Family court crisis: courts placing children with abusive parents with tragic results

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Autumn Coleman’s crib is now a shrine: New York Times

On May 5, New York City firefighters were called to a horrible scene. A three-year-old girl had been locked in a car and the doors had been chained shut. Then the car was set on fire. As reported by the New York Times, the perpetrator had weekend visitation rights with his three-year-old daughter Autumn. Less than two weeks before, Autumn’s mother wrote to the family court in charge of her custody case, that Pereira was “losing a grip on reality and I honestly feel my child is in danger while in his care.” The court did not intervene.

This terrible case is not an aberration. The Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) has compiled data on 707 children who have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008. CJE has documented 98 cases during that time period in which a child was killed by a parent or parental figure after the family court allowed them unsupervised contact with the child despite being warned that the perpetrator posed a risk to the child.  But this is likely only the tip of the iceberg as there is no agency that records these cases.

A four-month investigation by Gillian Friedman in the Deseret News found that in many cases family courts are failing to protect children, allowing unsupervised visits or even custody to abusive parents. These decisions are resulting in physical and sexual child abuse and sometimes homicide.

Why would family courts put a child in danger by allowing unsupervised contact with a dangerous parent? One reason, experts told Friedman, is that judges and custody evaluators hired by courts often do not believe the claims of danger from the other parent who is trying to protect the child. As the director of CJE told Friedman, “In custody proceedings, family courts often see a parent’s allegation of child abuse as no more than a tactic to undermine the other parent’s custodial rights to the child — and therefore not a credible accusation.” Several of the mothers interviewed by Friedman reported that their attorneys told them not to allege abuse for fear that these allegations would lead to an adverse custody ruling.

Disbelief of the protective parent is not the only possible factor that causes courts to make decisions that put children in danger. Experts told Friedman that evidence of child abuse is often not conclusive and courts are reluctant to bar a parent from access to a child unless the evidence of past abuse is airtight. Moreover, many judges are overwhelmed. They may see as many as 20 cases a day and may have to make a decision after spending no more than 20 minutes on a case.

Finally, judges may be prioritizing parental rights over child safety and well-being. Even if a judge believes that a parent has been abusive, family court professionals told Friedman that it is very hard to get a judge to deny visitation to a parent. Instead, they will require the abuser to engage in treatment or counseling, while maintaining visitation.

Judges may also think a child is safe with a parent who has abused the other parent but not the child. But placing a child with a parent who has a record of domestic abuse may be dangerous even if that parent had not hurt a child. That’s because the parent may harm the child in order to punish the other parent.

Both mothers and fathers can abuse and kill their children. But  domestic violence victim advocates like Joan Meier cite evidence that women are in a disadvantage when alleging abuse in the context of a custody dispute, in part due to the influence of inaccurate beliefs about “parental alienation,” which I described in an earlier post. The “alienation” concept can be used by either parent to connote that the other parent is poisoning the child’s mind against them and has often resulted in the placement of children against their will with a parent that they allege abused them–more often than not, the father. 

But fathers’ advocates claim that that family courts are prejudiced against fathers. It seems clear that judicial attitudes have changed over time. As described in a useful article published in 2011 by San Francisco Weekly,  family courts were traditionally biased against fathers, believing that children belonged with their mothers. However, as divorce became more common, advocacy by fathers’ rights group has led to the acceptance that children’s time should be split as evenly as possible between parents. While it seems clear that child safety should trump any considerations of equity between mom and dad, it seems that some judges do not agree. 

The problem of placing parents’ rights over safety should be familiar to readers of Child Welfare Monitor from our many columns about child welfare agencies and family court judges accepting risks to child safety and well-being in order to keep families together or reunite them. In our experience with such cases. the court and the child welfare agency usually agree about the primacy of parents and the need for children to remain or be reunified with their parents. There are occasional disagreements. Child Welfare Monitor will never forget tearfully trying to convince a judge that my six-year old client would do better with a foster parent who had loved her for two year than with a mother who could not think of one good thing to say about her–to no avail. But in these custody cases it is the protective parent whose pleas to keep the child safe are being disregarded.

Thankfully, there is a growing recognition that family courts are failing to protect children in custody cases, with sometimes tragic results. Last year, Congress passed a resolution stating that “child safety is the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications, “and that courts should resolve safety risk and family violence claims first, before assessing other factors that may affect a child’s best interests. The resolution makes several recommendations to states for improving their court processes, including setting standards for evidence presented in custody proceedings and for the professionals who are accepted as experts.

In 2019, the Governor of Maryland signed a bill requiring the formation of a new workgroup, the first of its kind, to study child custody court proceedings involving child abuse or domestic violence allegations and make recommendations about “incorporating the latest science regarding the safety and well-being of children and other victims of domestic violence.”

It is important for child advocates  to become involved with this issue, which has generally been the province of mainly domestic violence advocates. Child advocates around the country should push for legislation like that passed in Maryland to establish commissions to study this issue and make recommendations about how the family courts can be improved to ensure the safety of children involved in custody litigation.

