Flawed Child Custody Practices Also Hurt Communities
The original Quincy Model was a group of best practices that dramatically reduced domestic violence crime, especially murders in Quincy, Massachusetts. The county averaged 5-6 homicides, but enjoyed several years with no murders after implementing the best practices.
Today, seeking custody is a standard tactic for the most dangerous abusers to regain control over their victims. Custody court professionals have been taught to treat these contested cases as “high conflict,” which is different to abusive, and means they don’t consider the abusers’ motives or take advantage of the specialized body of domestic violence knowledge to respond to the most dangerous cases they face.
The consequences of not including or utilizing specialized DV knowledge are disastrous for the women and children involved in DV custody cases. These custody tactics fundamentally undermine the laws and responses to domestic violence and have resulted in a reversal of the progress society had made in reducing domestic violence homicides.
Dutchess County, New York, became a cruel illustration of the horrific consequences from the outdated and discredited practices frequently used in the nation’s family courts when known abusers seek custody and control over their victims.
Shockome Should Have Been the Easiest Custody Case Ever
Poughkeepsie was about a two hour drive from my office, so I did not usually take cases there, but Genia Shockome saw her case undermined by attorneys who refused to advocate to protect her children. She spoke with many Dutchess county attorneys in an attempt to obtain representation but they all refused to take her case. Some of them explained they were afraid to present evidence of abuse for fear of offending Judge Damian Amodeo. Genia came to me because she believed she needed an attorney from outside the Dutchess area, and because of my expertise in domestic violence.
Genia was the recipient of the Dutchess Mother of the Year Award because so many other parents learned to improve their own parenting from watching her interaction with her two children. She was unquestionably the primary attachment figure. The father viewed child care as women’s work and testified he could not change his daughter’s diapers because he might be aroused.
The father abused both the mother and children. After abandoning the family, the father used the standard abuser tactic of seeking custody in order to pressure the mother to return or punish her for leaving.
Despite the huge discrepancies in their parenting ability and experience, the judge and the mother’s attorney pressured and threatened Genia to force her to accept shared parenting. The “settlement” occurred in the middle of the trial before the judge could hear most of the mother’s witnesses.
The judge warned the parents that if either interfered with the shared parenting arrangement they would be severely punished. The father continued to stalk and harass the mother and children. In one incident he yelled, screamed and cursed while knocking on the mother’s door at a time he was not scheduled for visitation. A neighbor heard him. After another incident, the police advised the mother to obtain a protective order.
Judge Amodeo was unavailable when her petition for a protective order was heard. The substitute judge heard Genia’s testimony (delete: the story) and gave the mother a protective order, custody and limited the father to visitation at the discretion of the mother. The mother allowed regular visitation, but only for a few hours at a time during the day.
Judge Amodeo moved up the hearing on the mother’s family offense petition giving her little notice, and she was unable to retain an attorney. I was somewhat skeptical when the mother described the hearing as an opportunity for the father’s attorney being allowed to make substantial false claims but in which she was never given a chance to respond. The transcript confirmed the mother’s report. Every time the mother asked when it was her turn, the judge talked over her, threatened her with contempt, but never gave her a chance to respond. The judge said he would like to change custody right then but decided to wait until she was represented. He watered down her protective order and restored the prior visitation arrangement.
At the actual trial, the father never presented any evidence to support his attorney’s accusations. When Genia appeared with an attorney, the judge gave the abusive father custody and limited the mother to supervised visitation.
This is the arrangement that the Saunders’ Study from the US Justice Department would later call a “harmful outcome” case. Saunders found it is always harmful to deny children a normal relationship with their primary attachment figure, resulting in an increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide for the children and harm which is greater than any benefit the judge thought he was creating.
Saunders’ found that these decisions are the result of the use of flawed practices. Genia sought my representation after the judge imposed this draconian arrangement. Genia told me that the regular practice was that the judge would immediately call a conference for attorneys at which her attorneys would agree to whatever the judge wanted.
The judge did call a conference, as predicted, and when it started, I introduced myself and explained my DV background. The judge immediately explained that he was an expert in DV. I knew this wasn’t true because he imposed an arrangement that cannot be beneficial for the victim or for the children. He also relied on an evaluation in which the “expert” said the mother was a strong and articulate woman so could not possibly need a DV advocate. No one with any understanding of DV dynamics would ever say that or accept this statement.
