Maryland child custody committee recommends specialized judges for custody cases involving child abuse or domestic violence

Prince McLeod Rams and Hera McLeod: Fauquier.com

Hera McLeod did everything she could to protect her baby son from a father who she said had attempted to suffocate her when she was pregnant, raped her 19 year-old sister and was a suspect in killings of his mother and the mother of his other child. But it was not enough The judge in her custody case accepted her ex-husband’s favorable evaluation by a school counselor who was not certified to evaluate adults. In contrast, he did not accept a police report regarding the father’s abuse of another child in Virginia in the absence of the arresting officer. On his fifth unsupervised visit, paramedics responding to a 911 call found 15-month-old Prince naked, wet and not breathing at Rams’ home. Joaquin Rams is serving a life sentence for drowning his son.

Prince’s case is not unique. Around the country there has been a growing awareness that family courts are failing to protect children in custody cases where there is domestic violence or child abuse. Parents who attempt to protect their children from abusive ex-partners (often known as “protective parents”) are labeled as alienators or “high conflict” and often penalized and their warnings disregarded, as discussed in an earlier post by Child Welfare Monitor. The results can be tragic. The Center for Judicial Excellence has documented 758 children murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008. We have no idea how many children are ordered into some type of unsupervised contact with an abusive parent: this number was estimated at 58,000 in 2008. While murder is an extreme result of bad custody decisions, the devastating results on surviving children of being left with an abuser are incalculable.

Anne Hoyer directs the State of Maryland’s Safe at Home Address Confidentiality Program for domestic violence survivors. From talking to the women she served, Hoyer became more and more concerned about how often she was hearing about judges awarding custody of children to their abusers. She worked with State Senator Susan Lee to draft legislation setting up a workgroup to study child custody court proceedings involving child abuse or domestic violence.

The legislation took effect in 2019 and the workgroup began meeting in June of that year. Chaired by the Secretary of State, who has jurisdiction over the Safe at Home program, the workgroup included four legislators, 12 other members with expertise on domestic violence, child abuse or child custody, and one parent with personal Family Court experience. On September 15, 2020, the workgroup issued its final report. It contains a summary of its findings as well as 24 recommendations designed to improve the performance of Maryland’s Family Court in protecting children involved in custody cases involving abuse or domestic violence.

The workgroup acknowledged the difficulty of making custody decisions in cases where domestic violence or child abuse are present. Abused children, domestic violence victims, and domestic abusers may all behave in counterintuitive ways. An abusive parent may make a better impression on the court than the protective parent; an abused child may deny the abuse and demonstrate attachment to the abusive parent. As a result, protective parents may be labeled as unreasonable, vindictive, or attempting to “alienate” their child from the abusive parent. Ms. McLeod described trying to abide by the advice of attorneys to express her desire that her son have a healthy relationship with his father while at the same time convincing the court that her husband was dangerous–an almost impossible tightrope to walk. The workgroup also noted that abusive parents with greater financial means often use litigation to assert continued control over protective parents and can use their superior resources to buy better representation in the court case and impose burdensome costs on protective parents.

The workgroup also expressed its concern about the widespread acceptance by courts of parental alienation claims against protective parents–a national problem. Specifically, a child’s fear or hostility toward a parent accused of being abusive by the other parent is attributed to the latter’s attempt to “alienate” the child from the other parent. The workgroup heard from Joan Meier, whose massive study on this issue has drawn much attention. Meier presented her results that indicate when a father claims alienation, the court’s likelihood of believing a mother’s abuse claim is dramatically reduced.

Professor Meier’s results also supported the conclusion that courts are now biased against mothers– in contrast to the anti-father bias that used to be prevalent in family court. For example she found that when fathers alleged that mothers were alienators, they took custody 44 percent of the time. Mothers who alleged that fathers were alienators took custody only 28 percent of the time. Fathers who were proven to have committed child physical abuse still took custody 25 percent of the time; mothers proven to have committed physical abuse were never granted custody. Experts cited additional evidence of gender bias in custody cases. Dr. Daniel Saunders presented a survey of 200 judges and 465 custody evaluators showed the prevalence of sexist myths, such as that mothers often accuse fathers falsely of domestic violence, that lead to recommendations likely to harm domestic violence victims and their children. Deborah Epstein, the Co-Director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at George Washington University Law School shared observations from many years of experience in DC Superior Court documenting routine disbelief of women’s claims of domestic abuse. (Summaries of all the presentations are provided at the end of the workgroup’s report).

