By Barry Goldstein,
NOMAS Child Custody Task Group
Research has now established that the custody court system’s response to domestic violence cases is deeply flawed. Courts’ use of outdated practices, unqualified professionals, inadequate training, gender bias and other mistakes has resulted in thousands of children being sent to live with abusers. This article explores the role anti-sexist men can play in reforming the custody court system.
Extremists who control “fathers’ rights” groups have developed powerful tactics to help abusers maintain what they believe is men’s privilege to control their partners and make the major decisions in the relationship. Abusive fathers with little involvement with their children during the relationship are seeking custody as a way to pressure his partner to return, punish her for leaving or obtain a favorable settlement of economic issues. Judges and other professionals, happy to see a father interested in his children have been slow to recognize abusers’ legal tactics. The male supremacist activists have created an illusion that they speak for most fathers. This is why it is particularly important that good men speak out for the safety of protective mothers and their children.
Garland Waller is an award winning producer of documentaries and professor of communications at Boston University. In her chapter for the forthcoming book DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY, she describes the failure of the media and particularly the national media to expose the crisis in the custody court system. Professor Waller suggests that there is a “tipping point” for this issue and once enough of the public is aware of the problem, the media will cover the issue and the public will no longer tolerate the outdated practices that have ruined so many children’s lives. The suggestions in this article are designed to help society reach this tipping point.
1. Learn about the subject: In order for men to play a role in ending these avoidable tragedies, they have to first make themselves knowledgeable about the subject. Fortunately there is much up-to-date research and information available to refute the myths and stereotypes commonly used by those unfamiliar with this research. On the web, good information and links can be found at web sites for the Battered Mothers Custody Conference (Batteredmotherscustodyconference.org), National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV.org), Leadership Council (Leadershipcouncil.org), Stop Family Violence (Stopfamilyviolence.org), Liz Library (thelizlibrary.org) and my web site (Barrygoldstein.net). This is not a complete list and many other good sites will be found in the links available on these sites.
Many good books and articles containing up-to-date research and information are also available. Men who wish to read about this topic should consider work by Lundy Bancroft, Dr. Jay Silverman, Peter Jaffe, Claire Crooks, Nicholas Bala, Joan Zorza, Evan Stark, Michael Lesher, Dr. Amy Neustein, Dr. Maureen Hannah and Barry Goldstein. These writers in turn cite research from other good sources. Men should avoid articles based on flawed and biased research such as those cited by male supremacist organizations or Parental Alienation Syndrome propagandists.
Another good source of accurate information about the crisis in the custody court system is domestic violence advocates and protective mothers. Domestic violence advocates are the only professionals that work full time on domestic violence issues. Their information is often minimized based on the belief that they are partisan. The advocates have the expertise to recognize domestic violence and understand the best approaches to preventing it. Domestic violence advocates always oppose domestic violence just as firefighters are always against arson and doctors against disease. No one considers them partisans because it is society’s policy to prevent arson and disease just as it is our policy to prevent domestic violence. Anti-sexist men can learn from the advocates in their community and support their work.
2. Speak to friends, family and colleagues: Many protective mothers have expressed the concern or experience that people would assume they must be horrible mothers because they lost custody. Male supremacists support this myth when they claim the court system favors women because mothers receive custody more often than fathers. While the statement is true, it is also misleading because most of the time cases are settled more or less amicably and the mother receives custody on consent. This reflects the practice of mothers doing most of the child-care in this society. The problem is contested custody cases, 90% of which involve abusive fathers seeking custody, but 70-83% of these cases result in custody or joint custody to the overwhelmingly abusive fathers.
Anti-sexist men can help change the hostility faced by protective mothers and move towards the tipping point by discussing the crisis in the custody court system with family, friends and colleagues. This will help make the public aware of the intolerable practices involving domestic violence custody cases. As word about these tragedies spreads people in a position to change the system or further inform the public will be among those educated.
3. Speak out in letters to the editor, talk radio and on the Internet: Male supremacists constitute an extreme fringe group that opposes child support, enforcement of domestic violence laws and in some cases support sex between adults and children. Obviously if they expressed their agenda they would not be taken seriously. Instead they create the illusion of reasonableness by using seemingly reasonable positions like shared parenting, compromise, “friendly parent” parental alienation syndrome and “fathers’ rights” to promote their agenda. They are well funded and often successful in manipulating courts, media and politicians to believe they speak for most fathers.
