For decades, protective mothers have been complaining that family courts are tilted to favor abusive fathers and that they face corruption. Court officials have tended to respond defensively and dismissed the domestic violence victims as disgruntled litigants. Over the years an ever growing collection of research, media investigations and preventable tragedies have supported the mothers’ position, but in a form of confirmation bias, court officials have ignored inconvenient findings.
In my first book with Mo Hannah, Sharon K. Araji and Rebecca L. Bosek wrote an interesting chapter in which they looked at surveys of protective mothers in five states which showed consistent court failures to protect children. It might be easy to dismiss the research because mothers with bad outcomes might be biased, but the authors compared the mother’s complaints with credible research and found the findings supported the mothers. The courts were routinely treating the mothers as if they were not credible but the scientific findings supported other research that found protective mothers rarely make deliberate false complaints.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies from the CDC demonstrated that domestic violence and child abuse are far more harmful than previously understood and that physical abuse is not required to ruin children’s lives. In other words the courts have been minimizing the seriousness of DV and child abuse and basically ignoring non-physical tactics. Despite the research, courts are still not focused on reducing the fear and stress from abuser tactics that cause children so much harm. And most of the standard court practices undermine the needed healing.
The Saunders’ Study was designed to consider the knowledge and training about domestic violence possessed by evaluators, judges and lawyers. The Study found many of these professionals do not have the specific knowledge necessary to respond to domestic violence. Those without the needed training tend to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make deliberate false reports and unscientific alienation theories. These mistakes lead to outcomes that harm children. Five years after the release of the Saunders’ Study these mistaken assumptions continue to predominate. Saunders also looked at harmful outcome cases in which alleged abusers win custody and safe, protective mothers are limited to supervised visitation. These decisions are always wrong and based on flawed practices but remain common in the family courts.
A study from the Leadership Council found the courts were sending 58,000 children for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers every year. Dr. Joy Silberg studied turn-around cases in which courts initially gave custody to an abuser who was later proven dangerous despite the trial court’s predictions. Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges in communities where 175 children were murdered by fathers involved in contested custody. The courts failed to create reforms in response to the tragedies because they all assumed the murder in their community was an exception.
Boston Globe reporters investigated a pattern of failure in Massachusetts custody courts and their child protective agency. They used a case in which a father found to have sexually abused his daughter was awarded custody in order to punish a mother for trying to leave the state. The reporters found the failure of professionals to use the Saunders’ research led to many of the dangerous decisions. Reporter Laurie Udesky interviewed professionals and victims in nine states and found a pattern of courts granting custody to dangerous abusers. Joaquin Sapien of Pro Publico found widespread failures among NY evaluators.
Professor and Founder of DV LEAP Joan Meier sought to resolve the dispute by gathering national empirical data that could not be dismissed as a local specific study that might not apply nationally. Her "pilot study" of nationwide family court outcomes in cases involving alienation and abuse claims produced stunning - and disturbing - results. On the strength of that data, the National Institute of Justice in the US Justice Department provided a grant to her and a respected team of experts to support a more in-depth and scientific study of family court outcomes. Professionals working in the field have been looking forward to seeing the findings from this extensive research into thousands of cases, which is expected to be available in the next year. In the meantime, Professor Meier has just released a long-awaited article describing the findings from the pilot study of 240 cases around the country.
Part 2 to follow soon.