We don’t need GALs, ACs, or LGs in the family courts. Same with forensic evaluations. Nancy Erkison’s article (dated 2007)
We don’t need GALs, ACs, or LGs in the family courts. Same with forensic evaluations. Nancy Erkison’s article (dated 2007)
"As a result, she has viewed all allegations of sexual abuse by her children ... as efforts to discredit her and to gain the advantage in a custody battle, rather than wake-up calls to a victim of child sexual abuse who remade herself into sexual abuse zombie ... "
Divorced parents with minor children often fight over custody and visitation rights, producing courtroom decisions that are complex and often heartbreaking for at least one parent. This story takes a rare public look into that system for two reasons:
First, it involves the kind of complicated, personal and family situations that make these cases so difficult to adjudicate. Secondly, there is the additional drama of conflict combined with allegations of questionable performances among the justice system officials themselves.
Clark County Court Commissioner Carin Schienberg recently removed two children from their mother’s home, even though no petition for such action was before the court. Schienberg based her temporary decision on an allegedly flawed report prepared by a court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL).
When the mother’s attorney criticized the GAL report and refused to apologize for her comments, the commissioner held the attorney in contempt and fined her $500.
The commissioner’s ruling is under appeal, with a hearing pending. Meanwhile, the two minor children have been moved to the custody of their father. He has issued multiple threats of legal action against the writer and any publication who would publish a story about this case.
In Washington State, court commissioners are appointed by superior court judges. They are not elected by the public, but they have many of the same responsibilities and authorities as a superior court judge.
A family law guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child, often during divorce or custody proceedings. In addition to family law matters, a GAL can be appointed to assist anyone a court deems legally incapacitated. Clark County commissioners and judges appointed GALs 396 times in 2010, according to Superior Court Administrator Jeffrey Amram.
GAL reports are confidential. However, the author obtained a copy of the GAL report from an undisclosed source after concerns were raised about contents of the report and the commissioner’s ruling.
Case didn’t seek custody
In August 2008, the mother received “primary residential placement” of the two minor children as part of a court-approved parenting plan. After more than two years of continuing conflict between the parents, the father filed an October 2010 contempt motion against the mother for violation of visitation rights.
The commissioner, in early December, held the mother in contempt for certain violations. At the same time, she approved a motion to require that transfer of the children for visitation times take place at the Vancouver police station due to conflict between the parties.
In November, the mother filed a petition to modify the parenting plan, asking for restricted visitation time with the father until he received counseling for anger management. The father, responding in December, said there was insufficient proof for a major modification of that plan.
That is the issue before the court that led to the appointment of Vancouver attorney Meredith McKell Graff as Guardian ad Litem to investigate the matter.
According to the mother’s attorney, Vancouver attorney April Brinkman, the GAL report was supposed to be finished by the first of February 2011. However, it was not submitted to the court until May 12, and it came with a blockbuster recommendation that the children be removed from the mother’s home and the father be given primary residential placement.
A source close to the case, who asked not to be identified, said there were significant concerns about the integrity of that 26-page report, which were ignored by Commissioner Schienberg. The source called the report a product of “shoddy investigation” and involved “lies told in court” by Graff.
Background shows need for a GAL
It has been almost a decade since the Clark County parents in this case were divorced. Subsequent battles over custody of their children have included numerous allegations between the parties of child abuse, sexual abuse, stalking and harassment.
The 2008 parenting plan noted the “abusive use of conflict by both parents” as a potential risk to the “psychological development” of both children. Information from various sources and documents reveals disturbing allegations surrounding both parents that make it difficult to sort fact from fiction.
One of the more disturbing allegations against the mother is referred to as the “wiener game.” It was reported to Child Protective Services at an unspecified time, according to the confidential GAL report. While bathing with her children, the report says, the mother “taught each boy how to stimulate himself to erection… then balance an action figure toy on their erect penis. The longer they can hold the toy on their penis is the winner (sic).”
The father allegedly has forced his children to write false accusations against their month, including allegations outlines in a recent police report. In that June 1 report, Battle Ground Officer Joshua Phelps wrote:
“I asked [redacted] about his mom making him lie about things. [Redacted] told me that she did not do that, but their father told them to write that down.”
It doesn’t appear, at this time, that police or Child Protective Services have substantiated allegations against either parent, but due to the long record of conflict it’s no surprise that the court saw need for an independent and objective view of a GAL.
