Summary of Informational Briefing on Custody

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.