Dirty little secret: Courts ignore most dangerous risk

Only recently have researchers started to count child murders associated with contested custody cases. The Dastardly Dads blog found news stories about 175 murders during a two-year-period. The research was expanded by the Center for Judicial Excellence. They found that in the last ten years over 650 children involved in contested custody or related matters have been murdered mostly by abusive fathers. The court system failed to recognize the risk or the pattern because they are focused on looking at each case and each issue separately.

Research by Dr. Dianne Bartlow found that courts failed to create reforms in response to these tragedies because court leaders each assumed the murder in their community was an exception.

Courts routinely create shared parenting arrangements without considering the danger

Much less is known about the number of deaths caused by the use of shared parenting in inappropriate cases. The calculation is more difficult because the deaths come from murder, suicide, drug overdoses and health risks. Murder victims can include the children, partner, family members and bystanders. Not all shared parenting decisions are dangerous, but courts routinely create a shared parenting arrangement without considering the danger or knowing how many people die from these decisions. It may be impossible to know how many lives could have been saved, but I believe experts could create a reasonable estimate if only courts understood its importance.

Shared parenting was originally promoted by good parents who wanted to work together to raise their children. Shared parenting involves sharing decision-making and usually includes a roughly equal division of parenting time. Researchers, acting in good faith, but without the necessary understanding of domestic violence have created research that supports shared parenting under the most favorable conditions. This would include parents who can communicate effectively, are able to cooperate and live nearby.

In cases involving domestic violence the inequality and fear caused by exposure to abuse make shared parenting unsafe and dangerous

Most state laws specifically bar shared parenting in cases involving domestic violence because the inequality and fear caused by exposure to abuse make shared parenting unsafe and dangerous. Researchers without domestic violence expertise mistakenly assume that abuse cases can be screened out so they fail to consider this giant risk.

Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably because both parents love their children and would not deliberately harm them. The problem is the 3.8% of custody cases that require trial and often much more. Courts treat these as “high conflict” cases but the research establishes a large majority involve domestic violence. The worst abusers use custody to regain what they believe is their right to control their partner.

Courts routinely fail to recognize abuse because they are using outdated practices

They are willing to harm the child because it is the best way to hurt the mother. Courts routinely fail to recognize abuse because they are using outdated practices instead of Safe Parenting based on current research, multi-disciplinary approaches and an emphasis on keeping children safe and healthy.

Abusers would normally have a difficult time winning custody because their abuse is extremely harmful and the mother is usually the primary attachment figure. Abuser groups promote shared parenting as a first step to regain control. Judges with huge caseloads need to settle cases in order to complete their work. The abuser has no incentive to settle because courts rarely limit visitation despite the history of abuse. Accordingly, the best way to settle is to pressure protective mothers to accept shared parenting.

Examples of Deaths from Shared Parenting

Faith’s fate was decided by a court that strongly favored shared parenting. Her mother was the primary attachment figure and her father was an abuser, but the mother’s attorney discouraged any reports of abuse and the court was happy to award shared parenting. Initially she enjoyed primary residence with her mother. When she was five the court switched the residence to her abusive father because his work schedule was more conducive to her school schedule.

As abusers tend to do, the father used this authority to make all the decisions. He repeatedly interfered with the mother’s visitation, discussed the court case with Faith and constantly criticized the mother. The father selected a therapist who was hostile to the mother based on what the father told her. Over time Faith’s mental health deteriorated. At the last court hearing the judge ordered therapy with a new therapist but the father delayed any treatment. Shortly after her 13th birthday, Faith could no longer stand the pain and committed suicide.

Kalina was another girl whose life was ruined by a dangerous shared parenting order. Again, the mother was the primary attachment figure and the father was an abuser. The court-required shared parenting with Kalina and forced her to move between households every week.

Kalina decided she wanted to become a vegetarian. Her mother was supportive but her father was hostile. Aside from the negative remarks, he force-fed meat down her throat. Kalina was especially uncomfortable with his demands to weigh her several times and day and dictate what she should wear when weighed.  Her abuser also threatened to demand the school monitor what she was eating. The father’s abuse led to an eating disorder and extended hospitalization. She told the staff of her fear of the father and had involuntary physical reactions when he visited her. Nevertheless, the hospital staff refused to support or protect her in part because of the court order.

At one point, Kalina told her mother, “I wish he would hit me, it would hurt less.” The mother tried to obtain appropriate therapy for Kalina, but the father always used the powers provided by shared parenting to prevent the needed treatment. The Saunders Study found that abusers use decision-making authority from shared parenting to regain control by thwarting any decision the mother supports. Abusers especially seek to prevent therapy because the child is likely to reveal his abuse.

Kalina overcame her eating disorder. She did well when with her mother but suffered with her father. She finally could not live with the pain and killed herself. The father’s control did not even end with her death He stopped the donation of her organs to other children which was one of her last wishes.

In a recent Idaho case, the father, Edward Epps had a long history of abuse. This included several murder threats against his children and ex-wife, Heidi DeLeon. The mother was deathly afraid of the father and made several attempts to get help both from the court and support groups for protective mothers. Despite the history of abuse, fear caused by the father and unequal power, the court gave the abuser 50% custody.

The mother finally obtained a protective order against the father. He responded by forcing his way into the house He shot and killed Heidi and her husband Jose DeLeon. The three children were in the home at the time of the murders. The 13-year-old-girl ran to a neighbor to get help. The abuser held the two younger girls hostage. Eventually he released the girls before killing himself.

