Using the ACE study in Family Court
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Studies are medical research that can change the world in the most wonderful ways and make family courts safe for protective mothers and their children if only the courts allow themselves to be influenced by this highly credible scientific research. If the courts were using best practices to respond to domestic violence and child abuse, mothers could expect judges, lawyers, and evaluators to be trauma-informed and knowledgeable about ACEs. Unfortunately, few court professionals have this vital knowledge, so protective mothers will need to be pro-active so their children can benefit from this information.
The ACE study has the ability to change the discussion in court that badly needs to be changed. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges seeks to train judges about ACEs. The ACE Research comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The endorsement of ACEs by these highly reputable organizations can be mentioned to the court to encourage judges to be open to this information.
The ACE study answers a fundamental question at the heart of the family court response to child custody cases involving reports of domestic violence (DV) and child abuse. What impact does domestic violence have on children? Without the ACE study, courts are free to accept subjective answers that minimize the harm caused by abuse. The ACE study destroys the bogus assumptions regardless of whether they are provided based on ignorance, bias, or self-interest.
The big picture
The initial use of ACE was for diagnosing and treating patients because it is medical research. Patients suffering from unexplained pain, back problems, stomach issues and symptoms without a physical explanation often could not be helped before ACE. In many instances the patients were called hypochondriacs and sent home to suffer in silence. Doctors never considered that trauma from decades earlier could be the cause of the suffering. ACE helps medical professionals relieve their patients’ suffering, but also demonstrates the enormous harm and long-lasting consequences of exposure to domestic violence and child abuse.
In 1964, the US Surgeon General released a report linking smoking and cancer. We responded with a variety of responses that has been effective to significantly reduce smoking. This response has saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars. The ACE Studies are often compared to the Surgeon General’s report because we can use the research to create even more benefits by working to prevent domestic violence and child abuse.
Society has allowed and even encouraged behavior we would now understand as DV and child abuse for thousands of years. Our present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, crime and many other health and social problems is based on our long tolerance for DV and child abuse. The exciting promise of the ACE Research is that if we take abuse more seriously, we can dramatically reduce these scourges of society and increase life expectancy.
Dr. Vincent Felitti was the lead author of the original ACE Study. He now says that prevention is the most important use for his research and it is especially needed in the family courts. Custody cases are often the last chance to save children from the awful consequences of exposure to adverse childhood experiences.
The ACE Findings
The original ACE Study considered ten adverse childhood experiences. These included three forms of child abuse; physical, sexual, and emotional; two forms of neglect; physical and emotional; and five household dysfunctions; domestic violence, separation from parents through divorce, separation, or death; substance abuse of parents, mental illness of parents, and the incarceration of a parent.
Children get an ACE score of 1 for each category of ACE (not each incident). The Stop Abuse Campaign provides the questions in a calculator used to calculate someone’s ACE score. The higher the ACE score, the more negative consequences are likely to impact the child. As an example, a score of 6, on average will result in reducing life expectancy by 20 years.
Using ACE in your Custody Case
It is possible that a judge or other court professional has received training about ACE, but most are unfamiliar with the research. ACE will fundamentally change the discussion in a good way so it is important to make the judge aware of this research as early in the process as possible. Some lawyers think they can wait until trial and surprise the other side, but in the meantime the judge and perhaps GAL are reaching mistaken conclusions and mothers are pressured to agree to dangerous settlements.
The attorney or mother should tell the courts that there is now important scientific research that demonstrates many of the old practices for responding to domestic violence and child abuse have proven mistaken. Ask the judge to be open to considering this research. The fact that ACE is taught to judges by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention should make courts more open to considering the research.
One of the benefits of discussing ACE early is this information can be used in selecting court professionals like an evaluator or GAL. Protective mothers can and should ask that any evaluator or GAL is trauma-informed and familiar with the ACE research. Professionals with this information are more likely to recognize abuse and treat it seriously. If the court appoints professionals without this expertise and they make bad recommendations, the fact they failed to have the necessary knowledge makes it easier to challenge their mistakes. The objections are not just based on disagreeing with the findings because the concerns were raised before any investigation.
ACE demonstrates that many standard court practices work poorly for children in custody cases involving reports of domestic violence and child abuse. This information can be presented to the court through an expert witness and can be used to discredit evaluators or other hostile professionals. Mistaken practices include:
Focusing Only on Physical Assaults
ACE says that most of the harm from domestic violence and child abuse is caused by living with the fear and stress abusers cause rather than any immediate physical injuries. Most domestic violence is neither physical nor illegal. Considering all domestic violence tactics makes it easier to prove abuse because there are so many more examples and some are more likely to offer witnesses or other proof. Many if not most DV custody cases involve “only” one or a few incidents of physical assaults. Once an abuser assaults his partner, he has demonstrated what he is capable of so doesn’t have to repeatedly assault his partner to coerce her to do what he wants. Focusing on a larger group of abusive tactics makes it easier for courts to recognize his abuse and motives.
Focusing Only on Recent Abuse
Some courts refuse to consider incidents of abuse unless they are recent. ACE demonstrates this is a mistake. The purpose of considering reports of domestic violence and child abuse is because of the severe harm caused to children. This risk is not reduced because of the passage of time. One physical assault is often sufficient to tell the adult victim and children what the abuser is capable of. Other non-physical abusive tactics serve as a reminder of what could happen if they don’t obey the abuser. ACE tells us that courts need to focus on the fear and stress abuse causes and this means any history of abuse goes to the essence of the well- being of children.
