The Intolerable Choice
As a young boy, President Kennedy was my hero. I was inspired by his call to get involved and make a difference in people’s lives. His death was a national catastrophe. Every time I read a book or an article about his life, I desperately wanted a different ending. Surely the killer could be stopped, the bullets could miss or he could recover from the assault. So many later national tragedies might have been prevented but every book and article included the same unspeakable ending.
Somehow and unimaginably at the time, my life’s work became the crisis in the custody court system and its widespread failure to protect precious children. Today, we need to focus on three-year-old Zoey Pereira. Her mother, Cherone Coleman. tried to protect her by seeking a protective order to save her from an abusive father who had threatened to kill Zoey.
But the judge works in a system that tends to disbelieve victims of abuse, especially women, and places a higher priority on keeping even dangerous abusers in children’s lives than keeping the children safe. The father whom the judge favored, strapped Zoey into her car seat, chained the doors together, and set the car on fire. I checked, Zoey died in the fire.
The Murder of Zoey Pereira Is Not Some Rare Exception
The research is clear, but courts routinely fail to consider research that would help them protect children. Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably. They involve two safe parents who love their children even if they are angry with each other. A very large majority of contested custody cases involve a history of domestic violence by the father. These are the most dangerous abusers because they believe the mother had no right to leave. They are willing to do anything necessary to restore what they believe is their right to control the mother; including hurt or even kill the child. Abusers know what the courts don’t; the best way to hurt a mother is to hurt her child.
Only 3.8% of custody cases require trial and often more and 75 to 90% of these cases are really domestic violence cases. These are the cases in which mothers, children and sometimes bystanders are murdered. These are cases in which fathers are more likely to sexually abuse the children. In other words, these are the cases that courts need to take more seriously. Courts need to invest more resources, use professionals with real expertise in domestic violence and child abuse and make the health and safety of children the first priority.
Instead, the courts use a “high conflict” approach that tends to create a false equivalency between a dangerous and abusive father and a mother trying to protect her children from someone they have experienced as scary. The courts assume children always benefit from keeping fathers in their lives. In reality, abusive fathers need to stop their abuse and remove the fear and stress they cause in order for the children to benefit from the relationship. Instead the courts pressure the mother and children to accommodate the father. This is why all the news articles have Zoey burning in the car instead of being safe with her mother.
In the last ten years, over 650 children involved in contested custody or related disputes have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers and often, like Zoey, after the court provided the necessary access. Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges and court administrators from the communities where these tragedies were committed. She did not have subpoena power so the court professionals who agreed to be interviewed tended to be the best and most informed about domestic violence. They participated in a very informative discussion about domestic violence custody cases.
Dr. Bartlow asked the judges what I believe is the most important question about these avoidable murders. In response to the tragedy in your community, what reforms were created to make children safer? The shocking answer, more shocking because it came from the best judges and administrators, was nothing because they all assumed the local tragedy was an exception.
Several of the experts interviewed proudly declared they didn’t have a problem in their state because of good practices, but other states were not as good. Janet Fink is the Deputy Council for the NY Office of Court Administration. She was interviewed by Dr. Bartlow and is probably one of the best court administrators in terms of domestic violence knowledge.
Ms. Fink said there was no need for the NY courts to acknowledge a problem because they work with the Center for Court Innovation and so have good training and practices. The problem is that in the real world, most of the courts are not using best practices. Few of the NY courts are using the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study, Saunders Study, or other vital research.
Shortly after she was interviewed, an expert committee appointed by the Dutchess County Legislature made a finding that the flawed and biased practices used by the courts in Dutchess, especially the custody courts contributed to a series of domestic violence homicides. The courts were favoring abusive fathers so strongly that many mothers stopped using the courts because they increased their risk. The laws and the court system were designed to help protect victims of domestic violence, but the system had become so perverted that the courts instead were helping the abusers.
In my dream of having the news articles about Zoey and others change the outcome, the court administrators would use the catastrophic outcomes and reports like the one from Dutchess to create necessary reforms. Instead the response is defensive and judges confidently go about using outdated and discredited practices that fail to protect children like Zoey.
The Impossible Choice
Zoey’s mother now says she wishes she had kept Zoey and gone to jail to protect her. You see dear reader it is normal to want to change the ending of stories like this. The problem is that it is likely that when the mother was jailed Zoey would have been sent to her killer father so the unspeakable ending would only have been delayed.
Last month, I was in Costa Rica trying to help a mother who chose to risk jail to save her son from an abusive father who likes to play the “penis game.” The three-year old boy convinced his best friend to go in the bedroom and remove all their clothes. The boy’s penis was sore from trying to push it up his friend’s bottom. He also peed all over his friend’s back before the friend’s mother found them and stopped them. The evaluator who claims to be an expert in child sexual abuse dismissed this extreme behavior as “playing doctor.”
Before the court system tries to dismiss this response as another rare exception, it is important to know this was an experienced evaluator who has worked in the system for decades and another evaluator also supported the abusive father. I’m sorry Ms. Fink, but these are not the kind of mistakes that can occur in a system that is working properly.
I first experienced this Hobson’s Choice in a case that would later be called the Believer’s Story. A judge with the support of an experienced and popular evaluator ordered visitation to resume after the father admitted kissing his daughters on their privates. As an attorney, I could not recommend that the mother try to run, but there was no chance she could have escaped and the children would have been sent to live with their abuser. The case had a relatively good outcome in that eventually child protective services brought charges against the father and he never again had more than supervised visitation. Before this could occur, however, the father penetrated the four-year-old for the first time.
The court system would certainly say that parties must obey court orders. Indeed, how can a court discharge its functions if obeying court orders was optional? But we cannot continue to send children like Zoey to their deaths because of the frequent inability to recognize dangerous abusers. It is fundamentally unfair to order a mother to send a child to play the “penis game.”
The fact is the court, using standard outdated, flawed and biased practices could not protect Zoey. They won’t be able to protect the next unknown victim as long as they continue the same practices that err on the side of keeping abusive fathers in children’s lives. Courts must be able to enforce their orders, but part of the bargain must be that mothers are not confronted with a choice of jail or sending their children for the “penis game” or a fiery car.
Until the courts create the reforms Dr. Bartlow* was asking about, courts should refrain from enforcing orders that have a credible chance of endangering children. I have spent most of my life desperately hoping to hear President Kennedy miraculously survived. Zoey’s mom will spend the rest of her life similarly wishing for a different outcome. The sad reality is that the existing stories are not going to change. The desperation is to prevent the next tragic story.
The greatest frustration is that we know safe parenting and the Safe Child Act would make the children safer in court, but the court officials are too defensive to acknowledge a problem which is the first step to the needed reforms. This time, let them ask Zoey.
Saunders Study: https://stopabusecampaign.org/2017/03/16/saunders-study/
Custody Court Crisis: https://stopabusecampaign.org/campaigns/family-court-custody-crisis/
Bartlow Study [Chapter 12] : https://www.civicresearchinstitute.com/toc/DVAC2_TOC.pdf
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.