Our child abuse and custody crisis.
I believe we are all aware that child abuse is real, and parents hurt children way too often – but are you aware that the legal professionals who are required to protect these children are quite frankly failing at the very profession they have chosen?
Most people are unaware that family courts are getting it wrong in these custody cases, and children are being forced to live with their abuser.
How is our Family Court System Failing?
Every year almost 60,000 children are forced to live with or have unsupervised visitation with an abusive parent.
Abuse can be emotional, physical, or sexual, or indirect through exposure to domestic violence, and these children have no choice but to stay and endure it.
There is a desperate need for training and education for family court professionals such as judges, lawyers, Guardian Ad Litem (GALS), evaluators, therapists, and others.
The fact of the matter is that there are far too many cases of children being ignored, dismissed, and ultimately harmed due to poor judgment and lack of knowledge from the very people who vowed to protect their “best interests”.
Judges admit they are overwhelmed with cases and have no way of determining who is lying or telling the truth in custody battles. They rely heavily on 3rd parties, such as the professionals mentioned above, to tell them what to do.
Most court professionals are not trained in child abuse or domestic violence and are unable to effectively advocate for the protective parent and their children.
Research shows that these family court professionals take the money of an abused mother and all too often fail to provide them with the protection and guidance they need.
As a divorce coach, I hear the horror stories of savings, retirements, and bank accounts being drained to protect children from an abusive father and it still isn’t enough. Custody battles can drag out for years with no solutions, while the children suffer.
Protective parents come to family court relying on them to provide justice and protection for them and their children.
Unfortunately, they find out that more times than not, the system is very broken. It lacks the resources, training, and research to truly do what it should – guard the children’s best interests and keep them safe.
What Can be Done to Protect the Children?
The issue lies in the lack of training and understanding of child abuse and domestic violence in these cases.
Protective mothers are often labeled as “high conflict” and their allegations of abuse are not taken seriously by court professionals.
All court professionals in the family court system should be trained in these four key areas:
Screening for Abuse, Assessing the Risk of Abuse, Post Separation Abuse, and the Effects of the Abuse on children.
Screening for Abuse
Court professionals should know what to look for when determining alleged abuse by a protective mother. There is always a pattern of abuse in these cases, but they are often overlooked due to outdated and unreliable biases in family court.
First and foremost, reports of abuse should not be discredited based on factors that are not prohibitive, such as:
The mother leaves and returns; she didn’t file a police report; children show no fear in the presence of their father; there are no physical signs of abuse, or their father just seems like such a nice person.
Many of these factors can actually be indicators that the mother behaved like this for safety reasons.
Courts need to be open to hearing the research, changing the discussion, and asking the question:
“What can we do to reduce the fear and stress on the children and the mother they depend on?”
Assessing the Risk of Abuse
A victim of abuse can give a very detailed description of high-risk behaviors they see in their abuser.
Behaviors such as strangulation, coercive control, forced or rough sex, hurting animals, the abusers’ belief that the victim has no right to leave the relationship, threats of suicide by the abuser, threats of kidnapping or taking the children away, access to guns, etc.
These are all indicators that the domestic violence involved is associated with a greater risk of lethality.
Steps should be taken swiftly by the court to order temporary supervised visitation and/or protective orders to avoid any further possible abuse.
Post Separation Abuse
Contrary to what most believe, abuse does not stop when a victim leaves the relationship. In fact, abusers find new ways to harm their victims and continue their abuse.
Types of post-separation abuse include: counter-parenting (when abusive parents make decisions regarding the children that are driven by anger and their desire to hurt the other parent), allegations of parental alienation, discarding, isolation, harassment and stalking, legal abuse, and financial abuse.
Abusers use the children to get back at their victim for leaving the relationship. They lash out during custody exchanges, they use financial abuse to bankrupt their victim with long custody battles, they go on smear campaigns to discredit their victim and accuse them of trying to turn the children against them (Parental Alienation).
Effects of Abuse
Research and training are readily available on the effects of abuse on children.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Studies by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) show a relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults.
The SAFeR Approach training by the Battered Women’s Justice Project focuses on the four critical areas mentioned above and advocates for the voices of abused children.
The Saunders Study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, tells us that abusers use shared parenting to manipulate and use coercive control on the children so they do not expose their abuse.
In addition, the Family Court Outcome (FCO) Study by Joan Meier, funded by the National Institute of Justice, concludes that alienation claims are more powerful for abusive fathers than the protective mother. This research needs to be studied by family law professionals and made a priority in custody cases.
So, why aren’t the ones who have the most impact on the lives of these children, involved in high conflict custody cases, aware of or knowledgeable about these studies?
The problem lies in the way things have “always been done,” but these ways are failing our children, and they need to be changed.
Unfortunately, the current legislation our country is introducing right now will only make matters worse.
Parental Rights vs. Children’s Rights
Parental rights are trumping children’s rights and this needs to stop.
Equal parenting bills, such as HB803 in Texas and others like it in states across the country, aim to make matters worse for children with abusive parents.
On the surface, equal parenting time seems logical and reasonable – and it is – when both parents are loving and put the needs of the children first. In these divorces, the parents are typically able to effectively co-parent and agree on the best interests of their children without any significant involvement from the court system.
The issue lies in the 3.8% of divorces that result in contested custody. These cases are considered “high conflict” and nearly ALL of them involve Domestic Violence or Coercive Control from one parent.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges does training on both ACEs research from the CDC and The Saunders Study and found that courts are not imposing supervision on alleged abusive parents.
They focus on the “rights” of abusive parents rather than the child’s well-being.
We cannot assume that all parents are good and should have equal parenting rights, especially in cases where psychological, mental, physical, or sexual abuse is being alleged from one side or the other.
They’re not addressing children’s rights in such proposed equal parenting laws.
Children are being abused and even murdered due to the failure of the family court system to protect them.
Fifty/fifty shared custody agreements are rarely in the best interest of the children.
Children need stability and a sense of normalcy on a daily basis. Even when there is little to no conflict in a divorce, children tend to get put in the middle. When you factor in a high conflict situation between parents, the children suffer greatly.
In any marriage, you will typically see a primary parent who takes on most of the parenting duties: getting them up and ready for school, daily care and nurturing, etc.
We should not expect children to switch homes and routines every week, have needed medical procedures delayed because their parents cannot agree, and be put in the middle of conflict since the court system wants to impose 50/50 custody.
Children should have a voice in these situations and be able to depend on our justice system to put their best interests above the “rights” of their parents.
The courts’ responsibility is to make sure they know where the conflict and abuse are coming from and to keep the children away from it as much as possible.
How Can You Help?
Children deserve to be heard, believed, and protected by the family court system.
The research shows that the current trend of courts is not believing the child’s or their protective parents’ allegations of abuse, whether it be physical, sexual, or psychological, causing horrific outcomes including custody going in favor of their abuser, and in some cases, the murder of that child.
Over 750 children have been murdered by an abusive parent in the last ten years. This is why we need to support initiatives such as Kyra’s Law and Kayden’s Law, which put child safety first.
You can be a part of changing the laws and helping to fix the broken family court system.
For more information, go to Kyra’s Champions.
This is a global trend, and it will take our voices as parents, advocates, and communities to give a voice to those who need it most – our children.
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High Conflict Coach
Veronica York is an advocate for change in the family court system, as well as a champion for domestic violence training and education. She performs speaking engagements and writes articles regarding child custody issues.