody court and child protective agency have left the child severely traumatized.
Why Is This Article So Important?
Professor Garland Waller wrote a prophetic chapter in the first volume of Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody that I co-edited with Dr. Mo Therese Hannah. The chapter explained the various factors including fear of lawsuits, lack of resources and difficulty in putting these kind of stories together that discouraged the media from exposing the scandal. Garland discussed the “Tipping Point” and predicted when enough people became aware of the scandal it could no longer be hidden and would have to be corrected. This story will either take us to the tipping point or bring us very close.
The Boston Globe reporters produced a powerful story. I believe it will encourage other journalists to cover an important topic they had previously avoided. The story should also encourage court and child protective administrators to consider needed reforms. They have been very defensive and routinely blame victims, but they will want to avoid further stories that would make them look bad and harm their careers. Legislators will want to show they are doing something to protect children. This should come in the form of more resources to improve the system and reforms that I hope will include the Safe Child Act.
Dr. Dianne Bartlow wrote an important chapter in the second volume of Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody concerning the 175 children murdered in a two-year period by fathers involved in contested custody. She interviewed many of the best judges who have the most training and expertise about domestic violence. One of the points they made is that courts need to err on the side of safety which is the opposite of what the reporters found. The Safe Child Act specifically requires courts to make the health and safety of children the first priority. It requires an evidence based approach by integrating important scientific research into court practices. The legislation promotes a more multi-disciplinary approach as supported by the Saunders’ Study. And our proposal requires a trauma-informed response based on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research that found exposure to domestic violence and child abuse is far more harmful than previously understood.
The only thing worse than the torture the court made the little girl suffer and the murders of the 175 children and the millions of children who have been forced to live with abusers is if society fails to learn from these tragedies. What frustrates me more than anything is that we now have the knowledge and practices that could save most of these children. The judge who made so many decisions to place the child in jeopardy surely did not want to hurt the girl. But the professionals in the broken system cannot prevent these frequent tragedies using the outdated and discredited practices that were developed in the 1970s. They are afraid of bad publicity which is why they use gag orders and retaliation in an attempt to silence anyone who would criticize their mistakes. The professionals who failed this child would like the story to go away, but our job is to make sure this girl is remembered. It is painful and traumatic to think about all these horrific stories, but we must remember our pain is nothing compared to what this little girl and so many other children are forced to suffer every day until we make it stop.