Faith Was Misplaced: Now Faith is Lost

Another fatal child custody decision leads to another child suicide. Custody courts are in crisis. Children are paying the price. This child was 13 years old. Her name was Faith. Another child who could have been protected if the custody courts put the health and safety of children before anything else. Courts need to be informed by the latest research. This is Faith’s story, and what the custody court could have done to protect her.

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The court misplaced its faith in “high conflict” approaches, shared parenting and minimizing the significance of domestic violence. This led the court to misplace Faith with her abusive father. Now Faith is lost forever and more protective mothers have lost faith in the broken court system.

A few months ago, I wrote an article in which I issued a warning to judges, evaluators, caseworkers and legislators. Warning, any attempt to adjudicate custody cases involving possible domestic violence or child abuse without using current scientific research like ACE and Saunders’ will ruin children’s lives!

Faith was not murdered, but my warning was not enough to save her life.

Scientific research from highly credible sources like the CDC and US Justice Department confirm that family courts have failed to update their responses to abuse cases and this places children in jeopardy. The one time we see judges admit something is wrong, even if they don’t recognize their mistakes, is when they provide alleged abusers access to children that abusers use to murder the children.

In the last ten years, over 600 children involved in contested custody were murdered. Most of the murders were committed by abusive fathers and many were a direct result of the outdated practices still used in custody courts.

Dr. Dianne Bartlow conducted research based on these court-assisted murders. She asked judges and court administrators in the communities where these tragedies were committed what reforms have been implemented in response to the murders.The answer was none because they all assumed the tragedy in their community was an exception.

It is normal for court professionals to be defensive in response to a death they could have prevented, but if we are to keep the faith with a girl named Faith; it is important to study the causes of her death and create the reforms needed to prevent other children from suffering a similar fate.

Faith’s Story Is All Too Common

Faith was born in British Columbia to an abusive father and a protective mother. Her mother was her primary attachment figure. When her parents separated, the court was using a high-conflict approach and promoting shared parenting.

The mother’s attorney strongly encouraged her not to raise the abuse issues. This led to a shared parenting relationship. Initially Faith lived primarily with her mother, but this was changed when she was five because the court found the father’s work schedule more conducive to Faith’s schooling.

Although shared parenting should have involved equal decision-making rights, the father unilaterally created significant obstacles to the mother’s visitation. The mother’s frequent inability to find work near where the father was living made visitation more difficult but the father sought to maximize the problems in order to limit the mother’s contact. The mother was forced to pay all the transportation expenses and the father frequently scheduled alternate activities to further interfere with visitation.

The father and his wife constantly spoke negatively about the mother to Faith, blamed the mother for the limited visitation and did everything possible to undermine the relationship. For a few years the father sent Faith to a therapist who was hostile to the mother in part because of false information provided by the father. The therapist also had a conflict of interest. The mother’s efforts to obtain a more neutral and supportive therapist were thwarted.

When Faith was about ten, the mother had an acrimonious phone conversation with Faith’s stepmother. During the conversation, the mother referenced the history of abuse, the lies they had told Faith and all the efforts to undermine the relationship. The mother later learned that Faith had listened to the conversation on another phone. About an hour later Faith called her mother to confront her about what she had heard.

The mother made repeated attempts to convince the court to change Faith’s residence but they were unsuccessful. At times Faith expressed a desire to live with her mother but at other times said she wanted to stay with her father. One of the risks of placing a child with an abuser is the child is afraid to express her feelings.

Not surprisingly, Faith’s mental health deteriorated under this arrangement. One of the father’s harmful tactics was involving Faith in the litigation. In the last court appearance the judge ordered the parents to arrange new therapy for Faith and again asked the parties to refrain from discussing the litigation with Faith. The father immediately discussed the case with Faith and this greatly contributed to her downward spiral. He also deliberately delayed any treatment. The pain was too much for Faith to endure and she killed herself shortly after her 13th birthday.