 

 

 

 

Placing children with the parent that abused them: The problematic theory of parental alienation

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Maya Tsimhoni: Detroit Free Press

An unproven–and mostly discredited–theory is encouraging family court judges to award custody–against children’s wishes–to the parent that has been accused of harming them. Moreover, this theory of “parental alienation” has “spawned a cottage industry of so-called family reunification camps that are making big profits from broken families.” That’s the message of a stunning report by the Center for Investigative Journalism aired on public radio’s Reveal program.

The Reveal broadcast focused on two custody cases in which the judge ordered children placed against their will with the parent that they claimed was abusive. In one case, the judge sent a teenage boy to juvenile detention because he was not making sufficient efforts to get along with his mother. He and his sister were then sent to live with their father and allowed no contact with their mother for a period of  three years. In the other case, a fourteen-year old girl who said her mother was emotionally abuse and wanted to live with her father was sent to a “reunification camp” for ten months at her parents’ expense. Her mother was given full custody and the teen was separated from her father father for four years.  The judges in both cases based their decisions on a theory called “parental alienation.”

Parental alienation,” originally “Parental alienation syndrome (PAS),” was the brainchild of Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist who developed it to help fathers fight abuse claims in custody disputes. In its current iteration, parental alienation describes a parent’s attempt to turn the children against another parent in a custody dispute. A charge of parental alienation is often deployed by a parent who has been accused of abuse, allowing that parent to turn the tables and accuses the other parent of brainwashing the children. The theory encourages judges to remove children from the parent with whom they are bonded because that parent is believed to have alienated them against the other parent.

According to Joan Meier, a leading researcher in the field of domestic violence and custody cases, there is little evidence to support the idea that “parental alienation” due to manipulation by one parent is a common occurrence. However, invoking parental alienation allows an abusive parent  to portray a protective parent as a vengeful liar who is manipulating the children by implanting false memories of abuse.  The theory creates a “paradoxically disastrous dynamic“: if an abuser can convince a court that the children’s attitudes reflect parental alienation, he can actually benefit from his abuse.

The Reveal story was misleading in one respect. While acknowledging that the charge of alienation is overwhelmingly used by fathers against mothers, the story focused on two families in which the mothers used the charge to take custody from the fathers. Much more common are stories like the following:

  • In August 2018, six-year-old twin boys were ordered removed from the sole custody of their mother (with whom they had lived for five years) and placed with their father, who was alleged to have physically and sexually abused them for years. The father, an Air Force colonel with a traumatic brain injury, had acknowledged problems with controlling his anger and sexual impulses. Yet a family court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland gave sole custody to the father, voicing the belief that the boys’ mother had manipulated them into making five allegations of abuse–even though such fabricated abuse allegations from young children are  rare.
  • The divorce case of Omer Tsimhoni and his ex-wife, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, drew international attention in 2015 when the judged locked up their three children, ages 9, 11, and 14, because they refused to have lunch with their father. The children spent more than two weeks in juvenile detention before the judge released them after public outcry.  The mother had claimed the children were estranged from their father because he physically and verbally abused them, and the father accused her of alienating the children. Later, the father was given temporary custody and the children did not see their mother for almost nine months. The mother was finally given primary custody by a new judge in June 2016.

How do judges make these decisions, which often seem cruel and contrary to common sense? According to Meier, many lack understanding of domestic violence and child abuse. Moreover, they often rely on neutral evaluators who also also lack “meaningful knowledge or expertise in domestic violence and abuse. Adding to this ignorance is the emphasis in family courts and mental health training on the importance of children retaining relationships with noncustodial parents after divorce and a consequent emphasis on “co-parenting,” which often reinforces the parental alienation hypothesis.

Unfortunately, there is no data to indicate how often parental alienation plays a part in child custody decisions. But according to Joan Meier,  “parental alienation remains a dominant issue in many, if not most, custody cases in which a mother has alleged that a father was abusive.”According to Meier, the increasing use of parental alienation theory is part of a broader “trend toward reversal of custody from protective mothers to allegedly abusive fathers…”

Thankfully, it  appears that due to media coverage and the work of scholars and activists, awareness about the use of parental alienation theory is growing among the public, child advocates, and policymakers. After eight years of advocacy, the House passed a Concurrent Resolution last fall that states that “child safety is the first priority of custody and parenting adjudications, and courts should resolve safety risks and claims of family violence before assessing other best interest factors.” The resolution also calls for higher standards for evidence and for the “experts” who testify in court and calls on Congress to schedule hearings on family court practices with regard to children’s safety and civil rights. According to Joan Meier, this resolution is “the perfect springboard” for local activists to take to their legislators and ask for similar changes at the local level, where the family courts actually operate.

DV LEAP, an advocacy organization founded by Joan Meier, and other organizations are also fighting for the rights of protective parents and abused children in court.  On March 22, DV LEAP and many other organizations filed a groundbreaking brief with the New York State Court of Appeals that is the first documented collaboration between domestic violence and child maltreatment professionals on parental alienation theory. According to Meier, this brief has the potential to be a catalyst for national change.

This post is a departure for Child Welfare Monitor. We have not touched on many issues outside the arena of public child welfare. But parental alienation theory is yet another example of powerful adults ignoring the best interests and expressed wishes of children, and putting them at risk due to ignorance or mistaken beliefs. Those of us who care about abused and neglected children need to expand our awareness and activity to include all children whom our institutions fail to protect from maltreatment.