Coronavirus or COVID19 and domestic violence  

These are scary times as we try to overcome and survive a pandemic. It would seem there are more than enough problems to deal with, but what about victims of domestic violence. I have seen some stories about the obvious problem of sheltering in place with an abuser. Most people are unaware of the problem of co-parenting with an abuser; including the media that fails to consider it and the judges who cause it.

In “good times,” co-parenting with an abuser is a constant struggle to limit the harm to the children or even to survive. The Saunders study found that abusers use exchanges to harass or even assault the mothers. Abusers use decision-making power to prevent any decision the mother wants especially badly needed therapy. Protective mothers worry the father will abuse or neglect the children during visitation; might not return them; encourage children to hate or even assault their mother and seek some excuse to go back to family courts the scientific research has confirmed are strongly tilted to favor abusers and risk children.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACE] Study explains how the constant fear and stress this arrangement causes leads to a lifetime of health and social problems and makes it impossible for children to heal from his earlier abuse. As with other health and safety issues, Coronavirus increases the risk exponentially. The abuser’s lax care or even deliberate harm is no longer limited to coming home with bruises or an upset stomach that are likely to heal.  Now, the children are at risk for a deadly virus. We don’t know for sure if the children will survive, but certainly, adults who come in contact with them could have their lives endangered. And orders to shelter in place could easily be misused by abusers as an excuse not to return the children to the safe, protective mother who is their primary attachment figure. Just when the children need her the most.

How did we get to such a dangerous place?

The delay in taking Coronavirus seriously and a myriad of examples of incompetence and worse have increased the harm expected from the pandemic, but no one is to blame for Coronavirus. The increased danger from co-parenting with an abuser is completely predictable and should have been prevented. There are many players who have contributed to the tragedy and it starts with the broken Family Courts.

One of the first things I learned while training to be an instructor in a NY Model Batterer Program is the need to avoid being defensive. This is a lesson court professionals badly need. The experts in domestic violence are DV advocates who work full time trying to keep victims safe. Family courts made an initial mistake in turning to mental health professionals as if they were the experts. This was based on popular assumptions at the time that believed domestic violence was caused by substance abuse and mental illness. As a result, court professionals today have spent their whole careers hearing and absorbing misinformation from professionals who are experts in psychology and mental illness but not DV or child abuse.

The consequences have been disastrous for children, but the courts do not seem to have a mechanism for correcting their mistakes. Lawyers are taught legal concepts like res judicata and collateral estoppel that assume once a court makes a decision (absent reversal on appeal), it must be right. This helps explain their inability to create needed reforms even in response to unbearable tragedies.

I have heard many court officials claim they are doing everything right even in the face of their failure to integrate current scientific research and disastrous consequences from their decisions. The Center for Judicial Excellence found that over 700 children involved in contested custody over the last ten years have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers. Repeatedly, fathers the court said were safe and deserving of unprotected access killed their children. In the Bartlow study, judges in communities where these tragedies occurred said no reforms were created because the local murder was an exception. Other judges and court professionals were saddened by a murder but said there was nothing the trial judge could have done differently.

Why Are Protective Mothers Forced to Co-Parent with Abusive Fathers?

Most custody cases involve two safe parents so some form of co-parenting will not be dangerous. The problem is that the family courts are using the same practices for the small minority of cases that might include a dangerous abuser. Most of the courts fail to use the ACE and Saunders Studies which are the two most important research studies when considering possible domestic violence and child abuse. And they rely on the usual evaluators and other professionals who have no specialized expertise for abuse cases.  

ACE and Saunders go to the essence of the best interests of a child. Without ACE, courts minimize the harm from abuse, fail to focus on reducing the fear and stress that cause most of the harm and remove tools that make it easier to recognize abuse.  Without Saunders, courts have a harder time recognizing true reports of domestic violence and child abuse and do not know how to recognize the risks of lethality.

Many standard family court beliefs and practices have been proven harmful by ACE and Saunders, but courts continue to endanger children by relying on these faulty practices.  The mistakes include: high conflict approaches; limiting abuse considerations to recent physical assaults; asking victims to just get over it; assuming the end of a relationship ends the risk; believing DV abusers can be good fathers; believing children always benefit from two parents in their lives; assuming a mental health degree provides expertise in DV and child abuse; relying on unscientific alienation theories; creating and maintaining harmful outcome cases and believing the myth that mothers and children frequently make false reports.

Children do not need both parents equally. They need the safe parent more than the abusive one and the primary attachment figure more than the other parent. Losing their relationship with one parent is harmful, but continuing the relationship with an abusive parent is much more harmful. The proper remedy is to require abusers to change their behavior if they want a relationship rather than force victims to accommodate abusers.

Shared parenting with an abuser is horrific during normal times and the harm increases exponentially during an emergency like Coronavirus. There can be benefits to courts and court professionals to promote co-parenting, but not to children. It is time to stop trapping children and protective mothers in a forced and continuing relationship with their abusers.

Do you know your score?

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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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