The day scheduled for Mikayla’s first day in kindergarten instead became the day of her funeral.
This avoidable tragedy occurred because her father was a dangerous abuser who knew the best way to hurt Mikayla’s mother was to kill Mikayla. Mikayla died because too many public officials minimized the risk because they did not have the knowledge or training necessary to protect domestic violence victims. The custody court evaluator said there was no need to protect Mikayla from her abusive father because his threats to kill her mother had nothing to do with Mikayla’s safety. The custody court-appointed mediator refused to help saying he knew people with more serious problems. Ultimately the judge gave the father the access he needed to kill Mikayla.
The court system that has failed to integrate fundamental scientific research to help protect children has a fundamental misconception of the contested custody cases they are dealing with. Most cases are settled more or less amicably. These involve good parents who do not pose a danger to the children. The problem is 3.8% of cases that require trial and often much more.
Custody court professionals have been 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 child. This has led them to invoke a variety of practices and programs to encourage the parents to improve communications and cooperate in parenting the child. The research is clear, a large majority of these cases are really domestic violence cases involving the most dangerous abusers; fathers who believe the mother had no right to leave and so they are entitled to do anything necessary to regain control.
The courts’ misconception means they are pressuring victims and children to cooperate with their abusers instead of requiring abusers to change their behavior if they want a relationship with the child.
Mikayla would want you to know that her murder was not a rare exception. In the past ten years over 600 children involved in contested custody cases have been murdered by parents, mostly abusive fathers.
Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges and court administrators in the communities where these tragedies occurred. The judges interviewed tended to be the most interested and knowledgeable about domestic violence which is why they took the time to be interviewed. They were asked what reforms the court had created in response to the tragedy. The shocking response was none because they all assumed the local murder was an exception. This is the kind of mistake courts make when they are unfamiliar with current research.
Even worse, the same mistakes that lead to child murders more often expose children to domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Most of these children survive but are silenced by the abusers so the courts usually are unaware of the harm they caused. Our courts make these mistakes in the most dangerous cases because standard practices tilt courts towards denying and minimizing true reports of abuse.
Critical Scientific Research
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced groundbreaking medical research concerning adverse childhood experiences (ACE). The fundamental finding is that children exposed to domestic violence, child abuse, and other trauma will live shorter lives and suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. Most of the harm is caused not from the immediate physical injuries that courts tend to focus on, but living with fear that causes the worst kind of stress.
Our present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, crime, substance abuse, suicide, and other health and social problems is based on the long tolerance of behavior that would now be called domestic violence and child abuse. Courts could lower the frequency of these scourges by protecting children from abusers. In most of these dangerous cases, the courts minimize the harm, as the professionals who failed Mikayla did, because they are unfamiliar with this research.
The Saunders’ Study comes from the U.S. Justice Department and was designed to consider the knowledge of domestic violence possessed by evaluators, judges, and lawyers. Saunders’ found that many of the standard practices work poorly for children. Many and probably most court professionals do not have the specific knowledge needed to recognize and respond to domestic violence custody cases. These unqualified professionals tend to focus on the myth that mothers often make false reports and unscientific alienation theories. The tragic result is that the courts often fail to recognize true reports of abuse and therefore cannot protect children like Mikayla.
Ironically, a bogus alienation theory that was concocted not from research but only from personal experience, beliefs, and biases of a psychiatrist who made many statements encouraging sex between adults and children has been given more influence over court decisions than peer-reviewed research from highly respected organizations.
The Safe Child Act Is the Solution
The Safe Child Act is a comprehensive plan based on current scientific research that most courts have failed to integrate. The Safe Child Act would require courts to treat the health and safety of children as the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. Mikayla’s court did not know how to recognize the health and safety risks so they focused on less important issues with devastating consequences. The legislation would require courts to integrate current scientific research like ACE and Saunders. Although courts could and should already be doing this, by relying on the same small group of experts, many of whom have a financial interest in supporting wealthy abusers, many judges never learn about this information.
The Safe Child Act would also encourage a multi-disciplinary approach that includes domestic violence advocates and child sexual abuse experts. Present practices were adopted in the 1970s when no research was available. Courts turned to mental health professionals based on popular assumptions that domestic violence was caused by mental illness, substance abuse, and the actions of the victim. We now know the original assumptions were wrong. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers are experts in mental illness and psychology and that can be useful in many cases. A mental health degree does not provide expertise in domestic violence, child sexual abuse, or medical issues. Present practices are the equivalent of relying on a general practitioner when a patient has cancer or heart disease. Saunders’ research supports the use of a multi-disciplinary approach.
The Safe Child Act will require an early hearing in abuse cases that is limited to abuse issues. Abusers would be prevented from distracting attention with less important, and often false issues. This would not create a serious burden in the court system because it covers a small percentage of all cases. If the abuse reports are confirmed, the research demonstrates the safe parent should have custody and the abuser should be limited initially to supervised visits. This means that cases that now take many months or years would be resolved in a few hours and children would be better protected. This practice would save courts and parents enormous time and resources.
Judges and other court professionals would be required to obtain training based on current scientific research and would also need to learn to abandon the widespread misinformation they have repeatedly heard throughout their careers. States would provide additional funding for domestic violence agencies so they can take a larger role in training court professionals about domestic violence. The money would also be used to train advocates to serve as expert witnesses so this expertise would be available in individual cases.
Mikayla’s case would have been so easy if the Safe Child Act could have been in place. The court would have been aware they were dealing with a particularly dangerous abuser. They could have focused on changing his behavior instead of asking the mother and daughter to accommodate his abuse. There would be no mediation with a dangerous abuser because that increases the risk. The court professionals would know how to recognize the risk and could avoid minimizing the danger.
I learned long ago that the worst sentences in our language start with “what might have been.” I hope the tragically short life of Mikayla means something to legislators who can pass the Safe Child Act. Mikayla had greatness about her and like most young children possessed unlimited potential. Until the court gave a dangerous abuser unprotected access. We will never know what Mikayla might have accomplished. Years later, her mother, Leigh Block bears the unspeakable pain and sorrow to share Mikayla’s story. She does it because she continues to be inspired by her little girl. She does it because she doesn’t want other mothers to suffer the way she has.
The public does not have high regard for politicians, but in most cases, our public officials originally were drawn to public service because they wanted to make the world a better place. I think we can define this as a place where it is safe for girls like Mikayla to live a full life. I usually focus on facts and statistics and research. Today I am leaning on the emotion of Mikayla’s story and playing on the emotions of my readers. I do that because I would rather you shed tears from a murder many years ago than from one tomorrow. I am deeply touched that my friend, Leigh Block is so dedicated to passing the Safe Child Act because she knows this is what Mikayla needed all those years ago.
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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.