Family Courts Need Multi-Disciplinary Responses
Everyone said Glen Hochman was the most wonderful public servant, husband, father and human being. He had recently received an award for saving a life shortly before he retired from the White Plains Police Department. Many continued to speak of his good deeds and could not imagine why he would murder his two teenage daughters as they slept in their beds.
The focus of the news coverage of the tragedy concerned how such a good man could have committed such a heinous crime. The local Gannett newspaper decided to write a story to answer this question. This question is critically important because we desperately want to prevent these horrific tragedies, but they will continue unless the professionals that respond can understand the cause and take effective actions to prevent them. Treating this crime as an exception and failing to move past the outdated responses that were developed in the 70s would mean society learned nothing from the preventable murders of Deanna and Alissa Hochman.
The reporter interviewed police officers, some of whom knew Glen Hochman but they had no idea why he would kill his daughters. They were not in a good position to understand because they only knew him from his public actions. The reporter interviewed mental health professionals who tried to concoct unusual psychological reasons but they acknowledged their theories were unlikely to be the explanation. The problem is that domestic violence is not caused by mental illness so psychology does not provide the answer.
The reporter interviewed me and I had the Bartlow study that followed up on 175 child murders by fathers involved in contested custody cases. Although the Hochmans had not yet started a divorce proceeding, the mother recently asked for a separation and reported an argument to the police. The most dangerous abusers are men who believe their partner has no right to leave. These are the men family courts see in contested custody cases but routinely fail to recognize the danger because their public façade is often positive and they usually have not committed the most severe physical abuse. Glen Hochman demonstrated by his actions that he believed his wife had no right to leave and punished her in the worst way available.
This case is valuable for our family courts if only they can be open to listening. Today, they rely on approaches the other professionals interviewed by the reporter use. Lawyers for abusers routinely seek testimony from friends and family about what a nice guy the father is. Courts treat this as if it was important but it tells the judge nothing about how they act in the privacy of their homes. Similarly abusers’ calm demeanor in court often influences judges. And when courts seek professional assistance they turn to mental health professionals even in domestic violence cases where his abuse is not caused by mental illness and the psychologists are unfamiliar with domestic violence dynamics or current research.
Failure to Use Multi-Disciplinary Approach
The United States Justice Department commissioned the Saunders’ Study to establish whether judges, lawyers and evaluators have the domestic violence knowledge needed to respond effectively to domestic violence custody cases. The study found many serious problems in the qualifications of these professionals, but five years later, the family courts have yet to make changes in practices and training the Saunders’ research found was needed. The Saunders’ Study proves what the Hochman case illustrates that courts need to use a multi-disciplinary approach that includes domestic violence experts for domestic violence cases.
Many members of the legal profession are used to working with psychologists or other mental health professionals and automatically expect any experts to use the same approaches. They are looking for academic training to support the expert’s position. They want the expert to interview the parties and possibly children to understand how everyone is doing. And they view domestic violence advocates as biased because “they’re always against domestic violence.” One would think that everyone is against domestic violence because that is the law and expected policy of every court, but reports of domestic violence are often viewed as an obstacle to the preferred outcome of co-parenting. This is a common, but rarely discussed example of gender bias where victims are attacked and punished for reporting abuse instead of viewing his abuse as the obstacle to a better parenting arrangement.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals naturally enough focus on a psychological analysis of the parties and children. This is similar to the approach of the mental health professionals interviewed by the reporter about the Hochman case. They can be helpful when mental illness or other psychological problem is a significant issue, but of limited value in contested cases in which domestic violence is usually the reason for the dispute.
The Saunders’ Study found that domestic violence advocates have more of the specific knowledge about domestic violence that courts need to recognize and respond effectively to domestic violence cases. Evaluators and other professionals without the specific knowledge needed tend to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports and unscientific alienation theories. These mistaken assumptions lead to recommendations that hurt children. But courts are used to listening to psychologists and not domestic violence experts. I was recently asked about my academic training by an attorney for an abusive father. When he learned my degrees in political science and law did not include anything about domestic violence he thought he had uncovered a deficiency. He never considered that the mental health professionals he usually works with have degrees that also fail to include information about domestic violence. Evaluators often take a few workshops to create the appearance of training in domestic violence, but some of the workshops fail to provide the specific knowledge needed and often include misinformation. A good workshop can be helpful but does not provide the level of understanding about domestic violence dynamics and current research the courts need.
Even the best judges are still hearing misinformation from the evaluators they are relying on. Courts routinely fail to distinguish between objective and subjective expert opinions. Subjective opinions are just the personal views of professionals unsupported and often contradicted by good scientific research. Courts are listening to assumptions that are disproved by more qualified experts like Dr. Vincent Felitti, the lead author of the first ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study and Dr. Daniel Saunders the lead author of the Saunders’ Study. The pilot study led by Professor Joan Meier showed how reliance just on mental health professionals for expertise in domestic violence often led courts to send children to live with dangerous abusers and rapists. The study found the courts actually treat alienation as if it were more harmful to children than domestic violence and child abuse that ruin children’s lives. These frightening mistakes could be avoided with a multi-disciplinary approach that included experts in domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
What Domestic Violence Experts Provide to the Courts
In Connecticut, Adrianne Oyola asked the court to protect Aaden Moreno from his father, Tony Moreno, who threatened to kill the baby. The judge gave the father access which he used to throw Aaden off a bridge to his death. The Connecticut court system defended the judge saying he could not issue a protective order unless there was a continuous threat. If they had understood domestic violence dynamics they would know that when a man assaults his intimate partner it is a continuous threat because she knows what he is capable of. She is reminded of the risk without the daily beatings the court seemed to be looking for.
