Speaking to a group of parents struggling to protect their children, a White House advisor assures the room of mostly women that she understands courts are giving abusers custody of children and she is working to address the problem.
“I read about custody evaluators who weren’t looking at evidence of abuse, even when it was actually in the file,” Lynn Rosenthal, the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women said during the May 2013 event. She had been reading studies gathered by multiple agencies on the family court system’s treatment of domestic violence and abused children. “I read about all of these third parties in the court who are using work that is not evidence-based and not reflective of the experiences of battered moms. I was really reminded back to the early days of the Violence Against Women Act, when we started looking at the criminal courts and Vice President Biden held these hearings 20 years ago and recognized that the justice system was failing and we needed to put in place these principles of victims’ safety and offender accountability.
“I don’t think I realized how much we were failing those principles in the family court system until I began these readings.”
For those attending the 10th annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference last year, it was a rare moment of recognition by a U.S. government official that courts were forcing children into abusive relationships.
Two months earlier, President Obama had signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. Rosenthal explained that a portion of that legislation was written with the family court system in mind. “The success of the Violence Against Women Act is to fund initiatives, evaluate them and then replicate them around the country,” Rosenthal said. “We want to do that in the family court system.”
Another speaker at the conference was not convinced any amount of training could fix the U.S. family court system. Just 20 months earlier at age 16, Damon told the remarkable story of how he ran away to Las Vegas and convinced a random woman on the street to marry him so that he could be legally emancipated, freeing him from a California judge’s decision that forced him to live with his father. A local Fox reporter filmed the wedding. “The family court judge had issued a final order. I was going to be under his complete control until I was 18, despite me constantly saying that he sexually abused me, that I wasn’t safe with him and that I didn’t want to live with him,” said Damon, who had posted videos on Youtube pleading for help.
The number of court officials who had chosen not to protect him reveals a system that has developed a culture of ignoring children’s cries for help. “I had 30 professionals fail me, six judges wouldn’t protect me,” he said. “I told my story to over a dozen social workers, policemen and psychologists. Family court covered up evidence, destroyed my mother and put me in danger. Two judges said on the record that it didn’t matter if I was abused ... this isn’t rare — not only is it not rare it is common. It’s an epidemic.
“One in five children are sexually abused and many of those are endangered by the family court system.”
About 58,000 children a year are ordered to have unsupervised contact with an abusive parent in the United States -- over twice the yearly rate of new childhood cancer, according to the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, a non-profit organization that promotes the ethical application of psychology.
When parents are getting a divorce, it can spur a child to reveal abuse for the first time. Unfortunately, divorce is also the time children are least likely to be believed by officials, according to a Leadership Council study funded by the Department of Justice. “Violence in families usually remains invisible to those outside the family because family members are reluctant to jeopardize the integrity of the family by reporting it,” according to the study, which was presented at a Congressional briefing. “When the family unit is split up during divorce, there is less incentive for victims of family violence to keep their abuse secret.”
Family courts have embraced discredited psychiatric theories such as parental alienation syndrome, where one parent is blamed for a child’s strong negative feelings about the other parent to the point that abuse claims are not taken seriously, the study observed. DeAnn Salcido, a former family court judge in California, told SF Weekly in 2011, “I was basically told to be suspect of anyone claiming abuse. I had senior judges telling me, ‘Be suspect. The dad probably has a new girlfriend, and the mom’s upset.’”
Salcido said that privately among court officials, the concept of parental alienation arose “all the time.”
In her speech at the mothers’ conference, Rosenthal offered a broader explanation for why family courts often dismiss a woman’s claim that she or her child is being abused. “The root of this is a view that women lie,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a deeply entrenched view in our culture that there is something about women that makes us not truthful, manipulative and scheming to get a leg up.”
Acknowledging that the steps the federal government has taken to stop child custody abuse have been “woefully inadequate,” Rosenthal told the more than 100 parents in the room — many who have not seen their children for years and fear daily for their safety — that change is going to take time.
She ended her speech with a quote from an equal rights activist in the 1970s. “We are in for a very long haul. I am asking for everything you have to give. You will lose your youth, your sleep, your patience, your sense of humor and, occasionally, the understanding and support of the people you love very much. In return I have nothing to offer but your pride in being a woman and all the dreams you ever had for daughters and nieces and granddaughters, your future and a certain knowledge that at the end of your days, you will be able to look back and say that once in your life you gave everything you had for justice.”
This is the fourth in a series of articles for Daily Kos about the treatment of abused children in the U.S. family court system. M.C. Moewe is a former criminal justice and investigative reporter for several newspapers with a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Texas. Email m AT moewe.com or use this link.