Recognizing who are the domestic violence experts
One of the best decisions I ever made occurred at the start of my work in the domestic violence movement. I had a case in which my client hit his daughter and I didn’t know if his actions constituted abuse. At the same time, a friend invited me to serve on the board of the local battered women’s shelter which would become My Sisters Place.
I was lucky to know almost nothing about domestic violence (DV) and made the wise decision to keep my mouth quiet and listen to the women. In many of the meetings, I was the only man in the room. I learned that women are the experts in domestic violence. Women live in a sexist society in which their safety and well-being depend on being vigilant concerning men who might harm them. Men do not have to consider such risks so are free to live their lives oblivious to sexism and domestic violence. This is one of the fundamental mistakes courts and others make when they seek to create a false equivalency between men and women. White people make a similar mistake when they use an offensive term like all lives matter.
Over the years, because I am willing to listen, I have benefited from many women who have served as my mentors as I learned about domestic violence and related gender issues. Clarice Pollock invited me to serve on the board and started my education. Charlotte Watson, who became executive director of My Sisters Place was my next important mentor.
Towards the end of my research for my first book, I interviewed Phyllis B. Frank. Phyllis started the first batterer program in New York State and third in the nation. She is one of the leading experts in the nation; a truly brilliant woman and a friend who would become my most important mentor. I had been working in the movement for 17 years by the time I met Phyllis, but working with her in a NY Model batterer program was where I received most of my education. Every time I read through the final version of one of my books, I noticed how much of the book is information I learned from Phyllis.
I had written most of Scared to Leave Afraid to Stay before I met my wife Sharon, but that book would never have been published and changed my career path without Sharon. So much of what I have been able to accomplish is based on Sharon’s love, support, and smarts.
The publication of the book led to my friendship and collaboration with Dr. Mo Therese Hannah. I have learned so much from Mo because our skills and knowledge complemented each other. I learned so much from her expert testimony and only wish the judges would have similarly learned. We have worked together as co-editors; co-presenters and colleagues in the protective mothers’ movement.
The Domestic Violence Experts Family Courts Should Listen To
The Saunders Study says there is now a specialized body of domestic violence knowledge and research that would help courts recognize and respond effectively in cases involving possible DV or child abuse. Lawyers and judges are experts in the law; evaluators and other mental health professionals are experts in psychology and mental illness; abusive fathers are experts in manipulation. These are the people courts tend to listen too but with rare exceptions, they do not have the specialized body of knowledge courts need.
DV advocates have been saying for decades that physical abuse is often not the worst part of domestic violence. Courts did not listen to advocates because they often do not have advanced degrees; they are mostly women and they were perceived as biased because they are always against domestic violence. Of course, opposition to domestic violence is part of the law courts are supposed to enforce. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Research confirmed most of the harm from DV is not from physical injuries. Many other statements from advocates have also proven true. Advocates are the only profession that works full time on preventing and responding to domestic violence. The Saunders Study found advocates have more of the specific knowledge courts need for domestic violence cases than any of the professionals courts routinely rely on. Nevertheless, family courts continue to rely almost exclusively on a small group of professionals without the needed domestic violence expertise.
Child sexual abuse is similarly a specialized area of knowledge. It is important to develop a trusting relationship with child sexual abuse victims before expecting them to discuss the most painful and embarrassing experience of their lives. Nevertheless, courts rarely insist on specialized experts for these difficult cases. As a result, the courts rarely believe reports of sexual abuse even though mothers rarely make deliberate false reports.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges seeks to teach judges about important scientific research like ACE and Saunders. Nevertheless, courts rarely use this research in cases where it is needed. Even worse, some courts seek to avoid allowing this information into evidence when it undermines previous court findings. Evaluators are rarely discredited for failing to consider this vital research.
Protective mothers understand their partners better than anyone else involved in the case. Domestic violence victims pay close attention to their abusers because it is a matter of life and death. The mothers know that the worst assaults often follow particular behaviors. Paying attention to the abuser’s tone of voice, body language, specific words, gestures or other clues gives victims crucial advance notice that he may be about to attack them. This gives women a chance to do something to protect themselves and the children. They might agree to whatever he wants; lock themselves in a room; call 911; try to run away; tell the children to run to a neighbor, or at least cover their heads to try to limit the damage.
I have learned so much from listening to my women clients. At first, I was surprised at how accurate they are in predicting their abuser’s tactics. She is the court’s best source of information about the abusive father, but is least listened to because of gender bias and that courts consider her partisan. Even after a court finds he has abused her, they continue extreme skepticism when a mother expresses her fears and concerns.
Family Courts are getting a high percentage of domestic violence custody cases wrong for many reasons, but relying on the wrong experts is an important factor. The misinformation judges and lawyers hear in one case can poison other cases where no experts are relied on. The courts developed practices at a time when no research was available and continue to refuse to update their practices based on the substantial research that could now help courts protect children.
The Saunders Study was designed to consider the domestic violence knowledge of judges, lawyers, and especially evaluators. Most of these professionals proved that they did not have the expertise Saunders found was needed. Saunders found a more multi-disciplinary approach would benefit the courts. Little has changed since this important research became available in 2012. There seems to be some defensiveness and inertia that is preventing needed reforms. As a result, children continue to suffer and some cannot survive the courts’ failure. Understanding who are the experts is an important first step to protecting precious children.
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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.