Dear Texas Legislators,
Thank you for considering the Safe Child Act. I wish I could adequately convey to you what this legislation means. Day after painful day I hear stories about child murders and unspeakable suffering because our courts do not use current scientific research to recognize and respond to domestic violence custody cases.
Cassidy Stay speaks during a memorial service for the Stay family at Lemm Elementary School on Saturday, July 12, 2014, in Spring, Texas. Cassidy was grazed in the head during Wednesday’s attack that killed her parents and four siblings. She played dead until the shooter left, then, despite suffering a fractured skull, managed to call 911. (AP Photo/Conroe Courier, Michael Minasi)[/caption]
My first public presentation after publishing my book about the Quincy Solution was in Fort Bend County at a crime prevention conference. Before I was scheduled to speak, you suffered one of the worst tragedies in Spring, Texas. An abusive father named Ron Lee Haskell barged into the house of his ex-wife’s sister and executed both adults and four of the five children. Cassidy Stay survived despite a bullet to her head and played dead. When Haskell left, Cassidy called the police, who captured him before he could kill other family members.
I will never forget this story as long as I live. Despite Haskell’s long history of abuse, a court in Utah had granted him shared parenting. Similar mistakes do not always result in as many murders, but they do expose the children to a childhood of abuse and a lifetime of health and social problems.
Although the dangerous court decision occurred in another state, Texas, children have no reason to feel safe. In the last ten years, at least 675 children involved in contested custody or related matters were murdered, primarily by abusive fathers. More preventable murders were committed in Texas than in any other state.
Dr. Dianne Bartlow followed up on these tragedies by interviewing judges and court administrators in the communities, including Texas, where the tragedies occurred. She asked the court leaders what reforms were created in response to the tragedy in their community. The shocking answer was none because they all assumed the local tragedy was an exception. You cannot rely on the courts to implement the reforms necessary to protect children without your intervention.
The Safe Child Act Is the Solution
The Safe Child Act is a comprehensive proposal based on objective scientific research. In other words, you can have confidence the Safe Child Act will fulfill its purpose of protecting children.
Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably because they involve two parents that love their children. The problem is that 3.8% of cases require trial and much more. Many court professionals treat contested custody as “high conflict” cases, assuming both parents are equally responsible. The research is clear that a large majority are domestic violence cases in which the most dangerous abusers seek custody to regain control when their victim tries to leave.
These are the cases in which partners, children, and bystanders are murdered. More commonly, children are exposed to more abuse, and their lives are ruined. These are the cases where the Safe Child Act applies. This means there won’t be much disruption in the court system because it won’t impact most cases where health and safety are not issues.
The ACE (adverse childhood experiences) Studies are highly credible medical research from the CDC. The fundamental findings are that children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will live shorter lives and suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. Most of the harm is caused not by the immediate physical injuries that most courts focus on but by living with the fear and stress caused by abuse.
The Saunders Study comes from the U.S Justice Department, so again very credible. Saunders found most judges, lawyers, and evaluators do not have the specific knowledge about domestic violence needed for custody cases. This results in courts disbelieving and minimizing true reports of abuse. ACE was published in 1998 and Saunders in 2012. Nevertheless, most courts are not utilizing this vital information, and children pay a horrible price for this ignorance.
The Safe Child Act says courts must treat the health and safety of children as the first priority in all custody cases. The courts could do this under present law but usually don’t. The standard is based on the ACE Research that provides objective considerations. The legislation promotes using current research and experts with the needed and objective information.
HB 3121 requires an early evidentiary hearing limited to abuse issues. This eliminates consideration of less important issues that abusers use as a distraction. If a parent has engaged in domestic violence or child abuse that causes harmful fear and stress, we know it is not in the children’s best interest to live with the abuser. Cases that now take many months or years can be resolved in a few hours. This provides huge financial and time saving for courts and litigants. Best of all, this practice will help courts make better decisions that protect children.
We believe that emphasizing current research and the health and safety of children will have another benefit. Judges and other court professionals will suddenly want this training to be able to implement the new law. Human nature tells us people learn better when they want the information.
When you consider the Safe Child Act, I hope you will think of a Texas heroine, Cassidy Stay. I hope you will consider the 68 Texas children murdered in the last ten years. But I hope you will also consider something more positive. Imagine what Texas children will accomplish when they are not traumatized. Imagine what you can do with the money saved on health costs and crime. Imagine the Texas economy when thousands more children reach their full potential. I am sure you entered politics to improve people’s lives. This is a law you will be proud to support because it will make a positive difference in the lives of so many Texas children.
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.