The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of specific models of 2017 Eddie Bauer Fabric Infant Carriers because of a risk of the buckles breaking, making it a possible fall hazard for children. At the time of the recall, Good Housekeeping reported eight incidents of broken buckles, but thankfully no serious injuries.
In the last ten years, over seven hundred children involved in custody disputes were murdered, according to records compiled by the Center for Judicial Excellence. In many of these cases, the court gave the killer the access he needed to kill the children.
Just like some consumer product safety issues, family courts are quick to deny responsibility and oppose needed reforms. In the recent Thomas Valva murder case, the New York Court System denied any responsibility without any investigation or consideration of the other New York murders associated with the family courts. The Bartlow Study interviewed judges from communities that suffered child murders. Dr. Bartlow asked what reforms the court created in response to the tragedy. The shocking answer was none because the courts all assumed the revenge killing was an exception.
Why do Family Courts use the same practices for safe parents and dangerous abusers?
Most child custody disputes involve two safe parents. Court professionals use an approach called ‘High Conflict‘ that assumes both parents are safe, and they just need to learn how to cooperate better. This approach generally works when both parents love their children, and the children are their priority. When one of the parents is an abuser who is willing to hurt the children as the best way to harm the mother, these standard court practices undermine the court’s ability to recognize the danger.
Most child custody cases are settled more or less amicably. The problem is 3.8% of cases that require trial and often much more. A large majority of the most dangerous cases involve a history of domestic violence. This does not necessarily mean the father has committed the most severe physical assaults which is what court professionals are looking for. Instead, these are abusers who believe she has no right to leave and so they are entitled to use whatever tactics are necessary to regain what they believe is their right to control their partners and punish them for leaving. Unfortunately, these abusers understand the best way to hurt a mother is to hurt her children. Family courts are not even considering this likely scenario which makes these cases even more dangerous.
The use of practices designed for safe cases for disputes involving abusers places protective mothers in impossible situations. If she cooperates with her abuser as the court demands, she is putting her children in jeopardy. If she tries to protect her children as any good mother would do, the court will punish her in ways that punish the children. Attempts to help the court understand the danger the father poses are viewed as a lack of cooperation and alienating the children. Small wonder the courts get such a high percentage of abuse cases catastrophically wrong.
In our still sexist society, mothers continue to provide most of the child care. In almost all of the dangerous cases, the father allowed or demanded the mother provide most of the child care. Outside family court, we would understand this as an admission by the father that the mother is a good parent. After all, what are the chances that when the mother decided to leave her abuser and report his abuse, she suddenly became crazy or unfit? And yet this unlikely scenario is routinely used by abusers and believed by courts and evaluators with inadequate domestic violence training. The reality is that this is a practice better understood as pathologizing the victim.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention goes to the essence of the best interests of a child. 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 from the immediate physical injuries that court professionals focus on, but from living with the fear and stress abusers cause. Contested custody is usually the last chance to save children from awful consequences.
The critical question for the courts is whether they can protect children from these consequences. Courts that are not informed by ACE don’t even consider this issue or the need to reduce children’s fear and stress. Courts routinely treat the children’s fear of the abuser as an obstacle to the arrangement the court wants to create instead of a warning that such outcomes are harmful to children.
The Saunders Study is scientific research from the National Institute of Justice in the US Justice Department about the qualifications of judges, lawyers, and evaluators to respond to domestic violence cases. Most court professionals do not have the specific domestic violence knowledge needed to recognize and respond to domestic violence. They tend to be experts in the law or psychology and mental illness but not domestic violence or child sexual abuse. They routinely disbelieve accurate reports of abuse and punish protective mothers for protecting their children.
In other words, courts that fail to use ACE are minimizing abuse, and courts that fail to use Saunders are disbelieving true reports of domestic violence and child abuse. And, children are losing their last chance to overcome the awful consequences of exposure to ACEs.
What happens when family courts are responding to cases they fundamentally don’t understand? What happens when family courts refuse to consider current scientific research? When family courts rely on professionals who are not experts in domestic violence and child abuse? When they tolerate gender bias, or when they fail to investigate their most tragic mistakes? Children continue to be murdered by fathers the court found to be safe. Children suffer the consequences of exposure to ACEs. The domestic violence homicide rate starts to rise again. Mostly, precious children suffer in silence.
In the context of other scientific research, the new Meier study from the National Institute of Justice confirmed that family courts are getting most domestic violence custody cases wrong. These dangerous errors by the courts are not unexpected. All of the standard court mistakes tilt courts in favor of dangerous abusers and against protecting children. Today, our family courts routinely err on the side of risking children.
No judge wants to hurt children. However, as long as they have no effective mechanism to reform failed practices and integrate current scientific research, the courts will continue to ruin children’s lives. Many courts have responded to a local tragedy by denying responsibility, and saying we have to accept that sometimes children will be murdered.
The Safe Child Act is for those of us unwilling to accept frequent child murders and constant abuse. Our proposal makes the health and safety of children the priority. It says courts must integrate current scientific research. That courts must use a multi-disciplinary approach that includes domestic violence and child sexual abuse experts when they are the central issue in the case. That courts must hold an early hearing in abuse cases limited to abuse issues so abusers cannot distract attention with less important matters, so claims can be swiftly and safely resolved. It directs that judges and other court professionals are trained in current scientific research and retrained to stop using the misinformation they have heard throughout their careers. The Safe Child Act says states should provide additional funding to domestic violence agencies so that advocates can help by training court professionals and serving as expert witnesses.
Why would any state delay reforms already proven to protect children? Remember, abuse cases are the last chance to save children from the consequences of exposure to ACEs, and in too many cases, it is the last chance to save children period.
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
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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.