At the ensuing trial, all five of our expert witnesses expressed outrage at the absurd claim that Genia didn’t need a DV advocate. Forcing the judge to order a new evaluation in the middle of trial. The law guardian, who was strongly advocating for the father, said the custody switch to the father was based on Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).
Case law barred the use of PAS, and in an off the record conference, the judge claimed he was using parental alienation. PAS is not recognized as a disorder by the medical or legal communities and the theory and related research have been extensively criticized by legal and mental health scholars for lacking scientific validity and reliability. However, the separate but related concept of parental alienation, the estrangement of a child from a parent, recognized as a dynamic in some divorcing families harms children far less than living with an abusive father.
When I took Genia’s case, several other protective mothers in Dutchess contacted me to describe how they had been mistreated by Amodeo or the other judges. I also spoke with local DV advocates who expressed concern about the routine mistreatment of protective mothers by the courts in Dutchess County. Local DV advocates provided an unprecedented level of support for Genia in the hope it would change the system. There were well over a dozen court appearances and at every one, except the last, a dozen or more advocates were in the court to support Genia. To say the judge was hostile to the advocates would be an understatement. At the initial conference, the judge said he wouldn’t be intimidated by the women in the back of the room. The judge later imposed an illegal gag order and would warn each woman not to reveal anything said in court and made them say they agreed.
I filed a motion in the middle of the trial, one of the advocates signed an affidavit that described a discussion between the advocates and Genia. The judge yelled and screamed at the advocates saying he told them they were not to discuss what was said with ANYONE and banged the bench for emphasis. He threatened to hold the advocates in contempt.
Genia’s advocate was testifying that day. I asked her some questions about the role of an advocate and she explained the importance of an advocate discussing what happened in court with her client. After her testimony the judge said he didn’t mean the advocates could not speak with Genia; but that is exactly what he meant.
The only witness for the father was the father, and he was a poor witness. He admitted that he told Genia that he brought her here from Russia so she had no right to leave. He also said she would never get away from him. He confirmed that he had little involvement caring for the children during the relationship. He also admitted scratching or rubbing the children all over their bodies when they were almost naked but not on their genitals. The couple’s counselor and the son’s therapist testified this constituted sexual abuse.
The mother called 12 witnesses including five experts, plus the school nurse. The nurse described the difference in the girl‘s behavior after the judge took her mother away. Before the court decision, the child would skip around the school, holding hands with another girl, laughing and giggling. Afterwards, she walked alone, head down and depressed. The child came to the nurse with various health complaints until the father forbid her to see the nurse.
The judge decided he needed some witness to support what he wanted to do and called a conference to discuss appointing an evaluator after most of our experts had already testified. I said I would not consent unless the evaluator had DV expertise. The judge said he wanted someone with a little knowledge of DV and child abuse, but not too much because such experts always find abuse. He said the same thing on the record when he appointed the evaluator, but his statement disappeared from the transcript.
The court asked the evaluator to determine the issues of domestic violence and alienation. In her report, the evaluator said she could not determine the extent of the father’s DV to a CERTAINTY but then said she believed the mother PROBABLY made more negative statements about the father than the father made about the mother.
The evaluator did not recognize the fundamental due process and equal protection violations of holding the mother to a higher standard of proof and repeated her statements during cross-examination. I pointed out a recent report from the gender bias committee appointed by the NY Courts that specifically mentioned holding women to a higher standard of proof as a common example of gender bias. The evaluator also said she was influenced by her belief that the judge and law guardian wanted the father to have custody. These statements should have disqualified the evaluator, as well as the judge and law guardian.
The only way the appellate court could fail to overturn any decision based on these biased statements would be if the mistake did not affect the outcome. During cross-examination however, the evaluator admitted the father probably abused the mother, the children probably witnessed his abuse, the mother was the primary attachment figure, the mother probably suffered PTSD as a result of the father’s abuse and the children were not alienated.
Nevertheless, the judge used the discredited testimony from the evaluator to give custody to the father and limit the mother to supervised visitation. He also demonstrated his bias by engaging in personal attacks against the mother and her attorney.
With the custody decided, the judge now sought to move quickly on the economic issues before the appeal could be decided.
I received a call demanding I attend a hearing on short notice on a day I already had an afternoon trial scheduled in the Bronx. The issue was far from an emergency, so I called and requested a postponement, but the judge refused. This led to a very rapid heartbeat that was especially concerning because I had previously suffered a heart attack. I called back and again sought a postponement and told them about my heart issue. The judge demanded I appear anyway.