GAL investigation takes a turn
The court order appointing Meredith McKell Graff as GAL instructed her to “investigate and report the factual information to the court concerning parenting arrangements” of the two children. Graff’s final report was unequivocal in its recommendation.
“The children in this matter… are at extreme risk of harm if they remain any longer in the mother’s home,” the report states. “They should be removed immediately.”
Subsequent concerns about the GAL report are voiced prominently by the mother’s attorney in the motion for reversal of Commissioner Schienberg’s temporary order.
High on the list of concerns about the May 12 report is a statement by Graff that she interviewed the references for both parents. That conflicts with her statement of May 24 in which she declared, “I did not interview (the mother’s reference); my legal assistant performed this task.”
Neither statement revealed the actual fact that Graff’s assistant, Heidi Atwood, actually interviewed all four references listed in the report.
“As the guardian ad litem’s legal assistant,” wrote Atwood in her May 24 declaration to the court, “in order to save time… I was given the assignment of calling all the guardian ad litem references and asking them the questions requested by the guardian ad litem ... ”
Atwood is not listed on the court-approved guardian ad litem registry, and there’s no record that she has completed any of the required training to work as guardian ad litem. She is a 40-year-old college student at Washington State University whose only professional license in Washington is as a Notary Public, according to Graff’s law office and state documents.
A lie in court?
Court transcripts of the June 2 hearing include Graff’s statement that she couldn’t obtain a release from the mother to get medical records. “Because (the mother) did not sign a HIPAA release with her doctor … I did not get medical records from the mother,” said Graff.
However, Brinkman has since filed with the court a copy of just such a release, signed by the mother on March 29 and faxed to Graff’s office, according to Brinkman.
Further, Graff didn’t need that release to get the information. The court order appointing her includes a signed “release of information” provision giving her access to all pertinent records, specifically including health care records, for both parents.
The GAL report says that Graff has “minimal concerns with the father,” despite the fact that she quoted a 2007 psychological evaluation saying that the father has “issues with chronic and intense anger;” that he is “not able to express negative feeling appropriately;” that he is “over-controlled with brief, impulsive episodes of acting out;” and that he is “sensitive to rejection and has a subtle paranoia that is expressed as jealously or possessiveness. He can be hostile when criticized and has little self-awareness.”
The doctor who conducted that psychological evaluation of the father also evaluated his current wife, saying she is “aggressive and striving,” and “defines her view as the correct one and assumes that to disagree with her is simply a demonstration of one’s lack of understanding.”
Graff’s report did not disagree with that impression, but said the children need a controlling adult in their lives. “Even though the father’s wife may appear to some that she is ‘controlling,’ she is actually what the boys need right now,” Graff wrote.
The report recommended that both parents enter counseling, but held “no reservations” about having the children moved to primary residency with their father.
Many issues of credibility
Graff used Child Protective Services reports to help form her recommendation that the children face eminent harm in the mother’s care. However, none of the allegations against the mother have been substantiated by Child Protective Services, police or the county prosecutor’s office, according to available court documents.
Graff considered various allegations of both parents to be less than credible.
“The parents — both of them — have engaged in CPS and the police far too often, and too many times with false or misleading information, in order to discredit the other parent,” Graff stated.
It’s not clear, then, why allegations from one side would become grounds for such a significant recommendation. There is also a matter of various subjective and inflammatory words and phrases used in the report.
The report at one point says that the mother “remade herself into a sexual abuse zombie,” and later says a photo of the mother and her new husband “shows them tonguing like reptiles.” Nothing clarified the use of those phrases as part of an evaluation of parenting skills.
The GAL report also indicates that Graff did not interview the children’s doctors, teachers, psychologists or neighbors.
Lack of balance in interviews
Graff — or rather, her assistant, Atwood — interviewed three references for the father but only one for the mother, an imbalance that casts doubt on fairness of the investigation. And despite Graff being assigned the investigation in December, Atwood didn’t start requesting interviews with the mother’s references until May 10, according to numerous court documents and the declaration of a veteran Oregon police officer.
Officer Jason Maddy stated, “The law office of McKell Graff left a voicemail for me Tuesday, May 10, 2011, sometime during the afternoon. Records indicate that the voicemail was the first and only time that Atwood called Maddy. He planned to call Atwood on May 13, but Graff completed her report on May 11.
