A Rare Victory for Children Exposes Why Family Courts Usually Fail Abuse Victims
(Please note: this article may contain triggers.)
The best beach trip ever was not from swimming, fishing, or playing in the waves.
Two girls, aged 5 and 7, knew it wasn’t the best because of the french fries, ice cream, or sandcastles. The beach trip was the best ever because a custody court judge decided to protect them.
These two small children, who understand the world better than they should, will never be harmed by their abuser again. Their mother will never be abused by him again, either. They are safe. The girls understand what too many judges don’t—that you can’t enjoy the best times with your family when you live your life in fear of an abuser.
Family courts routinely decide the fate of children. Domestic violence custody cases are often the last chance to save children from painful—and sometimes tragically shortened—lives.
The case of these two traumatized children was unusual in many ways. We had never before witnessed the scene that played out in that courtroom as we waited to learn their fate.
Palpable tension gripped the courtroom, leaving it in almost total silence, as if the room itself held its breath.
The attorneys for the mother, grandparents, and children quietly waited, knowing they had done all they could to protect the girls from their abusive father and hoping it was enough. The father sat still, holding his head in his hands, knowing his case was weak.
The judge took less than ten minutes to announce his decision.
Upon being granted a divorce, the mother received 80% of the marital assets. The court awarded custody to grandparents. The mother would have supervised visits with the children.
The father lost all parental rights. Finally, the girls were safe and able to live a life free from fear, like all children should.
How Was This Case Different?
The ACE (adverse childhood experiences) Research helps courts understand the full harm to children from exposure to domestic violence and child abuse.
The Saunders Study helps courts recognize true reports of abuse.
This court had the benefit of both, and together with the extreme circumstances of this case, the court was able to recognize the catastrophic risks faced by these children.
The father had committed severe, physical brutality against the mother. He repeatedly engaged in strangulation, which research shows is extremely dangerous. The mother is lucky to be alive.
The abuser also repeatedly beat the mother, causing visible wounds and injuries. The children witnessed some of the father’s physical abuse and the very visible marks and effects from his beatings.
The abuser’s position was that everything was consensual because the mother agreed to a bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism (BDSM) relationship.
The father prepared a detailed agreement giving him complete control and requiring the mother to refer to him as daddy or sir, giving him full power to punish her at will and engage in whatever activities he wanted. Giving him full power to abuse.
Some parts of his claims were true, but she never signed the contract or agreed to the strangulations. She only agreed to the BDSM arrangement because it included the use of safewords. He repeatedly ignored the use of safewords, and over time, she stopped using them because he punished her more severely when she asked him to stop.
Since the mother’s consent was based on the use of safewords, his violation of that part of the agreement made his actions non-consensual. Furthermore, we now have research that strangulation is far more harmful and dangerous than previously understood. The father’s strangulation is equivalent to Russian Roulette, so no one could have truly consented to it.
Most importantly, the children did not and could not consent to their exposure to the father’s abuse.
The father ordered the mother to remain naked at home. This was a harmful example for the children to observe, made even scarier because they constantly saw stripes, bruises, welts, and other injuries on their mother’s body. She often could not sit down for days at a time. The father’s abuse had severe consequences to the mother and the children.
The mother suffered both physical and emotional wounds from the father’s abuse. She ended up in hospital as a result of mental health damage. The mother has courageously made significant progress and improvement but still could not be considered for custody.
The children were severely traumatized by what they witnessed. The mother and children have been diagnosed with PTSD. Only the most severe possible trauma could cause this, which should make clear that the father is not a fit parent.
The abuser also used standard abuser tactics that courts routinely miss or minimize such as: coercive control, isolation and monitoring tactics, litigation abuse, and economic abuse. These tactics make it harder for friends and family to recognize the danger and pressure the victim to hide his abuse.
