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.

 

 

 

 

Why Kansas let Adrian and Evan die

 

Dianne Keech, a former Kansas child welfare official and currently a child safety consultant, was asked by the Wichita Eagle and Fox News to analyze case files regarding the highly-publicized deaths of Adrian Jones and Evan Brewer.  I asked Ms. Keech to prepare a guest blog post about the factors contributing to the deaths of Evan and Adrian. She prepared a ten-page document, which you can access here. Below, I highlight some of her conclusions. 

Calls to the Kansas child abuse hotline began when Adrian Jones was only a few months old. There were 15 screened-in reports for Adrian before he was six years old. Out of 15 reports in total that KCF investigated, Keech found that there was only one substantiated allegation of abuse, and that was based on an investigation by law enforcement.  After Adrian was removed from his mother’s custody due to lack of supervision and placed with his father and stepmother, calls alleged that there were guns all over the house, that the stepmother was high on drugs, that Adrian had numerous physical injuries, that he was being choked by his father and stepmother, and that he was beaten until he bled.  Adrian’s father and stepmother consistently denied every allegation and the agency did nothing to verify their stories.  Adrian’s body was found in a livestock pen on November 20, 2015. It had been fed to pigs that were bought for this purpose. It was later found that Adrian’s father and stepmother had meticulously documented his abuse through photos and videos. They are serving life terms for his murder.

DCF received six separate reports of abuse of little Evan Brewer between July 2016 (when he was two years old) and May 2017. These reports involved methamphetamine abuse by the mother, domestic violence, and physical abuse of Evan. Only three of these reports were assigned for investigation and none were substantiated.  In the last two months of Evan’s life, the agency received two reports of near-fatal abuse, one alleging that he hit his head and became unconscious in the bathtub and the other alleging that his mother’s boyfriend choked Evan and then revived him. The first of these reports received no response for six days and the investigator apparently accepted the mother’s claim that the child was out of state. The investigator of the second report also never laid eyes on Evan.  On September 22, a landlord found Evan’s body encased in concrete on his property. Horrific photos and videos documented Evan’s months of torture by his mother and her boyfriend. His mother and her boyfriend have been charged with first-degree murder. 

Looking at Root Problems

Keech believes that there are three root problems that led to Adrian and Evan’s deaths: a dangerous ideology, the pernicious influence of a well-heeled foundation, and faulty outcome measures used by the federal government. These are discussed in order below.

Dangerous Ideology: Signs of Safety is a child protection practice framework that was never officially adopted by Kansas. But Keech alleges that its philosophy has permeated all aspects of child welfare practice in the state. The Signs of Safety framework, according to its manual, seeks to avoid “paternalism,” which “occurs whenever the professional adopts the position that they know what is wrong in the lives of client families and they know what the solutions are to those problems.” Signs of safety links paternalism with the concept of subjective truth, citing  “the paternalistic impulse to establish the truth of any given situation.” According to Keech, this implication that all truth is subjective  means that investigating “facts” is a worthless task.  Workers are encouraged to “engage” parents, not investigate them.  Keech gives numerous examples of how this practice approach left Evan and Adrian vulnerable to further abuse. When Adrian’s younger sister was brought to the hospital with seizures, she was diagnosed with a subdural head trauma that was non-accidental. But when Adrian’s stepmother insisted that Adrian inflicted the injury with a curtain rod, DCF believed her and did not substantiate the allegation–not even finding her neglectful for letting the child be hurt. When DCF received a report that Evan’s mother was using methamphetamine and blowing marijuana in his face, they accepted her denials and closed the case with no drug test required.

Along with a new practice framework, Kansas adopted a new definition of safety. As in many other states, safety in Kansas has been redefined as the absence of “imminent danger.” This is in contrast to “risk,” which connotes future danger to the child. As a result, children can be paradoxically found to be at high risk of future harm but safe–which happened twice with Adrian. (He was found to be at “moderate” risk three times.) As long as a child is deemed “safe,” the child cannot be removed from home. The decoupling of risk from safety explains why both Adrian and Evan were found to be “safe” 18 times in total, when they were anything but. This is a common situation in many other states. “Risk,” on the other hand, triggers an offer of services, which can be refused, which is what Adrian’s father and stepmother did when he was found to be at risk. I’ve written about the case of Yonatan Aguilar in California, who was found four times to be at high risk of future maltreatment but “safe.” His parents refused services. He spent the last three years of his life locked in a closet until he died.

Pernicious Influence: Casey Family Programs is a financial behemoth with total assets of $2.2 billion. Its mission is to “provide and improve, and ultimately prevent the need for, foster care.'”Over a decade ago, Casey set a goal of reducing foster care by 50% by the year 2020.  Casey works in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two territories and more than a dozen tribal nations.  It provides financial and technical assistance to state and local agencies to support its vision. It conducts research, develops publications, provides testimony to promote its views to public officials around the country.  As Keech puts it, “There is not a corner of child welfare in the United States where Casey is not a highly influential presence.” Keech has experienced firsthand Casey’s efforts to pressure Kansas to reduce its foster care rolls.  At a meeting in that Keech attended in 2015, Casey used “peer pressure” to “shame one region for having a higher foster care placement rate.  Casey adopted and promoted the Signs of Safety approach discussed above.

