A mother to be was taking medication in response to a serious immune deficiency. When she learned she was pregnant with twins, the woman contacted her doctor to find out what to do about the medication. He said she needed to stop taking the medication that had provided important benefits to her health. She works at the CDC and is knowledgeable about her health issues. She contacted an organization that specializes in immune deficiencies, and they recommended increasing her medication. This advice was confirmed when she consulted a specialist.
The medical profession strongly encourages the use of specialists and doing so in this case prevented a potential disaster.
There is now a specialized body of scientific knowledge about domestic violence, and experts working full- time on abuse issues who have a far better understanding about recognizing and responding to domestic violence. This was not true when domestic violence first became a public issue, and courts turned to mental health professionals for advice on domestic violence. These outdated and dangerous practices have not changed despite the tremendous increase in available knowledge.
I have heard some court officials object to the use of domestic violence research and expertise as somehow violative of neutrality. But ignorance of current scientific research and DV dynamics is not neutral. It creates a powerful bias that favors abusers and jeopardizes children. When professionals don’t know what to look for, they routinely disbelieve true reports of abuse or minimize the significance. We constantly see court officials focus on less important issues and retaliate against victims because the officials couldn’t recognize the abusive tactics. The judges, lawyers and evaluators do not know what they are missing, so they never consider reaching out for the specialized knowledge that is now available. And women and children are placed in avoidable danger just as the first woman would have been if she listened to the first doctor.
Outdated Custody Practices Literally Kill Children
In Maryland, Dr. Amy Castillo had sexual relations with her husband immediately before going to court to seek a protective order. The judge assumed that if the parties were still having marital relations the father could not be that dangerous. If the judge had access to training or experts concerning DV dynamics he could have understood it might not be safe for the mother to refuse the father’s sexual demands. Instead the court gave the father the access he needed to murder the three children.
In Connecticut, Adrianne Oyola sought a protective order because her partner threatened to kill their baby. The judge failed to recognize that it was a continuing and dangerous threat because he had no access to expertise about DV dynamics. The father used the access provided by the court to throw seven-month-old Aaden Moreno off a bridge to his death.
In California, Katie Tagle was concerned about texts from her baby’s father threatening to kill their child. She sought a protective order to save the boy. In the transcript of the hearing, Judge Lemkau told the mother he believed she was lying. This was not based on anything in the evidence so it appears to be based on the judge’s mistaken belief that mothers often make false reports. The Saunders’ study from the US Justice Department found that judges and other professionals without the needed training tend to focus on this dangerous myth. The father used the access provided by the court to kill Baby Wyatt. Judge Lemkau was sincerely horrified at the tragedy, but said there was nothing he could do based on the information he had. In one sense this was true. Neither he nor other judges can protect children in their courts as long as they are limited to the outdated and discredited practices developed in the 1970s when the specialized expertise was unavailable.
These tragedies are not as rare as they should be. More common are cases where the children are not murdered but are exposed to abuse and deprivation that makes them sick and shortens their lives. Although deliberate false reports of abuse by mothers are rare, in cases involving possible child sexual abuse, 85% lead to custody for the alleged offenders. The situation is so bad that many if not most attorneys refuse or discourage clients from raising sexual abuse because the court response is so hostile. This means thousands of children every year are sent to live with their rapists. And every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers.
Legal and Psychological Approaches Alone Often Fail Children
Judges usually receive their training and information from legal or mental health professionals, but neither their academic or practice experience provides the specialized knowledge the Saunders’ study found was necessary to respond to domestic violence cases. The problem was illustrated by a tragedy that occurred last year in Westchester County, NY.
A recently- retired police officer killed his two teen daughters while they were sleeping and then committed suicide. The reporting suggested he was an admirable professional and father. Everyone seemed shocked that Glen Hochman could have committed such a heinous act. The local Gannett newspaper assigned a reporter to try to understand how this could happen. They interviewed law enforcement professionals, some of whom knew him, but none could fathom why he would kill his daughters. Abusive men act very differently with the rest of the world than in the privacy of their homes, but courts often take an alleged abuser’s good reputation as if it proves he couldn’t be an abuser. When the reporter interviewed mental health professionals they tried to concoct an unlikely psychological explanation, but they admitted their guess was unlikely. As in Family Court, they couldn’t understand the cause because they were limited to psychological explanations and domestic violence is not caused by mental illness.