The children had an ACE score of eight out of ten and, disappointingly, one of the ACEs that did not occur was the imprisonment of the brutal abuser. He hired an elected county attorney to represent him, and this manipulation of the system prevented any criminal charges.
The father tried to use unscientific alienation theories to deny the harm he caused. Still, much of the children’s emotional injuries and acting out could not be coached, was not voluntary, and could only be caused by horrific abuse.
Alienation is a theory deliberately concocted to help lawyers and mental health professionals make large incomes by creating approaches favoring wealthy abusers.
These theories have twice been denied inclusion in the DSM, which is the compendium of all valid mental health diagnoses. The American Psychiatric Association rejected alienation because there is no scientific support, but that has not stopped custody courts from being strongly influenced by these biased assumptions.
Alienation assumes that when children don’t like or don’t want to spend time with an allegedly abusive father that the mother must have coached them.
Significantly, all the professionals working with the children noticed that they regressed whenever they had even minor supervised contact with the abusive father.
The Many Similarities with DV Custody Cases that Abusive Fathers Win
It was far easier for this court to take the father’s abuse seriously because there were so many severe physical assaults. The evidence and the physical effects were concrete.
However, to determine the children’s well-being and best interests, the real issue concerns the impact of his abuse on them. An assault on the mother does not cause physical injuries to the children, but it does cause enormous harm. Many children have died because inadequately trained judges assumed that just because a father abused the mother doesn’t mean he would hurt the child.
The ACE Research says that children exposed to DV and child abuse will live shorter lives and face a lifetime of health and social problems. This goes to the essence of the best interests of children. Most of the harm is not from any immediate physical injuries but from living with the fear and stress their abusers cause. Physical abuse is likely to cause the fear and stress that leads to the awful consequences described by ACE, but so do the far more common non-physical domestic violence tactics.
The scientific research is clear that limiting protection to abuse that is physical is a mistake. In a typical DV custody case, there are only a few physical assaults together with hundreds or thousands of non-physical DV tactics.
We don’t want to compare the damage in this case with a more typical case, but based on the ACE Research, all children in any DV case will face shorter lives and a lifetime of health and social problems.
In none of these cases is it beneficial for children to have unprotected visitation with their abusers until and unless the abusive parent changes their behavior, yet that is a common, if not routine outcome.
We have never heard an explanation from a judge or court administrator for how it can possibly be reasonable to try to make life and death decisions in DV custody cases without the benefit of ACE.
ACE is peer-reviewed medical research that comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least five additional studies based on ACE have confirmed and expanded the original findings. ACE is used for medical diagnosis and treatment, in educational programs for students exposed to ACE, in criminal justice settings, and for prevention.
At the same time, the courts have accepted the pernicious influence of an alienation theory that is not based on scientific research but rather the heinous belief that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. It is a theory that is only used to help alleged abusive fathers gain custody. The Meier Study found alienation theories are applied in a gender-biased manner.
Law students are trained to use language and approaches previously approved by courts.
Typically, the language previously used in documents like contracts or wills is copied because the lawyer knows courts have interpreted the language the way they intend.
Courts today are doing the same thing with outdated practices that good scientific research proves wrong. Courts might be able to recognize the kind of outrageous abuse in a case like this but repeatedly miss abuse in cases slightly less obvious.
Family courts usually fail abuse victims with outdated practices that good scientific research proves wrong.
The consequence for children is catastrophic.
The father in this case admitted his assaults on the mother, so there was no issue that the mother made up her reports. Instead, the father claimed it was all consensual and he had a justification for all his abuse.
His claim was questionable in light of the strangulation and failure to stop when a safeword was used. His claim was destroyed in the light of his exposure of the children to behavior that caused PTSD, in addition to harmful reactions and behavior that no one could possibly have coached.
Other, less obvious DV custody cases, could also easily be recognized by custody courts if they used the knowledge discussed in Saunders and selected the right experts for DV and child abuse cases.