Accordingly it is important for good fathers to speak out and make sure the public understands these extremists do not speak for us. Men can support protective mothers by writing letters to the editor, making calls to talk radio and posting their views on the Internet. These acts help bring public awareness about the crisis in the custody court system and counter the misperception that custody disputes are a battle between mothers and fathers rather than between safety and abuse. Reporters, like other professionals frequently fail to understand domestic violence custody issues or place them in the proper context. Men can contact reporters and news outlets when they see inaccurate coverage of this issue and encourage the media to use genuine experts such as domestic violence advocates as their sources of information.
4. Help local protective mothers: The crisis in the custody court system is a national problem so protective mothers who have been mistreated by the court system can be found in every state and most localities. Men can go to court, and observe the proceedings to support protective mothers. Some, but not all abused women have friends, family or domestic violence advocates to accompany them to court. The court can often be frightening and hostile to victims of domestic violence so the more support she receives the better. In the notorious Shockome case in Poughkeepsie, New York a dozen advocates and supporters regularly came to court to support the Dutchess County Mother of the Year who was abused first by her husband and then by the court. We noticed that the judge treated male observers more respectfully than female observers. Although this practice is wrong, it points out the importance of good men supporting battered mothers. I do not believe it was coincidence that when the mother appeared in court without her supporters, the judge treated her repeated statements of "objection" designed to preserve her right to appeal as if her intent was to interfere with the court process. The judge sent the seven-months' pregnant woman to jail for almost a month for this "contempt."
When I was preparing to give a workshop at a NOMAS conference with Ben Atherton-Zeman, we prepared by asking protective mothers and their advocates what men could do to help. Many of the women suggested that men come to court to support protective mothers in their area. Men who wish to support a protective mother can contact the local domestic violence agency and organizations working to reform the custody court system to find protective mothers looking for support. The women have had their trust violated by their partners and often by the court system they thought would protect them. Accordingly men must understand that some of the survivors may have trouble trusting another man so he should be guided by her preferences and comfort.
5. Support organizations working to help protective mothers: Protective mothers often enter the custody court system expecting to easily receive custody because they have been the main caregiver and the children’s need for their mother is obvious. They are not prepared for the brutal attacks they receive from their abusers and how open the courts are to lies and manipulation by their abusers. The failure of the media to expose the crisis contributes to the shock protective mothers feel when they realize what they are up against. Battered mothers often expend a great deal of resources and energy attempting to reinvent the wheel. There are now many wonderful organizations and resources available for protective mothers and anti-sexist men can help by supporting these organizations.
The Battered Mothers Custody Conference (BMCC) has held annual conferences every year. since 2004 bringing together the leading national experts about domestic violence custody cases and protective mothers. The organization was founded and is led by Dr. Mo Hannah. They also have a web site with research and sources of assistance. BMCC focuses solely on the protective mother issue and its efforts have helped increase the involvement of domestic violence organizations. The leading national organization working on domestic violence issues is the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV They have made the crisis in the custody court system an important priority because the abuser tactic of seeking custody to maintain control over mothers seeking safety has been successful in stopping progress to end men’s violence against women. They have state coalitions and local agencies as part of their membership that provide resources for protective mothers in most communities. Protective mothers should start by contacting their local domestic violence agency. These organizations provide many more services besides shelters. Stop Family Violence is an organization led by Irene Weiser that has made protective mothers a high priority. They have research available on their web site and organize advocacy to change policies that make it harder for mothers to protect their children The Leadership Council is an organization of respected professionals who use their expertise to help protective mothers. They have good research on their web site and sometimes provide expertise on particular cases. Some chapters of NOW have made this issue a high priority. There are many other organizations, locally and online working on this issue. Anti-sexist men can join these organizations, provide financial and other support, and send messages to government officials and the media in support of the actions of these organizations. As mentioned before it is particularly helpful for government officials and the media to know that men support protective mothers because male supremacists seek to create the illusion they speak for most men.