Maddy, an experienced investigator, was bothered by the one-day callback window. “I would never even think of just calling someone and leaving a message and writing the report the next day without hearing from them,” Maddy stated. He further stated that he “would have been able to provide very important information about how I have seen (the mother) interact with her children.”
Another reference provided by the mother said she didn’t receive the request for an interview until May 11. By the time she called Graff’s law office the report already was filed, and Atwood wouldn’t document what she said would have been favorable statements about the mother.
Even more disturbing, although Graff may have stopped taking statements in support of the mother on May 11, she continued taking statements against the mother even after the report was filed with the court. In her May 24 declaration, Graff references new allegations against the mother that surfaced after the confidential report was filed on May 12.
“I have been now told,” wrote Graph in that declaration, “that the children have been punished for telling me things that the mother did not want me to know or the children to tell me.”
Graff appears to have disregarded her direct observations of the mother’s house in favor of statements from unidentified sources.
“The mother’s home is chaotic and dirty,” Graff stated in her report. However, she wrote that the house was staged to look clean during her lone visit there.
“The mother made a point of having me go ‘say goodnight’ to each boy before beginning the interview,” Graff wrote. “I am concerned this was an effort to get me to walk down the hall to show me that the house was ‘neat,’ rather than how it had been prior to its staging for my visit.”
The report cited an unnamed source who reported to Graff that the mother put a large amount of “stuff” in storage so Graff would not see the usual state of the house.
In contrast, Graff was very impressed with the father’s home, where she made multiple visits. She wrote: “Going in, one feels a sense of peace and calm.” Although records indicate that there was only one investigative interview at the father’s house, Graff wrote, “I have been to the (father’s) home on more than occasion.”
The father’s house is in an upscale neighborhood, and court documents indicate that the father makes substantially more money than the mother. Graff said, however, that those factors were not taken into consideration in her recommendation.
“To be clear,” she wrote, “my recommendation for (the father) being named the primary residential parent is not based on socio-economic factors. I have been appointed in other cases where the recommended placement was for the poorer home of the two parents.”
She continued, in one of the report’s more unusual narratives: “One can be clean, neat, organized, and poor, with clean, ragged clothes and one can have money and worldly possessions and be dirty, chaotic, and provide no supervision for children, along with allowing them to be sexually abused within the grand, expensive home.”
GAL invoices for thousands more
Graff is seeking payment of almost $2,500 more than was first authorized by the court, which wrote in its appointing order: “The guardian ad litem fee is $75 per hour up to $750, the maximum the guardian ad litem may charge without additional court review and approval.”
That full $750 was paid months ago through combined payments from the parents. But according to Graff, she has racked up 41.6 hours to date for a total bill of $3,120. She stated in a court document that it would be “appropriate for the court to order the parties to share an additional $2,370.”
The GAL invoice does not explain how many hours her assistant worked, of whether those hours are included in the billing.
Commissioner’s fully endorses report
The June 2 hearing, held in open court, included specific reference to contents of the confidential GAL report. And Commissioner Schienberg seemed very pleased with the quality of the report.
“First of all,” Schienberg said in the hearing, I want to thank Ms. Graff for her work. I think you did an excellent job; it was very thorough … I think she did an excellent report.”
The commission, however, went beyond stating her positive impression of the report. When April Brinkman questioned the lack of supporting documents in the report, Schienberg was quick to demand that Brinkman apologize to the GAL.
“There’s no evidence to support anything that the GAL has said,” Brinkman stated in court. The transcript record of that statement provides no information on tone, volume, body language or any other factor except the words themselves.
“Excuse me, you’re going to apologize right now to this Court and to Ms. Graff,” said Schienberg, “or I will hold you in contempt. You apologize, now.”
Brinkman declined to apologize, was held in contempt of court and was fined $500.
Schienberg said in the hearing that her decision to relocate the children was based on the GAL report, statements made during the hearing and unspecified “documents in Volumes 4 and 5.”
According to the court transcript, Brinkman did not receive those documents, and they were not listed in Graff’s report.
At one point, Brinkman asked Schienberg if “the guardian ad litem is supposed to attach any document she used to the report the Court considers?” Schienberg responded:
“Okay. I took the report that Ms. Graff has provided me and her comments, she is an officer of the court. I trust that when speaks to the court, she is not lying to the court. She has an excellent reputation in this court. She is a person who has done a number of guardian ad litem reports, always well done, always thoroughly researched, always coming to an unbiased, no prejudicial conclusion. I value her work.”