Two of the most important workgroup recommendations, according to Hoyer, address judicial training and specialization. The workgroup recommended that the judiciary, in consultation with domestic violence and child. advocacy organizations, develop an ongoing training program for judges who preside over custody cases that involve child abuse or domestic violence. A judge would be required to receive at least 60 hours of training before presiding over such a case and to pursue at least 10 hours of such training every two years to continue hearing these cases. The workgroup also recommended a list of topics to be covered in the initial training, including: the impact of adverse childhood experiences on children and variations in how children respond to trauma; limitations in Child Protective Services responses to allegations and the fact that abuse may have occurred even if an investigation did not substantiate it; the impact of exposure to domestic violence on children; the effects of bias on custody decision-making; the history of parental alienation theory and its inappropriate use in child custody cases; and tools to assess children’s credibility in court.

Considering the impractically of training all circuit court judges this deeply in these issues, the workgroup recommended that a limited number of judges be specially trained to handle custody cases in which child abuse or domestic violence have been alleged or established. Moreover, the Judiciary must ensure that such cases are assigned only to Judges with this specialized training.

The workgroup made many other recommendations, including several that would change statutory language to better account for child abuse and domestic violence, impose more stringent qualifications and requirements for other professionals (lawyers and custody evaluators) involved in custody cases, and give parties access to needed resources without financial hardship. But according to Hoyer, “establishing a corps of judges who want to do this work and giving them the tools to do it is the essential foundation that will pave the way for future changes.” For example, fully-trained and specialized judges will be less likely to accept evaluations that are inadequate or performed by unqualified people.

Legislators and other workgroup members will be meeting in the weeks ahead to translate some of the recommendations into legislation to be introduced during the upcoming legislative session. Maryland’s workgroup is the first of its kind in the nation and Hoyer has received questions from many other states. Child Welfare Monitor hopes that other states will follow Maryland’s example and initiate the process for making our troubled family courts safe for children.

6 thoughts on “Maryland child custody committee recommends specialized judges for custody cases involving child abuse or domestic violence

  1. This is a superb update and analysis. I think judicial education and specialization are both essential tools. I hope other jurisdictions are listening!

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  2. This is brilliant. The entire country needs to implement specialized judges in these cases. A friend of mine took her son’s life and her own in July when it became clear the corrupt judge planned to strip her of her rights unjustly and give her abusive ex-husband full custody. She felt murder-suicide was an act of mercy for her son, saving him from growing up in his father’s narcissistic shadow and being abused at his whims. That was a massive shock to the system that truly opened my eyes to this problem. The case of James Ryker Biel is another egregious example of family court corruption. There are too many to list.

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  3. In 1988 the National Coalition for Family Justice was established (at behest of Whitney North Seymour, Jr., Esq. whose father assisted re early revisions to the Amer. Bar Assn). Founder/pres. of NCFJ said to me ~2002 – “Abusive Custody is best-kept secret in U.S.” Scarily it still is!! I said we needed more nat’l public outreach & est’d their Advisory Bd. & have reached out LOTS since, along with scads of other activists such as CJE, CPPA, BMCC, ETC, to countless media, organizations & politicians (2005 Sen.Obama sent me letter re my new legal reform report sent to ~250 re need for legal reform, no matter topic, esp. re FC reform, since entire system had- has- become re ‘Who CAN Win Vs. What’s Fair, no matter topic, esp. if power imbalance, worst when hurts kids.’ He sent me letter largely agreeing & noting he thought legislation re FC reform was pending in many states, hmm…Feb.’09 I & others were called & told we were “vetted to report to his new post on Violence Against Women.” It made scant progress as foiled at every turn. After years of efforts CJE & CPPA co-authored H.Con.Res.72- passed House WITHOUT DISSENT 9/25/18 re safety 1st of kids of divorce if abuse alleged ( May 2018 I even handed data re need for passage to office at Supreme Court). It is compassionate & constructive, but few states have passed their version- required since FCs are under state jurisdiction- since major media & even organizations & reps who signed the pre-support list have mostly refused to inform the public to create demand! The Safe Child Act is also mostly ignored as is 31pg research report (re 2,000 appealed contested custody cases, ssrn.com/abstract=3448062) by 5 authors (3 male) from DC’s George Wash. Law School – found in 24% of such cases courts awarded custody/visits to fathers when court AGREED re his abuse but never if agreed re mother’s abuse. ETC!!!!
    How about CONNECT the DOTS CONTESTS with incentives & restricted to ONLY compassionate, constructive solutions (including by businesses) – since most know cycling nature of dysfunction & that kids mostly learn what they live- re how to best maximize chances for kids to become responsible adults? Consider not only relationships to dysfunctional FCs but also re CPS, gun violence, substance abuse & all that often entails, increasing online porn & trafficking, inability to concentrate in school, fact that stress often causes lifelong health issues, ETC, & huge costs re all of this (note Atty. Barry Goldstein’s 2014 bk, “The Quincy Solution: Stop DV & Save $500 Billion,” # he now says closer to $750 B. Aren’t we in danger of doing too little too late?? How kids turn out EVERYWHERE determines EVERYTHING- HOW could it NOT? Denial! Use cliches- “None so blind as those who will not see…”

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