The United States has a long and honorable history of honoring and supporting gold star mothers, mothers whose children made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Preparation for the deaths of military service members is necessary because the work they do is so dangerous that even making all the right decisions cannot prevent deaths in combat. Accordingly, we have all too much practice in honoring gold star mothers. These women deserve all the help we can provide because their loss is so devastating.
We have another group of mothers who suffer the same devastating loss, only their children are still children. Most of the public; public officials and indeed most court professionals are unaware of how frequently family court errors cost children their lives. This is because most people assume court officials would make the safety of children their highest priority, and fathers seeking custody of their children would not kill them. Unfortunately the public is uninformed about the frequency that family courts fail to safeguard our precious children.
Domestic violence experts have long known that family courts are not using best practices, and this tilts court decisions in ways that jeopardize children. The experts were familiar with cases in which judges gave access to dangerous abusers who used the access to kill the children. In 2009, the Dastardly Dads blog started collecting news stories about child murders in contested custody cases. In a two-year period they found stories about 175 child murders, although sometimes the stories concerned earlier killings. The Center for Judicial Excellence conducted more thorough research and found over 600 child murders involving contested cases in the last ten years. Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges in the communities where the tragedies were committed. She asked the judges what reforms had been created in response to the murders, and the answer was none. The court system assumes any decisions that are not appealed must be right and so assumed the tragedy in their community must have been the exception.
The same outdated practices and dangerous decisions that lead directly to child murders more often result in serious but less dramatic harm. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies from the CDC establish that children exposed to domestic violence, child abuse and other traumas will live shorter lives and suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. In other words children who initially survive a bad custody decision often have their lives shortened by substance abuse, suicide, crime, cancer, heart disease and other consequences of exposure to ACEs.
Recent Preventable Tragedy
Most custody cases, like most other litigation is settled more or less amicably. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that require trial and often much more. Court professionals have been taught to treat these as “high conflict” by which they mean the parents are angry with each other and act out in ways that harm children. Accordingly the courts have developed a variety of practices designed to force the parents to cooperate. The research establishes that a large majority of these cases are really domestic violence cases in which the worst abusers seek custody as a way to gain access to the victim, regain control or punish her for leaving. Accordingly, standard practices seek to pressure the victim to cooperate with her abuser instead of forcing the abuser to stop his harmful tactics if he wants a relationship with the child. This works great for abusers but is a disaster for the children.
These are the most dangerous cases; made even more dangerous because most court professionals do not understand the nature of the cases they are dealing with and don’t have the expertise to recognize the risks or even his abuse. Family courts continue to respond to domestic violence based on practices developed in the 1970s when no research was available. Accordingly, the courts rely on experts in mental illness and psychology and focus almost exclusively on physical abuse even though the research has long established these responses are ineffective. Most courts look for the most severe physical assaults to determine risk, but most child murders are committed by fathers who believe the mother has no right to leave, not those who committed the most severe assaults. In other words the courts routinely fail to understand how to assess the risks to the children or the mothers.
Jovani Ligurgo lost his life based on these typical errors. John Ligurgo had access to his 2-year-old son because of a visitation order. Instead of returning the toddler at the end of visitation, the father drove him from Long Island, New York to Virginia where the father killed the baby and then himself.
In a court world uninformed by current scientific research there was no reason to suspect danger or restrict the father’s access. The father had no criminal record; was not accused of physical abuse and there were no abuse findings against him. If the court had been familiar with risk assessment and domestic violence, however, substantial indications of danger were available. The father recently lost his job because of substance abuse; had access to a gun and had a long history of controlling and coercive behavior towards the mother, Maria Busone. The best source of information about the risks posed by an alleged abuser is his partner. Unfortunately a mother is given the least credibility despite research that found mothers make deliberate false reports less than 2% of the time. The mother asked the court to restrict visitation until the killer could undergo drug testing and a psychological examination. More useful would have been a risk assessment. Standard court practices, however, place a higher priority on a child’s normal contact with a father than the health and safety of the child. Many other courts would seek to err on the side of safety but in family courts standard practices promote the opposite.
Treatment of Potential Gold Star Protective Mothers
Serving in the military is inherently dangerous, and soldiers and sailors know the risk. We are right to honor and support gold star mothers because of the enormous sacrifice their children have made for our country. I subtract nothing from our obligation to these mothers to argue that we should also honor and support gold star protective mothers.
I have seen so many protective mothers start out believing that all they have to do is explain the abusers’ history and risk and of course the courts would protect the children. The problem is most courts do not use the current research or experts in abuse that could help them recognize abuse and respond effectively. Instead they are more concerned with keeping even the most dangerous fathers involved in children’s lives instead of focusing on the health and safety of the children they are supposed to protect. Jovani Ligurgo and Maria Busone are the latest victims of the failure of the court system to develop the needed reforms.
Perhaps we should pass a law compensating gold star protective mothers as we do gold star military mothers. I say this not because I am concerned about compensation but in the hopes it might provide a more obvious incentive for courts and legislators to make sure our children are safe. The most reliable research tends to be about murders because there is a body and no one can say the victim is making a false report. We know hundreds of children are murdered during contested custody cases and thousands more lose their lives as a consequence of continued exposure to adverse childhood experiences. Our soldiers, sailors and children often come back with PTSD. There is something terribly wrong when family courts rival war zones in the danger they create.
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.