Perhaps reflecting the volatile nature of cases before her court, Commissioner Schienberg has attracted a Facebook page entitled “Fire Washington Court Commissioner Carin Schienberg.” The page has 30 members and includes comments from people who have had family law matters before her court.
Schienberg, reached via e-mail with a request for comment on this story, said she could not comment on an ongoing matter.
Legislator interested in case
Washington State Rep. Ann Rivers of the 18th District and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, was contacted by the mother with concerns about this case. Rivers confirmed in a phone interview that she spoke with the mother and is “concerned” by the issues raised.
“Anytime we have children put into a destabilized system, families lose out,” said Rivers, adding that she is in the “infancy stage of research” and is seeking more information from state legal staff.
Rivers said she believes that parents should place their responsibility to their children above any personal disagreement with each other. As for certain unusual language in the GAL report, Rivers said it wasn’t the kind of thing she would expect to see in a formal report.
Meanwhile, the author and The Vancouver Voice received emailed threats — from the father’s email account — of legal action if the investigation into this case continues. A June 16 email also suggests that Graff is providing legal assistance to the father and his current wife, stating:
“The guardian ad litem is also an attorney and these minors (sic) attorney, and she informed us today that if you print or allow Mr. Griffith to print a story about these minors, you and Mr. Griffith will be served with lawsuits, liable to start.”
Attorney Meredith Graff did not respond to several requests for comment. For updates on the case, visit the blog, VanVoice Blotter, at www.vanvoice.com.
Now this is original--- of course a ‘skank’ bottom dweller Topeka Kansas Attorney would define themselves on facebook—pretty much as she is—only this ‘bitch’ (the doggie pic) has more grit than the other ‘bitch’ Rene Netherton.
The only person she scares is her dead mother Marge., perhaps her dead daddy too.
She literally sold out her own family to be a “nobody”. How honorable.
Screenshot Details:Url: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500918795
Created: 6/22/2011 5:10:37 PM
M. Jill Dykes- Court Appointed Child Abuser— Nice profile pic! June 22, 2011
Screenshot details Url: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580852953&sk=info
Created: 6/22/2011 5:02:17 PM
So how many mothers have YOU DENIED their God Given Right to MOTHER?—Too many. Blood Profit, Child Trafficking.
I bet your daughter is soooooooo proud of you. I wonder what she thinks about what you do to other mothers.
By Barry Goldstein
Society has the knowledge and ability to prevent a large majority of domestic violence crimes and especially murders. It is not like cancer or heart disease which would require some fundamental changes in human behavior to achieve massive reductions. We could easily put together a change in laws, policies and practices and quickly end the danger of domestic violence for most women and children. If we could as readily prevent most of the deaths from earthquakes, tornados, cancer or terror attacks, we would not hesitate to do so. Why should we continue to tolerate the enormous harm caused by abusers? Many of our leaders have spoken of and dreamed of a world without domestic violence. This is a worthy goal, but I am not naïve enough to believe we can end all domestic violence in our lifetimes. We can, however create a massive reduction in domestic violence crimes. I say let’s do it.
Our publisher asked Mo Hannah and I to prepare a second volume of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY. I decided to write a chapter for the book of a modern tale of two cities comparing Quincy, Massachusetts with Poughkeepsie, New York. I selected Quincy, Massachusetts because they had developed the Quincy Model which had resulted in a drastic reduction of domestic violence homicide. I selected Poughkeepsie, New York because they had been severely criticized for using approaches in custody court that strongly favored abusive fathers. The court system and particularly the judges reacted to the criticism in a defensive and retaliatory manner. Dutchess County has now had a series of domestic violence homicides including the last crime in which the abusive father also killed a police officer. The County Legislature created a committee to study and respond to the series of domestic violence homicides and I am interested to see if they make a connection between the murders and the pattern of mistreatment of protective mothers in the custody court system.