When I got to court, I again suffered the rapid heartbeat and asked to withdraw from the case for health reasons. Judge Amodeo looked at me and said I seemed fine. He demanded that I submit affidavits from my medical doctor and therapist. Affidavits were submitted by my doctor and therapist. They said that the distance from my office and the way the judge had mistreated me, including his failure to accommodate my health concerns made it unhealthy for me to continue in the case. The judge waited a few months and then used a different explanation for allowing me to withdraw. He certainly did not want to make a record that his mistreatment of me contributed to my need to withdraw.
No Limits to Judge’s Continued Cruelty
The abusive father asked the court for permission to move to Texas with the children. The judge again ordered the mother to appear on short notice, without an attorney, and without the advocates who supported her during every other appearance.
The judge kept making statements supporting the father and the mother kept saying objection in order to preserve her right to appeal. When I was an attorney and would object, the judge would say I had my exception and, then, I would stop. Instead, the judge never granted Genia her exception, but yelled at her and threatened her with contempt if she didn’t stop. She was afraid she would be waiving her right to appeal which was her only chance to save her children, so she continued to object when she felt it necessary. Judge Amodeo treated her objections as if they constituted contempt and sent her to jail for almost a month when she was 7 months pregnant. The judge received negative publicity as a result of his mistreatment of Genia and clearly resented his exposure.
I wrote an article asking the legislature to pass “Genia’s Law” so other mothers would not be similarly mistreated. The judge retaliated by filing a frivolous grievance against me.
Most of the charges in the Judge’s grievance claimed that my opinions and statements constituted lies. Unfortunately, the judge was influential and the grievance committee took the charges seriously. The fact that petitioning the legislature comes under the essence of First Amendment protection was totally ignored. The committee blindly supported every one of the judge’s charges except his complaint that I teared up in court as I considered the harm the judge did to the children.
One week before the scheduled oral argument on the custody appeal, I suffered a heart attack. Clearly, Amodeo was as bad a doctor as he was a judge. I remember being in the recovery room after stents were implanted and in tears begging the doctor to let me return to the courtroom and participate in the oral argument.
This was of course unrealistic and Genia’s appeal had to be postponed. The court records and briefs had already been submitted to the judges and I have always wondered if the delay caused the judges who heard the appeal not to have reviewed the record. They issued a short decision that failed to deal with any of the legal issues including the use of certainty against the mother and probability for the father. Clearly, a first year law student would have understood this fundamental violation of due process and equal protection required reversal. Significantly, the only factual statement the judges made was unquestionably wrong. They said the trial court was right to ignore the five experts because none had spoken to the parties or children, when these five experts included the couple’s counselor who obviously met with both parents and with whom the father discussed speaking with. The father submitted a transcript of his phone calls with the son’s therapist who also met with the children. There was no indication from the decision that the judges ever read the briefs or transcripts.
During the proceedings for my case, I warned the court that women were likely to die if they retaliated against me. I explained that it was already hard for victims to obtain effective representation and the retaliation would make it harder so that victims would choose to stay with their abusers. Some of them would not survive this decision. This is one time I wish I could have been wrong. The special master who tried the case did not understand the domestic violence parts but tried to act in good faith. He recommended dismissing some of the charges but not all of them. He also expressed concern about the violation of my First Amendment rights and asked the court to consider this issue.
The Appellate Division protected their colleague instead of the state’s children. They issued an opinion that failed to discuss any of the evidence or legal issues and supported all the bogus charges against me. In support of Judge Amodeo, they suspended my license for five years.
Judge Amodeo retired shortly after, although he had not reached retirement age. Was this part of some secret agreement? The entire mishandling of both cases certainly created an appearance of bias and conflict of interest.
More Tragedy in Dutchess County
Although I have tried to have nothing to do with Dutchess County as I sought to recover from the abuse and mistreatment I suffered. I decided to write a chapter for my second book with Dr. Mo Therese Hannah about the successful practices during the Quincy Model and thought it would be useful to compare the practices in Quincy to the failures in Dutchess County.
Dutchess County is a small community in New York State with a population of just 300,000. Not long after the Shockome case and the retaliation, Dutchess suffered five domestic violence homicides in a period of less than a year. Nine people died including five women murdered by their abusers and a police officer who rescued a child after its mother was killed by the father who, then, killed the officer.
