My name is Barry Goldstein, and I am the author of 5 of the leading books about domestic violence and child custody. The publisher of my books requires cites to sound scientific research for anything we want to say, so I am very familiar with this research. Most of the testimony you will hear will be based on subjective opinions and bogus research. I think it is essential to provide objective opinions and context so you can make the best decisions possible.
Every year, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. In the last ten years, over 650 children involved in contested custody or related matters have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers. In a follow-up study, Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges and court administrators from the communities where the tragedies occurred. She asked what reforms had been adopted in response to the tragedy. The shocking answer was nothing because they all assumed it was an exception. This is similar to the defensive response after the court failed to protect Aaden Moreno. One-quarter of our children will be sexually assaulted by the time they reach 18. Part of the reason is that although mothers involved in contested custody make deliberate false reports less than 2% of the time, custody courts disbelieve 94% of child sexual abuse reports and the alleged abuser wins custody in 85% of the cases.
Family courts have a fundamental misconception about the cases they are asked to respond to. Most cases are settled more or less amicably. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that require trial and often much more. Court professionals are taught to treat contested custody as “high conflict” by which they assume both parents are acting out of anger towards the former partner and hurting children in the process. In reality a large majority of contested cases involve the worst domestic violence abusers, men who believe she had no right to leave. Abuser groups have developed despicable tactics that include seeking custody and using bogus alienation theories to regain the control they believe they are entitled to. These are the cases that result in the deaths of mothers, children and bystanders. More commonly the child survives but the exposure to abuse ruins their lives.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies are medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so highly credible. The research found that children exposed to domestic violence, child abuse and other traumas will live shorter lives and suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. Significantly it is not the immediate physical injury that courts typically focus on but living with the fear and stress that causes most of the harm. Courts that fail to integrate the ACE Research in their work minimize the harm caused by exposure to abuse, fail to recognize true reports of abuse and ignore harmful abuse that is considered too remote or not severe enough.
The Saunders’ Study from the US Justice Department was designed to consider the domestic violence knowledge of evaluators, judges and lawyers. Saunders found these professionals need specific knowledge that includes screening for DV, risk assessment, post-separation violence and the impact of DV on children. Most court professionals don’t have this information and this causes them to instead focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports and unscientific alienation theories. These mistakes lead to decisions that harm children. Significantly, for your work, when professionals promote and use alienation theories, they are demonstrating their lack of qualification to handle abuse cases.
No judge wants to hurt children, but they cannot and have not protected children as long as they fail to include current scientific research like ACE and Saunders. In cases in which children have been exposed to one or more ACEs the most important question is whether there is anything we can do now to save children from the dreadful consequences. I asked doctors working with ACE this question as part of my research for my Quincy book. These precious children can be saved but it would take approaches opposite what courts typically do now.
They will need therapy and medical treatment both to respond to immediate problems and to reduce their stress. The Saunders’ study found that abusers use the power provided by shared parenting to block the needed treatment because they are more concerned with control then the well-being of the children. The children also cannot be exposed to further abuse or else they will continue to live with the fear and stress that causes the harm. The bias to keep even abusive fathers in children’s lives is not in the child’s best interest but rather takes away the last chance to save the child. Instead of pressuring mothers and children to accommodate the abuser, the courts need to force the abuser to change his behavior if he wants a relationship with the children.
There are parents who seek to alienate children and even parents in intact families make negative statements about the other parent. This is simply bad behavior and not a mental health issue that has made professionals large incomes but harmed children. PAS was concocted by Gardner, not based on any research but only his personal experience, beliefs and biases. His beliefs include many public statements that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. I cannot imagine there is anyone on the committee or any judges that would want to be associated with such repugnant beliefs. That is why the American Psychiatric Association rejected PAS and did not include it in the DSM-5. They found it has no scientific basis. No reputable professional organization supports PAS, but it is promoted by abusers and the cottage industry of professionals that make large incomes helping abusers.
I did extensive research in preparation for writing a chapter about shared parenting for one of my books. There is some legitimate research that would support shared parenting under the best conditions. This would include parents who can communicate well, voluntarily want shared parenting, have equal power and live nearby. I believe the better research finds that shared parenting is harmful because it is so disruptive to children. Today, although the laws try to limit shared parenting it is routinely used in inappropriate cases because courts use it as an easy way to resolve difficult cases. Domestic violence victims are often pressured to accept shared parenting with their abuser or punished if they try to protect their children. Courts that fail to use ACE and Saunders’ routinely disbelieve true reports of abuse. The common misapplication of shared parenting is an important reason why most arrangements don’t last. The expectation that it will save court time and resources is illusory.
I often compare the ACE Research to the Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking to cancer. As a society we used a variety of tools to discourage smoking. This has saved millions of lives and billions of dollars. Dr. Vincent Felitti, the lead author of the original ACE Study believes prevention is the best use for his research. Our society has a long history of tolerating behavior we would now call domestic violence and child abuse. Our present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, crime and many other health and social problems is based on our present level of domestic violence and child abuse. If we take effective steps to prevent abuse and hold the offenders accountable, these scourges of society can be drastically reduced just like we did by reducing smoking.
I must tell you that for me this issue is personal. Every day I hear new stories where children are killed and abused and have their lives ruined. It hurts more because we could use the research now available to save these precious children. We don’t need approaches favored by abusers that will only hurt children more. Please stop wasting your time on harmful approaches that fly in the face of good scientific research. I hope this issue will become personal to you and you will seek to use the research and expertise of trauma-informed experts so you can be on the side of people who are too young to vote for you.
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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.