“News reports have indicated that 58 children between 2008 to 2016 were killed by custodial parents after family courts ignored abuse allegations by the protective parent.”
Auditi Guha's article calls into question the family court system and its tendencies to look beyond facts, testimonies and even medical evidence to grant shared or full custody of children to abusive parents. Not only have these protective parents become stigmatized by the system, they may be fighting a losing battle unless reform happens. Former White House advisor on Violence Against Women Lynn Rosenthal says, “The research shows that the family courts are a perfect place for abusers to get custody.” Rather than considering the child’s best interest first, the family court system prioritizes keeping families together.
It is evident that major reform must happen in the nation’s family court system to combat this skewed and often detrimental priority. Such reforms may include empowering protective parents and a stronger emphasis for perpetrators to get the therapeutic help they need for themselves.
Read more here:
The Custody Awareness Collaborative (CAC) held an informational briefing on domestic violence and custody in MA Probate Court at the Statehouse on May 12, 2016. The Women’s Legislative Caucus hosted the briefing, which was well-attended, with about 35 legislators or legislative aides in attendance.
Jamie Sabino, consulting attorney for Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and Palma McLaughlin, Child Safety Specialist for the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, spoke (respectively) about the history of custody legislation in Massachusetts and what we know about the impact and outcome of custody decisions on children according to validated and up-to- date research. In addition, six survivors of domestic violence spoke briefly but powerfully about their experiences in Probate and Family Court.
Each speaker had a story that was totally unique and yet distressingly similar in the challenges that they experienced in Probate Court. The clear messages that came across from every speaker are these:
1) Custody decisions are complicated and play out differently for every family
2) Abusers use Probate Court as a means to continue to harass, stalk and abuse their family members after those family members have attempted to achieve safety by leaving the abusive home
3) Probate and Family Court in MA is currently poorly educated about and ill-equipped to handle cases in which there is ongoing abuse.
Jamie Sabino made the point that the custody laws we have right now are written to protect the best interest of the children over and above any other concerns, including the rights or wishes of the parents.
CAC maintains that this is the appropriate focus of the bill, and any changes made must preserve this focus – both in language and in all of the bill’s provisions.
Palma McLaughlin’s summary concluded that the current research – even that cited by the groups pushing for presumption of shared custody – does not support the presumption that shared custody is necessarily in the best interest of children. At best, there is a correlation between positive outcomes and shared custody, but zero evidence of causation. Meanwhile, there is substantial research on circumstances in which shared custody results in poor outcomes, particularly domestic violence and child abuse.
Of the survivors, some spoke briefly of abuse they endured prior to separation, some spoke of abuse their children endured prior to separation and after, and some spoke of the financial hardships that they endured in their quest for safety. One woman spoke very quietly, one spoke extemporaneously and with great confidence, one cried through her entire speech but didn’t stop until she was done. All of them spoke about the many years that they spent going back to court over and over again. The least amount of time it took for a speaker to reach resolution was three years, but another speaker spent 12 years fighting for her children, and some are still in the process.
All of the speakers experienced a system that put pressure on them to come to an agreement with an abuser who had made it their sole purpose to ruin their lives. Many of them spoke of going to court and being subjected to intimidation from their abuser, although there were also the abusers who repeatedly failed to show up, resulting in rescheduled date after rescheduled date. Each of the court appointments resulted in a minimum of one full day away from work – and in every case it also resulted in weeks, if not months of anxiety and dread leading up to the date. All the survivors felt that the Probate Court process put the emphasis on having them reach an agreement with their abuser rather than in establishing and supporting the specific needs of their children.
The survivors spoke candidly about their fear of bringing up abuse of themselves or their children in the court for fear of being accused of “parental alienation” (a junk-science term that has been thoroughly discredited), and several people told how their allegations of abuse were minimized by the court – or even disbelieved despite police reports and other documentation. Abusers who had been documented terrorizing their children by supervised visitation centers made claims of “parental alienation” and had those claims paid attention to.
CAC made the audience aware that each of the survivor speakers was present at the Statehouse despite significant and genuine fear. Among thousands of survivors across the state, and the hundreds our agencies are currently working with directly, these are six who have a stable enough safety plan in place to speak in public, and are brave enough to speak about the most painful experiences of their lives.