Faulty Federal Outcome Measures: The Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) is an intense federal review of the entire child welfare system.  If a state does not pass the review (and no state has passed, to date) then the state must agree with the federal government on a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) or lose funding. Keech feels that the federal reviews can be manipulated by states to improve their outcomes at a cost to child safety.  For example, one of the two measures of child safety is timely initiation of investigations. When a hotline screens out a report (as was done three times with Evan)  or a case manager fails to report a new allegation (which was done three times while Adrian had an open services case) the agency does not need to worry about timely initiation of an investigation. Another CFSR outcome is “reduce recurrence of child abuse and neglect, ” which is measured by calculating the percentage of children with a substantiated finding of maltreatment who have another substantiated finding within 12 months of the initial finding. This outcome can be improved by failing to investigate reports, or investigating them but failing to substantiate. Only one of the allegations involving Adrian was substantiated; three of the allegations involving Evan were not even investigated and the other three were not substantiated. By not substantiating allegations, Kansas reduces its recurrence rate. 

The factors that Keech discusses are not unique to Kansas and are occurring around the country, in states including most of America’s children. All of these states should consider Keech’s recommendations for protecting Kansas’ children from the fate of Adrian and Evan.  Most importantly, states need to prioritize the safety of children over and above any other consideration.   The primary goal of child welfare must be the protection of children, not reducing entries to foster care. The artificial division between risk and safety should be eliminated and risk should be allowed to inform safety decisions. States must treat substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity, mental health issues, and parental history of maltreatment, as real  threats to child safety. Workers must be empowered and required to gather all of the information needed to determine the truth of allegations, not rely on adults’ self-serving denials. And they must be allowed–and required–to request out of home placement when there is no other way to protect a child.  

 

 

Domestic violence and child abuse: a lethal combination

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It did not take long for the press to discover that Devin Kelley, the the perpetrator of the  recent mass shooting in Texas, had repeatedly assaulted his first wife and fractured the skull of his infant stepson in 2012. He was court-martialed for those offenses, pled guilty, and was imprisoned for a year.

I could not help noting the parallel to the case that I wrote about in my last post–that of Antoine Flemons, who at two months old was beaten to death by his father, Antoine Petty. The post focused on one aspect of this case–the fact the father was known to have abused many other children.  I argued that baby Antoine might have been protected by a broader policy to identify at birth babies born to parents with such a record.

But the revelations about the Texas shooter reminded me of another important aspect of Antoine’s family that put the baby in grave danger.  In an interview with the Washington Post, Antoine’s grandmother stated that her daughter Geneice Petty loved her son but suffered from “battered women’s syndrome.” In other words, she was a victim of domestic violence.

The connection between domestic violence and child abuse is well-documented. Research suggests that “in an estimated 30 to 60 percent of the families where either domestic violence or child maltreatment is identified, it is likely that both forms of abuse exist.”

In the 40 states providing domestic violence data to the Administration Children and Families for its Child Maltreatment 2015 report, 25% of child maltreatment victims were found to have a caregiver who was either a victim, perpetrator or witness of domestic violence.

Co-occurring domestic violence and child abuse can take several forms. In many cases, one parent (usually the father) abuses both the other parent and the child or children. There are other configurations, such as families in which the abused parent in turn abuses the children.

In baby Antoine’s case,  no information has been released to the public. One can speculate in view of the father’s extreme violence that Geneice Petty was afraid to protect her children and that her husband bullied her into covering up his killing of their son.

The key question is what could have been done to prevent the death of Antoine. Historically, child welfare systems have had not responded effectively to domestic violence. Common and problematic patterns have included ignoring or minimizing the domestic violence and, conversely, giving women an ultimatum to leave the abuser or leave their children–a response which often leads women to fear and avoid child protection authorities rather than seek their help.

One study found that “[Domestic violence]appears to have only a minor role in influencing the decisions of child welfare workers; yet, children exposed to [domestic violence] often have multiple contacts with [child welfare services] due to the higher number of repeat allegations of maltreatment.”

The Children’s Bureau has has published a useful manual about how to handle child maltreatment cases in which domestic violence is present or suspected. The manual’s many recommendations provide alternatives to the problematic practices mentioned above.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if Maryland child welfare workers even identified domestic violence in earlier cases involving Antoine’s parents, let alone how they responded. That’s why, as I have said over and over again about all child maltreatment deaths and serious injuries, there needs to be a thorough investigation, a public report, and a proposal for changes in policy and practice to protect future baby Antoines.