Use of High Conflict Approaches
Court professionals have been taught that contested custody involves two good parents who are acting out in ways that harm children because they are angry at each other. The research says a large majority are really domestic violence cases. Using high conflict approaches, courts view reports of domestic violence and child abuse as obstacles to the preferred co-parenting arrangement instead of a warning that one of the parents is unsafe. Courts have the power to force children to interact with an abuser, but they cannot remove the fear and stress from the children. This forces children to go into survival mode which pushes the pain and fear deeper inside them where it will inevitably come out in more harmful ways.
Co-parenting Arrangements in Abuse Cases
Contested custody cases are often the last chance to save children from the life-altering consequences of exposure to ACEs. In order to save children, they will need medical treatment and therapy both to respond to problems as they develop and to reduce the stress. The problem is that abusers want to minimize the harm they caused and don’t want children in therapy where their abuse might be revealed. Accordingly, abusers use shared parenting to prevent children from getting the treatment they need and this takes away their last chance to overcome the effects of domestic violence and child abuse.
Reliance on Court Professionals who Are Not Trauma-Informed
Judges, lawyers, and evaluators unfamiliar with the ACE Research inevitably minimize DV and child abuse harm. Their failure to focus on the majority of domestic violence tactics that don’t involve physical assaults makes it much harder to recognize abuse or the motives of abusers. Professionals without the benefit of ACE fail to focus on reducing the fear and stress of victims of abuse and so throw away the last chance to save children from the awful consequences. When courts require experts to be trauma-informed, judges can make decisions that help children heal instead of pushing the pain deep inside the children where it will cause so much more harm.
Minimizing the Significance of DV and Child Abuse
Every state has a list of factors courts are required to consider when making custody decisions. The full list of factors is useful in most cases involving two safe and loving parents. In contested custody cases, children’s health and safety is the most consequential issue, and any domestic violence or child abuse goes to the essence of the well-being of children. Many evaluators without the needed expertise in DV, child abuse, or ACE fail to recognize true reports of abuse or fail to appreciate the life-altering consequences. This often leads to decisions that destroy children’s lives.
Failure to Recognize the Significance of Fear
Unqualified court professionals often view a child’s fear of an alleged abuser as an obstacle to the co-parenting and parent-child relationship courts seek to promote. In reality, fear is a warning that such a relationship is harmful and dangerous to the child, at least until the abuser makes the necessary changes. ACE tells us that most of the harm from abuse is caused by the fear that DV and child abuse creates. The well-being and future of the child depend on reducing the fear and stress the abuser caused. Today, this need is far from the priority that it should be.
Failure to Recognize True Reports of Abuse
In most contested custody cases, there is “only” one or a few incidents of abuse. These assaults are almost always committed in private, so there are no witnesses. Unqualified professionals seek to dismiss the issue as “he-said-she-said” so they can move on to less important issues that they are more comfortable with. Most DV is neither physical nor illegal. Domestic violence is about control, coercion, and men’s sense of entitlement. The purpose of DV is not to inflict the most pain but to enforce the rules he feels entitled to make. Other common DV tactics include emotional, verbal, psychological, and economic abuse, isolating tactics, monitoring, litigation abuse, and attempts to deprive children of their primary attachment figure and harm children as the best way to hurt their victim. These other tactics are often easier to prove because they are more likely to have witnesses, documentary proof, or admissions because the abuser sees nothing wrong with these harmful tactics. These additional incidents would make it easier for courts to recognize DV and his motives if only courts understood this information’s significance. ACE tells us that these non-physical tactics cause fear and stress in children and are a reminder of any past physical abuse.
Fundamental Mishandling of Child Sexual Abuse Cases
Perhaps the most disturbing ACE statistic is that in the United States, we allow one-quarter of our children to be sexually abused. There are other studies with similar results, but ACE used a methodology that eliminated the possibility of false reports. This is important because the myth that women and children frequently make false reports of abuse is one of the biggest impediments to preventing child sexual abuse. Although mothers make deliberate false reports of child sexual abuse less than two percent of the time, the Meier Study found courts believe these reports only 15% of the time and only 2% when alleged abusers use the alienation tactic. The frequency of the catastrophic failure to believe victims is caused by bias, sexism, and deeply flawed practices. Accordingly, protective mothers involved in cases that may involve child sexual abuse should make the court aware of the problem and ask that the court take a fresh look at the issues based on ACE and other reliable scientific research.
Judges are used to the standard practices that the research proves are harmful to children. They are generally proud or at least defensive about past decisions. This means that protective mothers not only have to provide compelling information but also have to present it in a way the judges can hear. ACE is particularly helpful in doing this because it comes from the CDC, is peer-reviewed and there have been several additional studies that confirm the findings. We can frame the discussion as now that we have this information let’s see if it can help protect children rather than a criticism of past practices when the court did not have this information.
The ACE Research goes to the essence of the best interests of the children so it is exactly what courts would be more willing to hear. Focusing on fear and stress helps protective mothers because abusers may fear consequences but they are not afraid the mother is going to hurt or kill them. ACE encourages a different kind of conversation and this is badly needed in the family courts.
Judges and lawyers have spent their entire careers hearing the misinformation that has predominated the courts. The more these professionals hear about ACE the better chance for them to understand and act based on this good medical research. It will be a welcome change to spend our time talking about what can be done to benefit the children.