6. Work with anti-sexist men’s groups: Men have come together to create organizations designed to oppose men’s abuse of women and sexism. The National Organization of Men against Sexism (NOMAS), A Call to Men and others work to support the movement to end domestic violence. NOMAS has a child custody task force that works to support protective mothers. Anti-sexist men should join these men’s organizations and send a message that the custody crisis is not a dispute between men and women, but an issue about the safety of children and mothers abused by their partners and too often inadequately trained court professionals.
7. Contact your local court system and ask them to adopt up-to-date practices: When the modern movement to end domestic violence started in the mid to late 1970s, there was virtually no research to help understand domestic violence. Courts adopted practices and approaches to respond to domestic violence custody cases during this time frame. Most of these practices are still in place despite substantial research and information to demonstrate the failure of these approaches. This is why courts so often fail to recognize domestic violence and frequently force children to live with abusers.
With the publication of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY and other research there can be no further doubt that the custody court system is broken. Rita Smith, Executive Director of the NCADV has written that after the publication of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY, any continuation of the present practices should be considered malpractice. Protective mothers and their allies will be working to convince courts to revise their training methods and practices based upon up-to-date research and information. Anti-sexist men can help this key aspect of the reform movement by contacting their local administrative judges and asking them to apply this up-to-date information into standard court practices. While it would be unethical for judges to discuss specific cases, discussion of patterns of problems in the court system and useful research is totally appropriate. One of the problems with the court system is the lack of accountability of judges and other professionals. Involvement of the public through such contacts would make judges understand the public is watching the courts to make sure children are protected from abusers.
8. Seek legislative reforms: Although the courts could do a good job protecting children with the present laws, there are changes to the law that would provide additional safety to protective mothers and their children. Laws supporting “friendly parent” provisions or shared parenting should be repealed because they are routinely used to support abusers and even when there is an exception for domestic violence, the exception is regularly ignored or minimized. These laws have been applied in a gender biased manner and there is no research to support a belief the laws benefit children. Research regarding the harm of domestic violence to children has resulted in laws requiring courts to consider domestic violence or create a presumption favoring custody for the non-abusive parent. The problem is that most of the laws apply only to the more severe forms of abuse and require a high level of proof. Legislatures should pass laws supporting the best practices found in up-to-date research which is the victim or less aggressive parent should have custody and the abuser should at least initially be limited to supervised visitation. Professionals without substantial domestic violence training and experience should not be permitted to work on domestic violence custody cases or should at least be required to consult with a genuine expert. Courts should be required to keep records for each judge of how often they make findings supporting allegations of domestic violence and how frequently they create Custody-Visitation Scandal Cases. Courts should be specifically barred from permitting evidence of unscientific theories such as Parental Alienation Syndrome. Judges should be required to put their reasons in writing when they rule against domestic violence allegations. Laws should be passed encouraging courts to award legal fees and other support to the parent having fewer assets when this is required to level the playing field. Evidence of gender bias should be grounds for appeal and when a judge engages in gender bias an appeals court should not be permitted to defer to his judgment based on his familiarity with the parties and their demeanor in court. States should establish effective disciplinary protocols for judges and create whistle blower protections for attorneys or others who expose improper behavior of professionals in the court system.
The organizations mentioned before often work on legislative reforms and anti-sexist men can support these campaigns. They can also write to their representatives and speak with them about the crisis in the custody court system and need for reforms. Most people including legislators are unaware of the seriousness of these problems. The more they hear from the public the easier it will be to create the needed reforms.
9. Contact journalists: Although the media covers domestic violence issues far more frequently than before the start of the domestic violence movement, it continues to make too many mistakes. Few journalists have training in domestic violence so when they are assigned a domestic violence story they often use unaccountable language and don’t know who the experts are. Journalists frequently use terms like “domestic dispute” to describe a vicious assault by a husband against his wife. The language makes it seem as it both parties contributed to the problem. This would be like describing the mugging and robbery of a cab driver as a “fare dispute.” The one profession that works full time on domestic violence issues and must have extensive training is domestic violence advocates. Recently there was a series of murder-suicides across the country where men killed their wives, children and/or other family members. The media produced some stories in which they looked at the economy, guns, depression and personal setbacks as causes of these tragedies. In fact many of the cases included histories of domestic violence and custody disputes, but the media failed to consider the most likely cause. Women suffer depression and economic hardships and tragically they sometimes commit suicide, but they don’t usually kill their family also. The difference is that men more often believe they have the right to make decisions for their family and that no one else can have her. The journalists could do a better job analyzing the pattern if they spoke with domestic violence experts.