Flawed Practices Leading to Tragedy

The road to Faith’s death started with an attorney who strongly pressured the mother not to present any evidence about the father’s domestic violence. Unfortunately, his mistaken approach is all too common in the present legal system. Among the common reasons for this approach is ignorance of the enormous harm caused by exposure to domestic violence; emphasis on the need to keep even abusive fathers in children’s lives; support of abusive beliefs; gender bias; concern that advocating for the mother by presenting domestic violence evidence will harm the lawyer’s relationship with the judge and concern the judge will punish the mother because the judge doesn’t want to hear about domestic violence.

Only the last concern would be a legitimate reason to consider limiting the evidence presented but this decision should be up to the mother. Concern about his other cases or career is a fundamental conflict of interest that violated fundamental ethical considerations. An attorney is not permitted to undermine one client’s case in order to help other clients.

The attorney deserves substantial blame for his actions that prevented the judge from having information that was needed to understand the full risk to Faith. The court system must also share the blame for its actions that encouraged the lawyer’s bad actions. The courts must avoid decisions and other behavior that encourages the perception that judges do not want to hear about abuse.

Decisions that minimize the significance of abuse, or discredit reports of abuse for non-probative reasons, strongly support lawyers’ harmful beliefs. Even worse are actions that retaliate against mothers for continuing to believe the father is dangerous. The widespread failure of courts to integrate current scientific research and to obtain the kind of multi-disciplinary training recommended in the Saunders’ Study sends a harmful message that minimizes the importance of abuse issues. Judges and other court professionals need information about domestic violence in a given case and must know how to recognize the abuse and the consequences from abuse.

The court failed Faith by using the common “high conflict” approach that is not supported by current research. Most custody cases, like any litigation are settled more or less amicably. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that require trial and often much more. A very large majority of contested cases (75-90%) involve domestic violence.  

The worst abusers use custody to regain what they believe is their right to control their partner by seeking custody and using the litigation to bankrupt the mother. These abusers usually have not committed the most severe physical assaults which is what inadequately trained professionals look for. These are the cases most likely to end in death so courts should handle them very cautiously. Courts cannot assume the father is abusive just because of the statistics, but they can look closely at the motives and tactics of the parties.

High conflict assumes that the parties are angry at each other and act out in ways harmful to the children.  Accordingly, the courts seek to promote cooperation between the parents and use a variety of professionals to teach them to work together on parenting. This creates a false equivalency between an abuser who believes he is entitled to control his victim and the victim who courts often punish for trying to protect the children from a man she experienced as scary.

The approach works great for abusers who seek custody to gain access to their victim, but is a disaster for victims who often have a choice of doing what she knows is best for the children or what would help her case. Dozens of court-sponsored gender bias committees have found widespread bias against women litigants and a common example is blaming mothers for the actions of their abusers. This is exactly what the high conflict approach encourages by blaming mothers who don’t want to cooperate with their abusers. Requiring abusers to change their behavior if they want a relationship with the children is an approach that would benefit children.

By forcing abuser and victim to cooperate, the courts promote substantial extra business for court professionals. This also encourages professionals to make findings and recommendations that promote this business. This approach helps abusers bankrupt their victims which is one of their objectives. Shared parenting is completely inappropriate in abuse cases. If it is safe and possible for both parents to have unsupervised visitation, the research demonstrates that parallel parenting is a better practice. The idea is to minimize contact between the parents which is the opposite of what high conflict approaches encourage.

High conflict approaches are closely aligned with the promotion of shared parenting.  There is good research that shared parenting is never beneficial for children because of the disruptions in their lives. There is legitimate research that shared parenting can be beneficial under the best of circumstances in which the parents get along well, are able to communicate and cooperate and live nearby. There is no legitimate research that supports shared parenting if the best circumstances do not apply and that clearly should eliminate high conflict cases.  

Judges often view shared parenting as a good and quick solution to difficult cases. This is a short-term approach because shared parenting cases constantly return to court because it is an inappropriate arrangement for the families involved. It may help a judge meet standards and goals but it only adds to the burdens faced by the court system. And worst of all it, works poorly for children.