After the first murder, the County Legislature asked the Citizens Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence consisting of professionals working in law enforcement, domestic violence and other related fields, to investigate the county response to domestic violence. The murders continued as the committee did their investigation.
The committee found many problems with the county’s response to domestic violence. Local judges were often unavailable for arraignments when abusers were arrested on evenings or weekends, resulting in the defendants being released before a protective order could be issued. Additionally, the county had cut funding for advocates working to prevent DV such as the advocates in law enforcement and in the prosecutor’s office. Protective orders that were issued were not as effectively enforced as they were in Quincy. One of the most important findings of the committee was the widespread failure of the courts and particularly custody courts to protect victims.
The committee also found that the courts were so supportive of abusers and hostile to victims that many women either never sought help from the courts or stopped seeking help when they found the courts were helping their abusers. The courts had been heavily influenced by the abuser rights movement and judges were often hostile to victims. After the publicity about jailing Ms. Shockome, at least a dozen other women came forward to report they were also mistreated by Judge Amodeo.
This is how the committee expressed its concerns.
“Some victims do not ever enter the court system or choose, after experiences with the court system, not to use it. Some have found that they do not trust the system and feel that rather than protecting them from their batterer, the system will actually cause retaliation and greater harm by their batterer. In other cases, victims have felt further victimized by the system due to the lack of understanding of domestic violence. Other victims feel lost or confused by the system and in cases such as with family court, they do not feel safe having to appear several times before a judge with their batterer in the same room.”
“There is a growing concern expressed that batterers have become more manipulative about using the court system to further abuse their partners. They seek and sometimes are awarded custody over a non-offending parent by using debunked theories such as Parental Alienation Syndrome.”
In other words, my criticism of the court and the judge were proven true and I had been punished for accurate complaints.
This outcome demonstrates the importance of the First Amendment. I made important statements that the community could have used to reform practices and prevent the subsequent tragedies. Instead, powerful authorities were permitted to censor unwelcome criticism that the judge and the court system didn’t want to hear. This demonstrates the fundamental conflict of interest the judges face that undermine their objectivity.
Another charge against me in Judge Amodeo’s complaint was that I made a motion to recuse Judge Amodeo after my first appearance. They (THEY WHO?) claimed I couldn’t possibly have a basis for making the motion so soon after entering the case. They were offended that I asked to remove the case from Dutchess County and offered to provide DV training for court professionals in Dutchess County. One of the reasons for my motion to recuse the Judge was that the judge imposed an extreme arrangement that I knew was always wrong and based on flawed practices. My understanding was later confirmed by the Saunders’ Study released by the National Institute of Justice.
It is extremely rare that court findings in an individual case would be disproved by subsequent reports released by neutral and highly credible sources. I made a motion asking the Appellate Division to vacate the decision against me based on the findings that most of the court’s conclusions were wrong. The court dismissed my motion without discussing the merits.
The Bigger Picture
One of the critical mistakes custody courts routinely make is to take each incident and each case separately. In doing so, they miss the overall patterns that are so critical to recognizing domestic violence. This incident based approach discourages courts from considering the far reaching motives of alleged abusers, particularly those who had limited involvement with the children until the mother decided to leave.
Judge Amodeo said that one of the other judges was a member of a “fathers’ rights” group but Amodeo was proud that he remained neutral by speaking with both DV and “fathers’ rights” groups. He viewed DV and the fathers’ rights groups, who often support abusers, as equivalent groups on opposite sides of a public issue. In reality, the abuser groups seek to undermine DV laws, eliminate child support and, in some cases, permit sex between adults and children. They have developed sophisticated tactics to manipulate the courts.
DV organizations, on the other hand, seek to promote the purposes of existing laws the courts are supposed to enforce to prevent domestic violence. To say it another way, DV advocates are the experts in the community that help us recognize and prevent DV. The abusers oppose effective enforcement of the laws the courts are supposed to uphold.It is a mistake to create a false equivalency between advocates trying to prevent DV and abusers seeking to deny and minimize the repercussions of their abuse.
The success of the Quincy Model offers valuable lessons about how to prevent DV crimes. They established that making it easier for victims to leave their abusers is an important factor in reducing DV crime.
