THE BLOG

Can Family Courts Protect Children Exposed to Domestic Violence?

02/11/2016 02:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2016
  • David Adams Psychologist, and Co-Founder and Co-Director of Emerge, an abuser education program and national training center on domestic violence

Four year old boy: "Mommy, you look at me when I'm talking to you!"

Five year old boy: "Mommy, you're a stupid liar!"

Seven year old girl: "Dad said you are ungrateful." Mother: "Do you think I'm ungrateful honey?" Girl: I don't know, he said you were".

Eleven year old boy: "When is Dad coming home? Mother: "I don't know dear" Boy: "Dad says he wants to but you won't let him"

Fourteen year old girl: "Dad's right, you are a bitch mother!"

These children have all lived with domestic violence. They show a range of effects that are typical of children exposed to this type of abuse. On a concrete level, many are confused about why their parents are living apart, and who is responsible. Some blame their fathers for his abusive behavior, but just as often, they blame their mothers for 'driving him away'. Isn't she chronically 'ungrateful' or 'impossible to please', as many abusers claim? Some children vent their anger toward their mother because she is typically the more approachable parent. Anger is more easily expressed to her than to a father whose anger must be assuaged.

Regardless of which parent they blame, many kids in homes where this is domestic violence to feel responsible for one or more of their parents; responsible for protecting the abused parent, and/or responsible for managing the anger of the abuser. Children caught in these situations are more likely than other children to suffer a host of emotional problems like anger, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. They are more likely to perform poorly and to drop out of school. Children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to turn to alcohol and drugs, engage in juvenile crime, become pregnant, make someone pregnant and engage in teen dating violence.
They are also more likely to grow up to become abusers.

One national survey found that children who were exposed to severe domestic violence were three times more likely to become abusers as adults. But when exposed to severe domestic violence, children are one hundred times more likely to become abusers.

Despite these problems, many family courts continue to only consider only one factor when determining child custody or visits for abusive men; whether he has put his hands on the children.
Short of that, he is 'good to go' as a custodial parent in the eyes of custody evaluators and judges. There appear to be two basic problems in how family courts respond to domestic violence allegations by mothers. One is that victims are often not believed, and another is that even when their allegations are validated, it sometimes does not count against the abusive ex-partner in terms of sharing legal or physical custody of the children. Numerous studies have found that custody evaluators often do not properly assess for domestic violence when it is claimed by mothers, and that even when it is substantiated, it is often ignored in minimized in their final reports.

One study found that in many cases evidence about domestic violence is excluded from child custody evaluation reports. More troubling, is that even when domestic violence by the father is validated by custody evaluators, in many cases it does not hinder the father's chances of gaining joint legal and/or physical custody. A mega analysis of various surveys of custody evaluators found that approximately 40% say that they typically recommend sole legal and physical custody to mothers who are victims of domestic violence, while 47% typically recommend joint legal and physical custody to both parents

There appear to be two primary determining factors in these decisions. One is lack of expertise or training on domestic violence and the other is gender bias about mothers and fathers. Custody evaluators and judges who have not had adequate training are far less likely to identify abuse as a pattern of coercive behavior, as opposed to viewing it as a response to stress. Also, they are less likely to recognize the negative impact of domestic violence on children as well as its corrosive effect on responsible co-parenting. Secondly, gender biases appear to play a major role in judge's decisions and custody evaluator's recommendations. According to one study, male evaluators (though not most), and particularly those with patriarchal beliefs, are more likely to believe that domestic violence is not important in child custody determinations, and to believe that mothers, more often than fathers, fabricate allegations of domestic violence. Biased evaluators (of both genders) are also more likely to judge abused mothers harshly. Evaluators appear to prefer their victims to be meek as opposed to angry or defiant. Rather than seeing that a mother's anger is an understandable response to abuse, uninformed and/or biased evaluators sometimes see the mother as being vindictive and guilty of 'alienating' the children against the father. Anger is not the only emotional response of abused mothers that is misconstrued. Rather than seeing that a mother's depression or anxiety might be the result of domestic violence, uninformed evaluators view it as a sign of mental illness that disqualifies her as a custodial parent.

Domestic violence often continues after separation and divorce. In fact, men with histories of domestic violence are more likely than nonabusers to seek full custody of their children. Is it because they recognize the best interests of their children, or because they seek to maintain their control over their ex-partners and children? The court's muddled grasp about this often means that victims of domestic violence, and their children, are re-victimized by the court system, and are doomed to having to continuously battle the effects of abusers who continue to exert control through court-sanctioned custody or unsupervised visitation. This provides cover for abusers to continue to undermine the mother's relationship with the children, and sends a terrible message to children who are caught in the middle. Children continue to pay the price when the system affirms the abusive father's rights as a parent and perpetuates their exposure to domestic violence.

Without safety from an abusive father, the little boy who calls his mother "a stupid liar", is attempting to resolve his fear and confusion by copying his father's behavior. With training on domestic violence, criminal courts have done a better job of protecting adult and child victims of domestic violence. We should expect no less from our family courts.

CONVERSATIONS