I have heard judges and lawyers for abusers promote shared parenting because no abuse has (yet) been proven. One problem with this belief is that if one of the parties believes or reports abuse, the relationship is so far from best of circumstances that shared parenting won’t work. And courts should be aware that they frequently fail to recognize true reports of abuse because they are not relying on current scientific research and often use the wrong experts.

In Faith’s case, the parents needed to return to court many times, the shared parenting never worked as it was supposed to and the court didn’t know until Faith was dead that the decision was hurting her so badly.

Primary attachment is a non-controversial theory supported by scientific research that most court professionals have at least passing knowledge of. Most court professionals know that children benefit from a relationship with their primary attachment figure but don’t understand the full risk of denying this to children. The parent who provides most of the child care during the first two years of the child’s life is and always will be the child’s primary attachment figure. In this case there is no dispute that the mother was Faith’s primary attachment figure.  

Children, like Faith who are denied a normal relationship with their primary attachment figure are at increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide. In other words, the ability of the father to use and abuse his authority to severely limit the mother’s contact with Faith and to undermine that relationship is directly connected to the tragic outcome in this case.

This research means that when all other factors are relatively equal it is better to keep the child with her primary attachment figure. Even while imposing shared parenting the court initially ordered the child to live primarily with her mother. This changed when Faith was five based on the father’s schedule being more conducive for her education.  

This is a legitimate consideration, but it appears the court never weighed the schedule issue with primary attachment which is a health and safety concern. The risk was even greater when the father repeatedly used his power to interfere and limit Faith’s contact with her primary attachment figure. The judiciary should be concerned that this potentially fatal decision was made and continued without any meaningful consideration of the full risks they created. Put another way, primary attachment should be given greater weight.

This case occurred in the context of a court system in Canada which just like the United States and most other developed countries continue to rely on practices from the 1970s at a time when little or no research about domestic violence was available. Many of the original assumptions have proven wrong but the courts have failed to integrate current scientific research like ACE and Saunders.

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study from the CDC demonstrates that exposure to domestic violence and child abuse is far more consequential than previously understood. Most of the harm is caused by living with the fear that causes stress and leads to a lifetime of health and social problems. Suicide is one of the common risks from exposure to ACEs and a contested custody case is often the last chance to save the child from the consequences.

When the court continued to force Faith to live with her father and allowed his control tactics that interfered with Faith’s relationship with her mother, the court took away Faith’s last chance for a full and healthy life. I believe it is significant that high conflict demands the parties and children “get over it” but ACE establishes that the court can force children to interact with abusers but cannot remove the fear and stress that is so harmful.

The Saunders’ Study demonstrates that many and probably most evaluators, judges and lawyers do not have the specific domestic violence knowledge needed to recognize and respond to domestic violence and child abuse.

Saunders’ specifically found that shared parenting is harmful in domestic violence cases because abusers use decision making to maintain their control and use exchanges to harass or even assault the victims. In other words the tragedy in this case was predictable and preventable The failure to use credible scientific research is not neutral. The ignorance helps abusers and harms protective mothers and their children.

The purpose of abusers, who often had little involvement with child care during the relationship, seeking custody, is to pressure the victim to return or punish her for leaving.  Shared parenting is often a stepping stone towards full custody that they could not win initially because the mother is the primary attachment figure. We have seen a pattern of abusive fathers gaining custody based on the court’s belief he would be the parent more likely to promote the relationship with the mother.

Once they gain control, however they use common abuser tactics to destroy the relationship between the child and mother.  Abusers understand the best way to hurt mothers is to hurt their children. Although this father never had sole custody, he used the tactics of interfering with visitation and doing everything possible to undermine the mother’s relationship. The court in this case never understood the connection between these tactics and his history of abuse.