In the late 1970s around the start of the modern movement to end domestic violence, approximately three thousand domestic violence homicides were committed each year in the United States. The frequency of domestic violence homicides did not change significantly until society adopted policies and practices to hold abusers accountable, particularly with pro-arrest policies. The timing of the increased accountability with the reduction in domestic violence homicide supported the belief that these policies led to the reduction, but perhaps what was most convincing was the results in communities that were especially strict in enforcing domestic violence laws. Communities like Nashville, Tennessee and San Diego, California saw even more dramatic reductions in domestic violence homicide as a result of strong programs to prevent domestic violence. Quincy, Massachusetts adopted its model in response to a series of domestic violence homicides and for many years they had no domestic violence homicides in Quincy.
Achieving a Massive Reduction in Domestic Violence Crime
As part of the research for my chapter I have had the opportunity to read about the practices that were so successful in Quincy and elsewhere. I have also read some of the ideas for improving the conditions in Poughkeepsie. We also have the research to establish improved practices in the custody courts. This is particularly important for reducing domestic violence crimes because abuser rights groups have been particularly successful in using common mistakes and flawed practices in the custody courts to undermine the progress society had made elsewhere in reducing domestic violence. The result of the failures in the custody courts has been that more battered mothers are staying with their abusers because they are afraid of being separated from their children and some of them do not survive this decision. Although some have attributed the recent rise in domestic violence homicide after many years of reduction to the bad economy, I believe the problems we see in the custody courts is the more likely explanation. Based upon the research and experience, I believe it would be easy for a group of domestic violence experts to create a best practices model that would result in a drastic reduction in domestic violence crimes.
The basic reforms that would create a massive reduction in domestic violence crime should not be in dispute. Experts may differ about some of the specifics around the edges, but the decisions on those issues would not affect the positive outcome if we included the practices that have been shown to work. We are working on a more complete and detailed agenda for the second volume of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY, but we already know the basics of what is needed. Here is what any reform agenda would include:
1. Coordinated Community Response: The communities that were most successful in reducing domestic violence homicide developed a coordinated community response in which all parts of the community came together to do their part in ending domestic violence. The professionals worked together to coordinate their response and included the domestic violence community as a key resource in the response to domestic violence. The communities had regular meetings to monitor how the campaign to end domestic violence was going and to make adjustments as needed.
2. Make it Easier for Victims to Obtain Protective Orders: Some people disparage protective orders as not worth the paper they are printed on and sometimes it is true, but women with protective orders are safer than those without. Society needs to make it less of a burden on battered women to obtain needed protection by having specified times when the court handles only protective orders so women can get in and out of court quickly. At other times judges should take protective orders before other cases because of the safety concerns. This is important because women may have work or family obligations that make it difficult to wait around the court in order to see a judge. Many judges get frustrated when women seek a protective order and then don’t return for the next court date. Reducing the burdens on victims will encourage them to follow through. At the same time there should be special clerks that help women fill out the forms and prosecutors’ offices should brief victims on the procedures they can expect. Finally judges should take domestic violence allegations more seriously, receive better training and make sure women who need protection can obtain the orders.
3. Strict Enforcement of Criminal Laws and Violations of Protective Orders: The heart of the programs that created a substantial reduction in domestic violence homicide was taking domestic violence seriously. This requires strict enforcement of domestic violence crimes and protective orders. Research demonstrates that abusive men tend to use a cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to abuse their partners. That is why accountability and monitoring are the best ways to prevent domestic violence. The strict enforcement not only sends a message to the men held accountable, and their children, it sends a message to the entire community. The programs are often launched with important media coverage and those involved in the coordinated community response also help spread the message.
4. Lethality Assessment: The most important purpose of the laws, programs and practices designed to prevent domestic violence is the safety of victims and their children. One of the first things domestic violence advocates learn is safety planning and how to assess the danger. There are several common behaviors of abusers that have been shown to be related to an increased level of danger that domestic violence experts look at in making lethality assessments. These behaviors include choking, strangling or putting his hands around his partner’s throat, assaulting her while pregnant, raping or attempting to rape his partner, killing or hurting family pets, availability of guns, threats of suicide, homicide or kidnapping and a belief she has no right to leave. Incredibly, court professionals rarely use risk assessments or even understand the significance of these behaviors in making judgments about alleged abusers. Criminal courts should be using risk assessments to inform decisions about bail, protective orders and sentencing. Custody courts should use this information in determining custody and visitation arrangements that are safe for the victim and children.