In Maryland, Dr. Amy Castillo sought a protective order after her husband threatened to kill their three children. The judge denied the request, in part because they had marital relations immediately before coming to court. The judge assumed that if they were still having sex he could not be that bad. Unfamiliar with domestic violence dynamics, the judge never realized, as any domestic violence advocate would, that it might not have been safe for the mother to refuse his advances.
In California, it was Katie Tagle who tried to save her seven-month-old baby, Wyatt from a father who texted that he would kill him. At the hearing the judge repeatedly said he thought the mother was lying. The father used the access provided by the court to kill Wyatt and then himself. The judge was not relying on any evidence, but rather the myth identified in the Saunders Study and taught to California Judges in judicial trainings that mothers often make false reports of abuse. After the murder, the judge was sincerely upset at the outcome but said there was nothing he could have done based on the information he had. In one sense he was correct; as long as courts rely on the outdated practices, unsupported by current research, no child is safe in their courts.
Tragically these cases are not exceptions, but all too common. Dr. Dianne Bartlow followed-up on news stories over a two-year period concerning 175 children murdered by fathers involved in contested custody cases. Dr. Bartlow interviewed some of the best judges in the communities where these tragedies were committed. She wanted to know what the courts had done in response to the tragedy in their community to make courts safer for children. The chilling answer was nothing because they all assumed the local tragedy was an exception. We now have a specialized body of knowledge and expertise that is available to courts to protect children, but individual judges and court systems must be willing and indeed eager to hear this life-saving information. And the same information that could have prevented these and other child murders would more often save children from a childhood of pain and despair and a lifetime of health and other problems.
The Saunders’ Study recommends training about screening for domestic violence because, as the Meier study found, a large majority of true reports are disbelieved. Many reports are discredited based on common but non-probative factors such as: the lack of police or medical reports; a victim returning to her abuser; the lack of recent physical assaults; children don’t appear afraid of father while supervised; the anger or emotion of the mother and the good public behavior of the father. The courts should be looking for a pattern of coercive and controlling tactics. Courts often view the few incidents of physical abuse as “he-said-she-said” which is a way to minimize the significance of domestic violence. The many other abuse tactics that are usually perfectly legal are easier to prove and demonstrate the abuser’s motive if only the court paid attention. Often economic and litigation abuse tactics are a continuation of the father’s domestic violence but inadequately trained professionals don’t recognize this as domestic violence. Evaluators and other professionals often discredit reports it the children appear to be doing well. Not all children act out in obvious ways, even when they are hurting. This often leads evaluators to misdiagnose the family. As Saunders’ found, professionals that believe the myth that mothers frequently make false reports or rely on unscientific alienation theories have little chance to recognize domestic violence or child abuse.
Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell and other researchers have identified behaviors and situations that are related to increased lethality and danger. Court professionals, however, rarely have the training to even discuss the significance of behaviors like hitting a woman while pregnant, hurting animals, unconsented sexual behavior, and violation of court orders, threats to kidnap, kill or commit suicide, attempted strangulation and access to guns. This means that the danger to children and their mothers is routinely minimized.
Many court professionals focus only on the relationship of the parents and fail to consider post-separation violence that Dr. Saunders’ recommends. Men who abuse their intimate partners do so not because of anything she said or did, but based on their beliefs and sense of entitlement. This means they are almost certain to have abused earlier partners who might provide useful evidence and will abuse future partners. This means that if the father is given custody or unprotected visitation the children will be exposed to further abuse and will not be able to heal.
The essence of domestic violence is that abusers use a variety of tactics to coerce and control their victims. This inevitably causes fear and stress to the direct victim and any children in the home. The ACE Research establishes that this fear and stress leads to shorter and unhealthier lives.
Every child going through a contested custody case has an ACE score of at least one for their parents’ separation. Most have an ACE score of at least four. The consequences are likely to be catastrophic unless the courts focus on saving the children. The custody dispute is often the last chance to save the children. The research can be used to help family courts recognize the risks and create an arrangement to provide the treatment and protection needed to heal. I cannot imagine anything that goes more to the heart of the best interests of the child standard. I know it goes to the center of my heart.
The professionals family courts have been relying on and listening to for the past forty years are experts in mental illness and psychology. They can help courts respond when these are the key issues. But they do not have the specific knowledge and expertise recommended in the Saunders’ Study and required to recognize and respond to domestic violence or child sexual abuse. These are specialized areas of knowledge. They instead focus on other less important factors and issues and steal from these precious children their last chance for a full, happy and healthy life.
The professionals the courts usually listen to are not focusing on ACE, Saunders or Meier. This is why so many children leave the court unprotected. Domestic violence experts, particularly those familiar with current research provide objective information that can literally save the children. Courts cannot allow inertia or false confidence in familiar practices to continue to destroy children’s lives. Children would be harmed if they lose their father from their lives. They are harmed much more, however, if they are forced to continue being exposed to his abuse. The solution must stop being the requirement that mothers and children accommodate their abuser. This is the response that is causing so much harm. The only win-win solution is to make abusive fathers change their behavior if they want a relationship with their children. Domestic violence experts have the knowledge to help courts fashion arrangements that make the well-being of children the priority our children deserve.
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