The failed practices of the child protective agency lost another opportunity to save this girl. One of the common mistakes of caseworkers and law enforcement is to take abuse reports less seriously when they occur in the context of contested custody. The Bala study provides clear guidance about false reports, and the findings are the opposite from what most professionals assume. Mothers involved in contested custody make deliberate false reports less than 2% of the time. This means there is no reason to approach these reports with the extreme skepticism we often see.

Fathers in contested custody are 16 times more likely than mothers to make deliberate false reports. Initially this statistic sounds off because it is hard to believe mothers are sixteen times more honest than fathers. The study however is limited to contested custody which, as discussed earlier involve the worst abusers. They believe she has no right to leave so they are entitled to use any tactic necessary to regain what they believe is their right to control her. This means that professionals would be right to treat fathers’ reports with the kind of skepticism they now use only against mothers  I appreciate that caseworkers tend to have heavy caseloads and are looking for shortcuts to handle all these cases. Cases involving domestic violence and contested custody are extremely dangerous and are not the cases to take shortcuts.

The Greenbook Initiative is a group of best practices developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. One of the recommendations is for child protective agencies to partner with domestic violence agencies. They can cross-train staffs and when a possible domestic violence case occurs caseworkers can take advocates to the home or at least consult with domestic violence advocates.  Communities that use these best practices are better able to recognize domestic violence and create arrangements that benefit children.

Solution

The Safe Child Act is a comprehensive proposal based on scientific research that can be used to safeguard children like Faith who are exposed to adverse childhood experiences. It would require that courts make the health and safety of children the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. This approach was not used when the primary residence was changed to the abusive father. Courts would be required to integrate current scientific research like ACE and Saunders and use a multi-disciplinary approach as recommended by Saunders.   

The Safe Child Act would require an early hearing in abuse cases limited to abuse issues. This avoids distractions with less important issues that abusers often use to confuse the issues. If the courts find abuse, the children will be protected and there is no need to spend many months or years on expensive litigation. As mothers rarely make deliberate false reports, the early hearing should resolve most cases. This will save courts and litigants substantial time and resources and most importantly help courts reach outcomes that protect children.  

Judges and other court professionals would receive training based on the knowledge Saunders found to be needed and retraining so that many standard but harmful practices can be eliminated. Domestic violence agencies would receive additional financial support so they can participate in training judges about domestic violence and to train advocates to serve as expert witnesses.

Conclusion

No judge wants to make a decision that leads to the death of a child. The last thing they want is to be part of a front page story about a father who murdered a child after the judge gave him access. Instead of studying these cases in order to prevent more murders, these tragedies have mostly been dismissed as if they were exceptions.

As Faith’s case illustrates, an immediate homicide is not the only way these bad decisions cost children their lives. Whether a child dies of murder, suicide, drug overdose, drunk-driving accident or later from cancer, heart disease or diabetes, the harm caused by the court decision is catastrophic. The only difference is that when the death is more separated from the uninformed decision, court professionals are even less likely to learn from their bad practices.

Significantly, it is the same bad practices and foolish risks that led to the 600 child murders in the last ten years and also led to Faith’s suicide that less dramatically lead to a lifetime of health and social problems, enormous pain and suffering and early deaths in a variety of ways.

The failure of courts, child protective agencies, law enforcement, legislatures and the media to investigate these tragedies and demand reforms is scandalous. The fact that we have substantial scientific research from highly credible sources that could have saved Faith and so many other children, but the courts continue to ignore this research is outrageous.  

As a society we failed Faith.  She will never have the full life she deserved and her potential is lost forever. I hope Canadian authorities will fully investigate this preventable tragedy and include current research and domestic violence experts as part of their investigation. I hope they will implement the reforms necessary to keep children safe and that authorities throughout the world will study the problem and create the reforms before the next child loses her life.

Imagine how different the world could be if Faith could have been the first child saved instead of the latest to die. As a society, we failed Faith and there is nothing we can do now to bring her back. The only thing we can do now to keep our faith with Faith is to learn from the mistakes that caused Faith to lose faith.

Barry Goldstein

Barry Goldstein

Research Director

Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate.
 
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.
 
 
 
 
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign. 
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