The reporter then interviewed me. I had a research chapter from Dr. Dianne Bartlow concerning the 175 children murdered by fathers involved in contested custody in a recent two- year period. I also knew that the most dangerous abusers are ones who believe she has no right to leave. A large majority of contested custody cases involve the worst abusers who hold this belief. Sometimes they respond by killing the mothers, sometimes they kill the children, but more often seek custody as a way to regain control over their victims. Court professionals expect the worst abusers would have committed the most severe physical abuse, but this is usually not the case. It turned out that Glen Hochman recently learned his wife wanted a separation and she reported him to the police.
When you read stories like the Hochman murders you desperately want to prevent these tragedies from ever happening again. But society cannot save the children until it understands the causes. Alissa and Deanna Hochman could not be saved by legal or psychological expertise alone, but if the specialized body of domestic violence knowledge is also considered the girls would be alive today.
The Specialized Body of Knowledge about Domestic Violence Needed to Protect Children
Too often court officials respond defensively to criticism concerning their response to domestic violence cases. They would like to believe they do a good job and that research findings to the contrary are mistaken. Many of their standard practices, however, give judges little chance to recognize and respond effectively to domestic violence.
Aside from decisions leading to the murder of women and children, the worst custody cases are what the Saunders’ Study refers to as harmful outcome cases. These are extreme outcomes in which the alleged abuser is given custody and safe, protective mothers who are the primary attachment figures for the children are limited to supervised or no visitation. These decisions are always wrong because the harm of denying children 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 possible benefit. The Saunders’ study found that in most of these cases very flawed practices such as pathologizing the victim, relying on unqualified professionals and using unscientific alienation theories cause these harmful outcomes. Obviously, the judges and other professionals do not want to hurt children and are usually unaware of the findings in the Saunders’ study when they create these harmful outcomes. Particularly revealing of the problems in the custody court system is that in many cases when the court was made aware of the Saunders’ findings it failed to correct the bad decision.
Many common errors demonstrating fundamental ignorance of domestic violence 101 continue to be widespread in the custody courts. Reports of domestic violence are discredited based on non-probative factors like the victim returning to her abuser, the failure to follow-up on petitions for a protective order and the lack of police or medical reports. At the same time few court professionals look for the pattern of controlling and coercive tactics that make it easier to recognize domestic violence and avoid treating the case as “he-said-she-said.” Many court professionals focus only on physical abuse. Other professionals assume if there are no recent physical assaults the danger is over. Some professionals even believe the end of the relationship eliminates the danger. Without knowledge from the ACE Study many professionals minimize the impact of DV on children.
Gender- biased practices are still widespread, and judges are often defensive and retaliatory when the issue is raised. Psychologists look for psychological explanations for domestic violence, although mental illness is not the cause of DV. They also expect children exposed to abuse to act out in obvious ways, but children respond in many different ways as they try to survive. Abusers are able to control their behavior, so acting properly during supervised visits does not mean the alleged abuser is safe. Nevertheless, courts often make this the only or most important factor in restoring normal visitation.
Courts often treat a victim’s emotion or anger as a far more important indication of parenting ability than it actually reveals. The myth that women and children frequently make false reports continues to be widespread among court professionals and plays an outsized role in leading courts to disbelieve true reports of abuse. Courts ought to weigh and discuss the potential benefits and harm of possible outcomes. This should be based on valid scientific research, not personal opinions and biases. But we rarely see this kind of discussion in custody decisions. Especially when the court gives the alleged abuser custody and when it punishes the children by limiting contact with good mothers.
The Saunders’ Study found what should have been obvious; the professionals working full time on domestic violence issues are the ones with the specific information courts most need in order to respond to domestic violence cases. This research supports the use of a multi-disciplinary approach, so that the court gains access to the specific knowledge and information it needs for each case. The Safe Child Act will make children safer by promoting a multi-disciplinary approach and better use of current scientific research like ACE and Saunders. The ACE Research found domestic violence and child abuse are far more harmful to children than previously understood. At the same time, the Saunders’ Study demonstrated how inadequately trained judges, lawyers and evaluators deny and minimize true reports of abuse. This is the worst possible combination for the children. Our children deserve practices that are evidence- based, multi-disciplinary and trauma-informed. None of these necessary elements are part of the old practices from the 1970s that have not kept up with current scientific research.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands received a Humanitarian Award for saving the lives of American children that a custody court had placed in jeopardy. Peter Mollema, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the Dutch Embassy accepted the award for his nation. He eloquently summed up the issue when he said, “It is common sense, you must protect the children.” It is the common sense we need from our custody courts.