The outdated and discredited practices used by custody courts in response to DV reports makes it far harder for victims to leave their abusers. Increasingly, the danger of losing their children is an answer as to why women stay in an abusive relationship. Routinely, abusers threaten mothers with losing their children and bankruptcy if they dare to leave. Abusers also use aggressive litigation tactics to fulfill their threats, but the courts tend to be oblivious to this litigation abuse because they rarely look at motives.
The consequences to our country of the custody court failures are devastating. For decades, the DV homicide rate fell as victims found it easier to seek prosecution, support, divorce, protective orders, shelter and other assistance in trying to leave abusive situations. This progress has been stopped and in some communities, like Dutchess, reversed by the success of abuser legal tactics to regain control or punish their victims.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) research from the CDC demonstrates the harm of exposure to DV and related trauma is far greater than previously realized. Our present rate of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, crime, substance abuse, suicide and many other health and social problems is based on our long tolerance for what we now call domestic violence and child abuse. DV custody cases are often the last chance to save the children from the awful consequences of exposure to some of the adverse childhood experiences.
The United States spends over $1 trillion addressing the fallout from domestic violence. Most of the expense is in health costs, crime and the loss to society when victims and children fail to reach their economic potential. This is a huge drag on our economy but we don’t notice because we are used to a society where DV is tolerated.
The Quincy Model started, in part, because District Attorney Bill Delahunt believed that if he could prevent DV it would reduce all crimes. It turned out he was right. Children exposed to DV and child abuse are far more likely to commit crimes when they grow up. Over half of the mass shootings in this country were committed by DV abusers. In the past ten years more than 600 children involved in contested custody have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers.
Dutchess County is not the only community to suffer calamitous harm from the failure of the custody court system. Rather, we have definitive information about Dutchess because they conducted extensive research into their problem with the response to DV. The DV agencies in Dutchess provided an unusual level of support to Genia Shockome because they were concerned about the court failures and recognized Genia’s strength, and the strength of the case she could present. Many other DV organizations, both locally and nationally, have failed to treat the problem in the custody courts with the priority it deserves. All the other work these good organizations are doing is undermined by the ability of abusers to manipulate custody cases.
Family courts developed their response to DV at a time when no research was available. The popular assumption was that DV was caused by mental illness, substance abuse and the actions of the victim. This led courts to turn to mental health professionals as if they were the experts in DV. We now know that the original assumptions were wrong, but courts have been slow to change failed practices.
We now have a specialized body of research that comes from highly credible sources like the US Justice Department and CDC. The courts, like the rest of society, could use this research to better recognize and respond to DV reports. Instead, they continue to listen to professionals who are experts in psychology and mental illness, but not DV or child sexual abuse. A few hours of training often given by other mental health professionals does not provide the needed expertise. The Saunders’ Study found the courts in Dutchess need a multi-disciplinary approach that includes DV advocates. I’d proffer that all US courts could likewise benefit.
Change sentence order sequence: The reliance on mental health professionals for abuse cases is the equivalent of going to a general practitioner when the patient has cancer or heart disease. Some professionals are hostile to any reforms because the present system works well for them financially. Others have a defensive response to information that exposes the widespread failure to protect children.
We have the research and expertise to improve family court practices to better protect victims and to protect children. The Safe Child Act is a legislative proposal that puts together best practices to respond to custody cases involving reports of DV and child abuse. The Safe Child Act promotes that the health and safety of children must be the first priority.
It’s hard to believe the courts didn’t figure this out a long time ago.
Research and knowledge now available can dramatically reduce DV crimes based on successful practices utilized in communities like Quincy, Nashville and San Diego. These best practices would save enormous financial resources and even more human resources. Life expectancy and the quality of lives would be greatly improved by implementation of best practices.
We must make DV prevention a much higher priority. The needless suffering of our children is unconscionable.
Judge Amodeo and his law assistant who succeeded him after his retirement deliberately kept control of the Shockome case even after the children were moved to Texas. When the Texas courts finally had a chance to take a fresh look at the circumstances, they ruled that the children should live with their mother.
The Texas court scheduled therapy sessions to reunite the mother and children. But, by the time the therapy could start, the father had so poisoned the children against their mother that the relationship could not be salvaged. Before Amodeo intervened, the children had a close and loving relationship with their mother. He allowed an abusive father to destroy the relationship based on his conception of alienation. IRONIC
Judge Amodeo was concerned with how the case impacted his career and reputation. However he forgot the case was supposed to be about the children.
Children whose lives he ruined.