5. Give Domestic Violence Cases the First Priority: Communities that reduced domestic violence crimes gave these cases the first priority. As discussed earlier this means making sure victims can get access to judges quickly so they don’t lose jobs or have to spend a lot of money on child care in order to protect themselves. It means local judges coming to arraignments after hours rather than releasing alleged offenders with an appearance ticket, but no protective order. It also means that custody courts must recognize most contested custody cases involve domestic violence and place a priority on the safety of the children and alleged victims.
6. Best Interests of the Child Should Mean Safety is the First Priority: The most important issue in deciding custody should be the safety of the children, but states usually have a list of factors to be considered and shockingly courts often focus on other less important issues. The second priority should be arrangements that give children the best chance to reach their potential.
7. Use of Current Scientific Research: When domestic violence first became a public issue there was no research to inform professionals about the best way to respond. When professionals modified their practices based on new research it has helped protect victims. Police departments went from practices of separating the parties and having the abuser walk around the block to cool off to a pro-arrest policy. Communities that created more accountability for abusers saw domestic violence crimes reduced. Child protective agencies that have partnered with domestic violence agencies and consulted with their advocates on potential domestic violence cases have been better able to recognize domestic violence and forge arrangements that protect children better. Police and prosecutors need to be aware of the frequency in which abusers involved in contested custody make deliberately false allegations and avoid wasting their resources persecuting their victims before fully investigating the allegations and speaking with the real victims. Custody courts have been particularly slow to modify practices based on current scientific research. They need to recognize most contested custody involve abusive fathers seeking custody as a tactic to maintain their control. They need to limit the role of mental health professionals to their area of expertise which is mental health and not domestic violence. They need to avoid inadequately trained professionals who continue to believe the myth that women frequently make false allegations particularly in sexual abuse cases. The court must also stop permitting unscientific theories like Parental Alienation Syndrome.
8. Retraining Court Professionals: A lot of unfortunate events have combined to create widespread beliefs in a wide range of misinformation about domestic violence. Domestic violence is often counterintuitive which leads to misinformation. The lack of research when court professionals started responding also contributes to the problem. The widespread use of unqualified professionals has encouraged an undeserved confidence in false notions that make them harder to challenge and correct. The media has done a lousy job of covering domestic violence and often fails to understand who the experts are. Accordingly we need to retrain court professionals both to prevent the use of misinformation and to help the professionals learn about current scientific research, domestic violence dynamics and best practices. The training must have the active participation of genuine domestic violence experts such as dv advocates. Professionals working in criminal court must learn the importance of taking domestic violence seriously, prioritizing domestic violence cases and holding offenders strictly accountable. They should particularly learn how communities have dramatically reduced domestic violence homicide. Criminal court professionals must learn that accountability and monitoring are the only approaches shown to reduce domestic violence. Domestic violence is not caused by substance abuse, mental illness or anger management issues. Some offenders may have mental illness or substance abuse and domestic violence issues and each problem should be responded to separately. Custody court professionals must unlearn the myth that women frequently make false allegations of abuse. They need to look at the motivation of alleged abusers and understand the harm to children. They must learn that allegations of child sexual abuse have been totally mishandled and learn best practices to respond to these painful allegations. They also must learn that the way to include both parents in children’s lives that most benefits children is to require abusers to stop their harmful tactics instead of asking their victims to get over their fear and concern.
9. Use of Domestic Violence Experts: We now have a substantial body of specialized knowledge about domestic violence. Courts must stop relying on “experts” unfamiliar with this research and ignorant of domestic violence dynamics and instead listen to genuine domestic violence experts. Courts must stop refusing to listen to these genuine experts and especially until this information is better known to court professionals allow these experts to testify in order to educate the judge and other professionals.
10. Early Domestic Violence Hearings in Custody Cases: A large majority of contested custody cases are actually domestic violence cases. The research is very clear that unless the victim is unsafe, she should have custody and the abuser supervised visitation because that is what works best for children. Accordingly, custody courts can schedule an evidentiary hearing at the start of the case on the domestic violence issue. There is no need for evaluators or GALs as it is a factual issue. This will permit courts to resolve cases in a few hours or less that otherwise would take months or years and provide a huge savings in money and court time. Children also benefit because they don’t have to spend years worried about where they will live. This also avoids less important and distracting issues that only make it more difficult for the judge to understand the issues. This practice is likely to help courts make better decisions as well as quicker ones.