The case involving Ron Lee Haskell started in Utah and ended in Texas. He had a history of domestic violence that included convictions and protective orders. He also attempted to strangle his mother. Attempted strangulation is an important risk factor for domestic violence homicide. His abuse was so bad that he was limited to supervised visitation. This is significant because courts have a strong bias to give fathers normal visitation even when they are dangerous. The Utah court knew he posed an enormous risk but still awarded him shared parenting which inevitably increases his contact with his most likely victims.

Haskell sought to learn the whereabouts of his ex-wife by going to the home of her sister in Texas. On his second visit, he tied up her sister, brother-in-law and their five children. When they refused to tell him where to find his ex-wife, he executed everyone by shooting them in the head. Miraculously, the oldest child, Cassidy, survived and played dead. After he left, she called the police and he was arrested before he could kill other family members.

Jeffrey Mancuso was another abusive father with a long history of domestic and other violence. One of his many criminal convictions was for biting off part of the ear of his victim. He was barred from his daughter’s school for repeatedly harassing school officials. The evaluator found serious mental health problems including depression and a potential for suicide. Mancuso assaulted the mother while she was pregnant, harmed a dog and engaged in stalking.

The Saunders Study found that court professionals need training in risk assessment. All of these actions are associated with increased lethality, but the judge had no training in risk assessment. His daughter, Kayden expressed her fear of her father but again the judge was unfamiliar with the ACE Research and so did not understand the significance of this fact. Instead the judge focused on the fact that the father had not physically assaulted Kayden.

Domestic violence experts know that most contested cases involve the worst abusers. These are men who believe the mother has no right to leave. Despite the long history of violence and abuse, the Pennsylvania judge gave Mancuso shared parenting and access to Kayden. He used his access to kill Kayden and then himself.

The father left a note expressing his intent to hurt the mother by killing their daughter. This is exactly the risk from men who believe she has no right to leave. Unfortunately, the judge was trained to treat contested cases as “high conflict” so never considered that it was a domestic violence case where the father sought custody to regain control over the mother.

Conclusion

Most shared parenting arrangements do not lead to the kind of dramatic and immediate catastrophes that occurred in the five examples discussed above. At the same time these tragedies are not rare exceptions. The frequency of deaths related to shared parenting is certainly understated because the public often does not hear about some of these deaths and few people would connect deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, auto accidents and illness with the fear, stress and adverse childhood experiences caused by giving shared parenting to abusers.

Two important factors undermine the ability of courts to prevent shared parenting with dangerous abusers. Fundamentally settlements are focused on what both parties can be convinced to accept rather than the well-being of children. Abusers tend to be uncompromising and good at manipulation so court professionals place most of the pressure on victims to accept shared parenting. The mistaken belief that contested custody involves “high conflict” focus the courts on pressuring cooperation and fail to consider the motive of dangerous abusers who make up most of the fathers involved in contested custody. Common stereotypes and gender bias encourage courts to assume “scorned” women are acting out of anger when in most cases they are trying to protect children from men they have experienced as scary. Judges, at the start of the case believe they cannot restrict allegedly abusive fathers because no abuse has yet been proven. Accordingly, the courts immediately demand the parents cooperate with each other and abusers gain access that can be used to silence the children. Mothers who resist cooperation are severely punished. This creates a huge disadvantage for protective mothers for the remainder of the litigation.

More generally, custody courts continue to rely on practices from the 1970s when no research was available. Few courts have implemented the ACE Research that found exposure to domestic violence and child abuse is far more harmful than previously understood and most of the harm is caused by the fear and stress created by abusers rather than immediate physical injuries. The Saunders Study found court professionals mostly do not have the specific domestic violence knowledge needed to recognize and respond to abuse cases.

The failure to integrate important scientific research results in continued use of demonstrably mistaken practices such as: considering only recent and severe physical abuse; failure to look for a pattern of abuse; assuming the end of a relationship ends the risk of domestic violence; assuming fathers successful in other parts of their lives could not be dangerous; relying exclusively on experts in psychology instead of domestic violence and child sexual abuse; placing enormous value on bogus alienation theories; failure to make the health and safety of children the first priority; tolerating gender bias; and accepting the myth that mothers frequently make false reports.

The failure to integrate current scientific research from highly credible sources that go to the essence of the best interests of the child is not neutral. This mistake favors abusive fathers and places protective mothers and their children in jeopardy.

We need to know how many children have died because of shared parenting

I understand the court system responds defensively to criticism and would like to believe that the child murders and deaths related to shared parenting are exceptions. I think they need to answer some very direct questions.

How can the court system give shared parenting to clearly dangerous fathers like Ray Lee Haskell, Jeffrey Mancuso and Edward Epps?

Why don’t courts err on the side of safety when dealing with the precious lives of children?

Why don’t courts investigate tragedies to determine if reforms can be made to keep children safer?

How can courts possibly protect children when they aren’t using current scientific research and fail to use the multi-disciplinary approach recommended by Saunders?

The same mistakes that led to the 11 deaths in the examples I discussed more commonly cause children to suffer further abuse that leads to a lifetime of health and social problems.

Before another court creates a risky shared parenting arrangement, we need to know how many children have died because of shared parenting.

The most painful question of all is What might have been?

 

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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