When a Family Court Uses ACE Research
The case near Albany, New York, was a typical domestic violence custody case. During the relationship, the father required the mother to provide most child care and rarely was involved in the children’s care. He was physically and otherwise abusive to the mother and children. She left him before the second child’s birth, and he had stalked her at the hospital where she was giving birth. She asked the nurses to keep him away from her, but he kept stalking the nurses and was finally able to see the baby.
He was typical of the worst abusive fathers in that he believed she had no right to leave and sought to use custody and economic abuse to regain control and punish her for leaving. The children were spending most of their time with the mother, but over time the father was able to manipulate court professionals so that his time with the children kept expanding.
Based on the children’s well-being and current scientific research, the appropriate outcome would be custody for the mother and supervised visits for the abusive father. Unfortunately, family courts rarely use the available research that would help them understand abuse cases. Typical outcomes would be some form of shared parenting. Abusers use this to prevent any decisions, particularly therapy, that the mother wants to provide and use visitation exchanges to harass or assault the mother. The worst judges give the abusive father custody and limit the mother to supervised visitation creating a harmful outcome case the Saunders Study found is always wrong and caused by flawed practices. If the court gives the father custody, he will likely eventually destroy the mother’s relationship with the children.
Why Was This Case Different?
Dear reader, I would like to tell you that my service as an expert witness caused the difference, but all too many painful and destructive outcomes force me to remain humble. The judge went for training shortly before trying the case that included a presentation about the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies. The judge was happy to have an ACE Study expert in his courtroom and treated me with the interest and respect usually reserved for unqualified evaluators.
The attorney for the abuser aggressively attacked me and sought to prevent my testimony. There was no basis to object to my qualifications, so the judge quickly rejected the frivolous demand. Repeatedly, the judge denied the attorney’s objections and cited my testimony in justifying his decision. It was clear the judge was paying attention to my testimony and thought it was valuable.
The testimony of the mother and other witnesses proved the father’s abuse. My testimony established the enormous harm the father would continue to cause the children based on the ACE research. The final decision was what the ACE and Saunders research would recommend. The mother received custody and the ability to make decisions, including health issues, without the abuser’s interference. The father was limited to supervised visitation. I should mention that the father sometimes acted inappropriately in front of the judge, which undoubtedly helped the mother’s case, but that doesn’t usually result in such a safe and protective decision.
ACE Can Change Discussions and Decisions
Some judges will always be bad, even with an understanding of ACEs. Still, this case demonstrates that understanding ACEs will make a massive difference in many cases if only judges learn about this life-changing research. I have seen many cases where judges assumed losing a father is more harmful than exposure to abuse. That abuse committed much earlier doesn’t matter that exposure to abuse does not impact very young children and that children should get over it. These and many other assumptions the ACE study proves wrong.
The ACE study tells the court that exposure to domestic violence and child abuse will reduce children’s life expectancy and cause them to suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. Aside from immediate physical danger, there is nothing that goes more to the essence of the best interests of a child. The ACE study tells courts that most of the harm caused by domestic violence (DV) and child abuse is caused by living with the fear and stress abusers cause. This means courts can no longer ignore most domestic violence tactics that don’t involve physical assaults. This, in turn, will make it easier for courts to recognize domestic violence and abusers’ motives.
Using an ACE analysis in contested custody is usually the last chance to save children from the awful consequences. To do so, courts must create the best practice outcome recommended by DV advocates and ordered by the judge in this case. This is significant because today, the outcome that is best for children is rarely even considered.
I have a question I love attorneys to ask abusers. What can you do to reduce your children’s fear and stress and the fear and stress of the mother they depend on?
If they give a helpful answer to the changes they can make, it contrasts with their actual behavior. Instead, if they provide a non-answer, it demonstrates they are more concerned with winning and hurting the mother than helping the children avoid ACEs catastrophic consequences. Best of all, instead of focusing on how to force victims to cooperate with their abusers, the discussion becomes about how abusers can change their behavior to benefit the children.
For over forty horrific years and thousands of children’s deaths, we have been trying to change an approach and a discussion severely tilted to favor abusers.
ACE research is the best gift we can ever give our kids.
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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.