11. Use of Victim’s Advocate: The advocates are used by law enforcement to help and support the victim and provide information and training for law enforcement personnel. They are used in the prosecutor’s office for similar purposes and to acquaint the victim with the procedures. These practices should make survivors more comfortable and thus more likely to cooperate and press charges. In the court clerk’s office the advocate can help victims fill out forms and documents and explain the procedures. These procedures will help provide law enforcement and the courts with needed evidence while encouraging the complainant to continue to participate.
12. New Approach to Child Sexual Abuse in Custody Cases: Although most allegations of child sexual abuse made by mothers are true and deliberately false allegations are rare, 85% of sexual abuse allegations in custody cases result in custody for the alleged abuser and frequently little or no contact with the mother who sought to protect her child. This is a result of the difficulty in proving abuse of very young children and deeply flawed practices. Based especially on the new Department of Justice study led by Dr. Daniel Saunders, we should start by eliminating court professionals who believe in the myth that women frequently make false allegations. Professionals should be trained in best practices that would include understanding why a child might be reluctant to reveal sexual abuse or recant truthful allegations, use of play therapy for young children, avoid giving abusers additional opportunities to silence children and give children a chance to develop trusting relationships with therapists or other investigators before expecting them to discuss the abuse. We particularly need to abandon approaches that retaliate against mothers for good faith allegations.
13. Limit Role of Mental Health Professionals to their Area of Expertise:Mental health professionals are routinely used for evaluations and other services in domestic violence custody cases despite limited and often distorted information about domestic violence. This has contributed to the frequency in which courts place children in jeopardy. Mental health professionals have a role to play when a parent has a serious mental disorder that interferes with the ability to care for the children or other issues related to their field of study and practice. They should be limited to roles they are qualified for and at the very least consult with domestic violence experts on cases involving possible domestic violence.
14. Gender Bias: Over forty states and many districts have conducted court-sponsored gender bias committees that have found widespread gender bias. Other scientific research supports these findings. Women who kill their partner receive seventy percent longer sentences under similar circumstances as men who kill their partner. Women are given less credibility, higher standards of proof and are blamed for the actions of their abusers. Courts cannot do an effective job of responding to domestic violence as long as it continues to unconsciously favor male litigants. Court professionals must be trained about gender bias, attorneys and litigants must be protected and encouraged to raise concerns about gender bias, judges and other court professionals should be transferred, retrained or otherwise disciplined for continued gender biased practices and appellate courts must reverse cases based on gender bias.
15. Improved Police Role in Ending Domestic Violence: Police should make domestic violence cases a high priority and conduct an evidence based investigation instead of just relying on the victim’s testimony. Police must be trained to understand fathers involved in contested custody cases are 16 times more likely than mothers to make false allegations. This means they should take complaints from mothers seriously despite ongoing litigation, but have some skepticism of father’s allegations. They should always speak with the mother to understand the context before making a decision to make an arrest or bring charges. The police must also be aware that abusers tend to be very manipulative, but sometimes the police can use abusers’ sense of entitlement to encourage them to make statements that are actually admissions. Police departments must take precautions to respond to male officers who abuse their partners and particularly use their influence and relationship with other officers to undermine any investigation. There should be no tolerance for domestic violence or covering up domestic violence complaints. Departments should have a procedure for women to have someone in the department they can safely complain to about their partner’s abuse and any assistance other officers provide him.
Can Society Afford to Continue to Tolerate Domestic Violence?
Politicians sometimes justify their failure to do more to stop domestic violence by citing the costs, but the reality is the costs are much greater by tolerating domestic violence. In reviewing a report about the response to domestic violence in Dutchess County, New York, I noticed how often they undermined substantial parts of the plan to prevent domestic violence in order to save small sums of money. The problem is when they are budgeting; they fail to consider the extra money that will be expended as a result of the increase in domestic violence encouraged by the cutbacks.
Children who witness domestic violence are more likely to engage in a wide range of harmful and costly behaviors including crime. Large majorities of the prison population were directly abused as children or witnessed domestic violence. This creates huge added expenses in police, courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and prisons. It also creates more expenses in substance abuse treatment. This is in addition to the extra similar expenses in directly responding to domestic violence crimes and custody cases based on domestic violence.