The failure of the media to expose the crisis in the custody court system is a major obstacle to creating the needed reforms. The media is critical to helping the public understand the problem so the “tipping point” can be reached. Anti-sexist men can encourage the media to cover the issue and help them understand the male supremacists do not speak for most men. Men can contact reporters in response to articles about domestic violence and point out mistakes regarding domestic violence information. Ask reporters to do follow-up stories that focus on the custody court crisis. Encourage reporters to use local domestic violence agencies and national experts as sources of information to help them understand the issues. If the media gives coverage to the male supremacist viewpoint, request articles supporting protective mothers. Encourage reporters to look at the patterns of these cases instead of just an individual case that might not be typical.
10. Use your position, contacts and influence: The failure of the court system to recognize the abuser tactic of seeking custody to maintain control over his victim and punish her for leaving has caused the courts to inflict unspeakable pain and suffering on children and protective mothers. Since a large majority of men and women prisoners experienced domestic violence or child abuse as children, the courts’ failure has undoubtedly resulted in the loss of potential of thousands of battered women, children and third parties victimized by crimes committed by abused children. I do not believe the public would tolerate this tragedy if they knew the extent of the problem. This is why it is so important to bring attention to the pattern of mistakes that has resulted in so many children forced to live with abusers.
Anti-sexist men can use their positions and contacts to help the public understand this problem. Anyone in an academic institution can encourage domestic violence to be included in the curriculum and their institution to present speakers. Men can encourage their religious leaders to speak out about the custody crisis, provide programs and information and support protective mothers in the congregation. Civic institutions like Rotary or Kiwanis can be encouraged to create programs about this issue. Lawyers can encourage pro se and reduced fee representation of protective mothers, better training regarding domestic violence and to speak out when judges or others engage in gender bias. Businesses can support protective mother organizations, provide jobs and support for protective mothers and prevent abusers from using resources at work to harass his partner. Perhaps the media would pay more attention to advertisers than they do to protective mothers when we seek coverage about domestic violence custody cases. I am sure men can come up with many other ways they can use whatever contacts or influence they have on behalf of protective mothers and their children.
In my first book, I told the story of three children who were physically and sexually abused by their father. My client had to go to Family Court for an order of protection and custody. The children bravely told the judge, their attorney, the court-appointed evaluator and the child protective service caseworker what their father had done. As is typical of these cases, the professionals all believed the mother was pressuring the children to make false allegations and warned her she would lose custody if she did not stop. The judge ordered unsupervised visits with the father to resume. Thereafter the father was confronted by the baby-sitter in the presence of the law guardian and admitted kissing his daughters on their privates. The law guardian responded by joining me in a motion to stop the unsupervised visitation. The judge consulted with the evaluator who said the father used bad judgment but he should still receive his visitation. During this visitation the four-year-old was penetrated for the first time. I called child protective services to make a new report based on the father’s admissions. When the judge heard this he yelled and screamed at me saying the allegations had already been investigated. A new caseworker investigated the allegations and found the father did far worse than we alleged. CPS filed charges against the father and he never again received more than supervised visits. When the mother won custody she invited the caseworker and I to a celebratory dinner. The children had a name for us. They called us “believers” because we believed them when all the professionals who were supposed to protect them didn’t. We will need a lot more believers in order to protect our precious children.
M. T. Hannah, B. Goldstein, Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody, Civic Research Institute to be published early in 2010. See also B. Goldstein, "How do we know custody courts are sending children to live with abusers? Ten ways to know the custody court system is broken. available at NCADV.org
Jafee, P., Crooks, C.V. & Poisson, S.E. (Fall, 2003). Common Misconceptions in Addressing Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputes. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, p. 57. PBS Documentary Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories (2005) produced by Dominique Lasseur and Catherine Tatge, www.tatgelasseur.com. Also see Are Good Enough Parents Losing Custody to Abusive Ex-Partners? Available from The Leadership Council, www.theleadershipcouncil.org