Each of them did so in service of the survivors out there whose voices have not yet been heard.
CAC is eternally grateful to all our speakers, but in particular to those six individuals who took on the burden of sharing their vulnerability and their stories with strangers in order to protect all children of the Commonwealth whose futures will be decided by Probate and Family Court.
The custody laws we have today state that the happiness and wellbeing of the children is the main factor to be considered by a court. Today, judges must put more emphasis on the children's happiness and wellbeing than their parents' rights.
The laws we have today also say the judge can only give custody to an abusive parent if there is a very good reason.
Some people want to change the laws. Last year they filed a bill (House Bill 1207) called “An act relative to child-centered family law.” This bill tried to make the laws more about parents' rights than their children's happiness and wellbeing. The bill was bad for children because:
- It was not about the children.
- It made judges pay more attention to parents’ relationships than the happiness and well-being of their children.
- It encouraged bullying parents to use the courts to harass you with false, baseless, and petty accusations.
- It made it harder for good parents to advocate for themselves in court.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee did not support the bill. Instead, they recommended that the Legislature pass a better bill that is also called “An act relative to child-centered family law,” (House Bill 4107).
Although House Bill 4107 is better, it still has problems:
- The language about how much time a child is with each parent is confusing.
- It still focuses on the parents’ relationship rather than the child’s needs.
- It allows parents to demand that the judge change their parenting plan if the other parent has not followed the plan.
- It requires parents to submit a detailed parenting plan every time they come to the court.
Keep up to date with the "child-centered" custody bill on the Custody Awareness Collaborative web site!
Although we do not know an exact timeline, bills can stay in the House Steering, Policy, and Scheduling committee for up to 30 days before being sent back to the House floor. It does not appear that the bill will be referred back to the House Ways and Means committee before reaching the House. Additional amendments may be made by the House Steering, Policy, and Scheduling committee before being sent to the House. The Fathers’ Rights Group that originally wrote and promoted the bill adamantly oppose the redraft and have issued a call to action to get the draft killed.
The Caucus of Women Legislators is helping us set up an informational briefing at the State House on Thursday, May 12th at 10:30 AM. We will present information on the challenges that domestic violence survivors face in Probate and Family Court.
Unfortunately, the Jane Doe Lobby Day at the State House was snowed out, so we urge everyone to continue lobbying independently! If you work with survivors who are interested in sharing their stories or having their stories shared at the briefing, please let us know! As you make contact with your legislators, please take the opportunity to educate them about the prevalence and impact of domestic violence on families in high-conflict divorces. Also, encourage them to attend the briefing on May 12th.
Stay tuned for a detailed analysis of the redraft – we will inform you as soon as we have consensus on explicit steps we are asking legislators to take in regard to this bill.
The Judiciary Committee just recommended a vastly improved “Act Relative to Child-Centered Family Law.” Survivor advocacy made a big difference!
The Committee did not recommend the version that the Custody Awareness Collaborative, domestic violence advocates, and survivors opposed. The bill they did recommend, called HB 4107, addresses many of the concerns raised by advocates and survivors.
Congratulations to all the many survivors who wrote letters, sent postcards, and met with legislators to tell them how the original bill harmed survivors and children affected by domestic violence and put parents’ rights over childrens’ well-being. Your efforts made a big difference!
Our work is not over, however.
CAC, advocates, and survivors will continue to reach out to legislators to insure that the incidence and impact of domestic violence on child and adult survivors play a proper role in deciding custody cases and to encourage dialogue about “child-centered” legislation. Although the revised bill has been improved, there are still several points of concern, including:
Confusing / contradictory wording in regard to the percentage of time a child would spend with each parent.
Some provisions in the Determination of Parental Responsibility section that continue to place the focus of decision-making on the relationship between the parents rather than the needs of the child.
The bill still retains a compliance section that allows for a temporary change in parenting plans based on non-compliance that does not use the "best interest" language.
The requirement that parents submit a detailed parenting plan every time they come before the court.
In the weeks to come, CAC will be publishing our analysis of the redraft including some areas that may continue to place children at risk. In the meantime, check out the bill itself and stay tuned for more information!