An increase in domestic violence crimes also increases health care costs. Not only is the health care system used to heal the immediate physical wounds, but it leads to other medical problems based on the stress of living with domestic violence as well as emotional and psychological difficulties. If the woman has medical insurance his abuse is paid by all of the policy holders through higher premiums. If she does not have insurance she may not be able to pay for the care so that the rest of the public and the government ultimately pays. Many of the health costs are borne directly by various governmental entities.
When victims miss work it harms the economy thus reducing tax revenues. The same is true when women lose jobs because of injuries or repeated court dates. Government programs like unemployment insurance and crime victim compensation may also be triggered. Significantly domestic violence interferes with the ability to reach their potential. It is hard for women to reach their potential when dealing with domestic violence even if the injuries do not prove fatal. Men who commit domestic violence crimes can’t reach their potential if they are in jail and even if they are not jailed the time they waste abusing and harassing their partners can interfere with the ability to reach their potential. Children who witness domestic violence are significantly less likely to reach their potential and if the children grow up to hurt others these third parties also lose the ability to reach their potential. We don’t know if society will miss out on someone who would have discovered a medical cure, developed a patent, created a major new business or is just a productive member of society. All of this represents a massive loss of economic activity that translates into a huge loss of tax revenue.
While the proposal described above would include some additional expenses, it also includes plans that would save substantial tax dollars. Conducting early evidentiary hearings on domestic violence would help courts make better decisions, but also save substantial sums of money and judicial time. A large majority of contested custody cases which are the cases that take most of the court’s time are domestic violence cases. Since mothers rarely make deliberately false allegations of abuse, a hearing for an hour or two will avoid cases that often take many months or years. There will be no need to spend money on evaluators, GALs or other professionals who provide no help in recognizing or responding to domestic violence. Furthermore, as the practices outlined in this article become better known, abusive men will be less likely to commit domestic violence crimes and children will be sent an important message that domestic violence will not be tolerated. This will save significant sums initially and much greater amounts over time as the message resonates.
We don’t have figures on the full cost of domestic violence or the amount of money this proposal would save, but it has to be at least in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In that context attempting to save thousands of dollars by cutting local programs or a few million on programs nationally is counterproductive based on the financial costs and insane based on the human costs.
How to get Started Ending Domestic Violence
It is common rhetoric to say we should end domestic violence. We may not be able to prevent all domestic violence tactics or even all domestic violence crimes, but we know how to quickly create a massive reduction in domestic violence crimes and especially domestic violence homicide. How do we get from here to there?
Just as people in Quincy, Massachusetts, Nashville, Tennessee and San Diego, California came together to make ending domestic violence the leading priority other communities can do the same and it is easier because they have the successes of those communities to look at and a lot of additional research. Individual states can take the lead by adopting the needed law changes and provide funding to implement a program like the one discussed in this article.
This can also be done on a national basis. The President can announce that we will no longer tolerate domestic violence and create a program to encourage communities to implement the practices that work. Grants and other support can be provided to set up pilot projects around the country to demonstrate that these practices will work. Eventually the federal government can make implementation of these practices a requirement if states wish to receive any federal funding for law enforcement and the judicial system. This should be done on a non-partisan basis. Democrats claim to be supporters of women so they should certainly wish to free women from the fear and risk of domestic violence. Republicans regularly propose spending millions of dollars to promote abstinence for children. If they don’t want children having sex with their peers they certainly will wish to protect them from sex with adults. The bills to end domestic violence should be House 1 and Senate 1 to make them the first priority.
Several years ago I gave a presentation with Mo Therese Hannah at the NCADV Conference in Atlanta. I spoke about the success of Quincy, Nashville and San Diego in implementing these practices. After the workshop, a woman came up to me and told me what I said was no longer true. It seems a new administration took over in Nashville, dismantled the successful program and the domestic violence homicide rate went back up. This was disappointing news, but it also confirmed that it was these practices that are the difference between a substantial reduction in domestic violence crime and requiring women’s lives to be impacted by men’s abuse of their intimate partners.
Domestic violence is not inevitable. It can be prevented. Our daughters and granddaughters can grow up in a world in which domestic violence crimes are rare. The worst crime would be if we take the knowledge, research and ability we have to substantially reduce domestic violence crimes and instead find some excuse to force women and children to continue to suffer.
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence expert, speaker, writer and consultant. He is the co-editor with Mo Therese Hannah of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY. Barry can be reached by email at their web site www.Domesticviolenceabuseandchildcustody.com