Listen to the scientists.
Good advice for Coronavirus and for judges
As I watched the Sunday political shows, I noticed the same advice was being given by Italy’s Prime Minister, governors and other officials. They all said some version of listen to the scientists. This is good advice for everyone responding to Coronavirus and is also good advice for family court judges responding to domestic violence and child abuse.
The countries and the communities that listened to the scientists have seen the best results and fewest deaths. The greatest arrogance and harm are caused by leaders who think they know better than the scientists and substitute their judgment for good scientific research. In the United States, this mistake has led to greatly increased misery, suffering and deaths. The same is true for Family Court Judges trying to resolve abuse cases without the benefit of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and Saunders Studies. The result is thousands of children suffering and dying who could have been saved if only the judges listened to the scientists.
Coronavirus is a new disease and initial decisions were made without the needed information. Initial advice suggested that younger patients would survive but cause more harm by spreading the disease. Initial recommendations discouraged the people from wearing masks in public. More knowledge and research led to updated practices to better protect the public.
Similarly, family courts first responded to domestic violence at a time when little research was available. Courts relied on popular assumptions that domestic violence (DV) was caused by mental illness and substance abuse. This led courts to turn to mental health professionals as if they were the experts about domestic violence. Unlike the medical community, the legal community did not update its practices when the scientists learned the original assumptions were wrong.
Just Like the Medical Community Family Courts Must Learn from Scientists
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) studies are medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These are the same experts we should be listening to concerning Coronavirus. ACE found that children exposed to domestic violence, child abuse and other traumas will live shorter lives and suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. This goes to the essence of the requirement that courts determine the best interests of children. Most of the harm is caused not from the immediate physical injuries courts focus on, but from living with the fear and stress abusers cause. Contested custody is usually the last chance to save children from catastrophic consequences, but the courts do not know or discuss the most important issues because most are ignorant of this scientific research.
At a time when DV and child abuse are far more consequential than previously understood, the Saunders Study, from the National Institute of Justice in the US Justice Department found that most of the judges, lawyers and evaluators do not have the specific knowledge courts need to recognize domestic violence. As a result, in a majority of abuse cases the courts disbelieve true reports of abuse because the courts are relying on the wrong professionals and so do not know what to look for.
Saunders found that there is now a specialized body of scientific research that can be used to recognize and respond to DV. Most courts are not using this research. Most evaluators and other mental health professionals relied on by the courts do not have the specific DV knowledge Saunders found is needed. Judges and lawyers have spent their entire careers listening to misinformation about DV from mental health professionals. At the same time, Saunders found DV advocates have more of the specific DV knowledge courts need, but courts rarely listen to them.
The consequences of failing to listen to the scientists are catastrophic. Every year in the United States, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. This means the children cannot heal from the earlier abuse because they are exposed to still more domestic violence and child abuse. This causes a lifetime of health and social problems and much suffering. In the last ten years, based on a study from the Center for Judicial Excellence, over 700 of these children have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers.
The Danger of Ignoring Credible Scientific Research
Making decisions about Coronavirus or about domestic violence and child abuse without considering the scientific research is foolish and dangerous. There is just no good reason to make life and death decisions based on ignorance. Politics, ideology and personal interests should never be used as a substitute for scientific knowledge.
We will never know how many lives were lost because the U.S. government delayed months before taking scientific warnings seriously. Obtaining necessary equipment, testing and social distancing were delayed by unscientific opinions and political calculations substituted for scientific knowledge.
Similarly, we will never know how many deaths were caused by the family court delay in integrating important scientific research like ACE and Saunders. Without ACE the courts are minimizing domestic violence and child abuse. Without Saunders the courts are disbelieving true reports of abuse. The children the courts are supposed to be protecting are not dying just from murders. They will die from suicide, drug overdoses, accidents and bad choices. And eventually, some of these children will die prematurely from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases caused or exacerbated by the stress courts failed to consider.
The victims of not listening to the scientists also suffer unnecessarily. Those who recover from Coronavirus suffer an unpleasant experience. We are putting doctors, nurses and other heroes on the front lines through a daily hell. The general public will be restricted far longer because of the initial failures. The children courts force to live with abusers will spend their childhood living with the fear and the stress. Many of the victims of ignoring good science will never reach their full potential.
I am angry and we all are justified in being angry. The Russian attack on our country; Comey’s violation of Justice Department policy and the media’s excessive coverage of obvious lies left us without a competent leader.
Many politicians chose their party over their country. Court officials have repeatedly acted defensively in response to complaints and in response to the most unbearable tragedies. Many professionals have earned large profits by jeopardizing precious children. Other professionals could not find the courage to advocate for the children and for justice.
There is nothing we can do now to bring back the dead or eliminate the enormous pain caused by the failure to listen to the scientists. We need to acknowledge the painful reality and stop tolerating lies. From now on, the President and the Family Courts must heed the lesson we have paid such a painful price for. We must listen to the scientists.
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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.