These subjects require a specialized area of knowledge. Failure to use the research and the needed expertise is not neutral in the sense that the same approach is used for both parents. All of the mistakes made by failure to consider current scientific research tilt decisions in favor of abusive fathers and towards risking the health and safety of children.
Money is Usually a Factor in Outcomes When Family Courts Fail Abuse Victims
Domestic violence is about control, including financial control.
This means that abusive fathers often control most of the financial resources. Abusers have plenty of money for attorneys and to extend the litigation in ways designed to bankrupt their victims.
Many protective mothers start with attorneys but must continue pro se when their money runs out.
The money differential is how and why the cottage industry of lawyers and mental health professionals developed to use approaches that favor abusive fathers. In many cases, cottage industry attorneys can get cottage industry evaluators and GALs appointed.
Protective mothers have almost no chance when the court appoints cottage industry professionals to roles that are supposed to be neutral.
Judge Mike Brigner wrote a chapter in the first volume of Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody, co-edited by Dr. Mo Therese Hannah and Barry Goldstein.
Judge Brigner wrote that most courts have the authority to level the playing field by requiring the wealthy abuser to pay at least some of the legal and other fees so the mother can present an effective case and the court can hear both sides of a dispute.
The Batterer as Parent by Lundy Bancroft and Dr. Jay Silverman recommended that abusers be required to pay any costs, including legal fees, that their abusive tactics made necessary.
In this case, the grandparents and the mother had attorneys while the father didn’t.
The grandparents had to conduct extensive research and overcome professionals who sought to discourage their efforts to protect their grandchildren. The grandparents had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to create a team of experts to help the court understand the risks the father posed to the children.
Protective mothers are often scared and saddened as they realize all the professionals take the side of their abuser.
It could be because:
- abusers are skilled manipulators, or
- because of gender and other bias, or
- because of ignorance of current scientific research.
But, too often, it is because there are financial incentives to support the abuser.
As one-sided as the evidence was in this case, if we reversed financial resources, the outcome could have been catastrophic for the children.
Learning from a Successful Outcome
The children in this case were both grateful and relieved that they would be protected. They will now have a chance for a full, happy, and healthy life.
The court heard and used current scientific research. The court made a decision based on the well-being of the children and not the “rights” of the abusive father.
Sadly, the happy ending after the brutal start is all too rare.
One of the experts in this case told the court there was a good chance the children would not live past their teens or twenties if the children were forced to live with the fear and stress this father caused.
This is also true in cases where abusive fathers are given unprotected visitation; co-parenting; custody and even the harmful outcome cases Saunders says are always wrong. In these cases the abuser gains custody and a safe, protective mother is limited to supervised or no visitation.
Saunders says courts need to use a multi-disciplinary approach, which means listening to DV experts in DV cases and child sexual abuse experts with reports of possible child sexual abuse.
Relying on the same small group of mental health professionals creates an insular atmosphere that discourages the integration of critical scientific breakthroughs and needed reforms. It encourages courts to use a defensive response, even to the most heartbreaking and preventable tragedies.
When a patient has cancer or heart disease, we know that relying on a general practitioner is a mistake. Relying exclusively on mental health professionals who don’t have the specialized knowledge about abuse is similarly dangerous.
The precious little girls in this case were saved because the court heard the most important scientific research.
Whose child deserves less than the best information available?
This is why we need to support proposed legislation that will require training for judges, GALs, evaluators, and other court professionals.
Legislation like Kyra’s Law and Kayden’s Law will promote and protect children and families at risk of family violence.
There are 58,000 at-risk children ordered into unsupervised situations with their abusive parents each year. In the last ten years, over 800 of these children have been murdered. In many of these cases, the court ordered access to the children abusive fathers needed to commit the murders.
While the children in this case enjoyed the best beach trip ever, hundreds of other children are forced by the courts to live with their abusers, to cower in fear and cry themselves to sleep.
We must change that. We can help these children.
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.
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.