For many years, protective mothers have complained about a broken custody court system giving custody to abusive fathers. The courts dismissed the complaints by saying they came from disgruntled litigants. Now, a new book based on multi-disciplinary research has confirmed that common mistakes in the custody courts have resulted in thousands of children being forced to live with abusers. Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues, co-edited by Dr. Mo Therese Hannah and Barry Goldstein includes chapters by over 25 of the leading experts in domestic violence and custody in the U.S. and Canada including judges, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, journalists and domestic violence advocates. Although the writers come from different disciplines and professional experience, there is remarkable agreement that the courts’ failure to use up-to-date research is responsible for placing children at risk and undermining laws designed to prevent domestic violence.
We have seen many cases in which a child acts out because the father violated the child’s boundaries such as by sleeping with the child. The father did not inappropriately touch the child. The issue could easily be handled by instructing the father to change his routine and it would be totally safe for the father to continue with normal visitation. This would be a win-win situation, but instead courts and the unqualified professionals they rely on assume the mother is making deliberately false allegations and so separate the child from their primary attachment figure and deny the child a relationship with her.
The book also takes on Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) which is one of the major reasons courts get so many cases wrong. Dr. Paul Fink past president of the American Psychiatric Association wrote a chapter about PAS and Nancy Erickson who is an attorney and law professor who went back to school to become a psychologist wrote about how to challenge false allegations of PAS. Richard Gardner concocted PAS based on his belief system which included many statements to the effect that sex between adults and children is appropriate. Many of his quotations are in the chapter and can be cited to judges who presumably will not want to be associated with such behavior.
The mistaken practices give the courts little chance to recognize the father’s abuse, but it is even worse than that. The mental health professionals often use their failure to recognize domestic violence as an excuse to pathologize the mother. She is often called delusional or paranoid because she believes something they missed. This or the assumption she is deliberately trying to interfere with the father’s relationship with the children often results in extreme outcomes in which the mother is given supervised or no visitation based on the court’s mistakes.
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Another common example is when judges, lawyers or evaluators watch fathers interact with the children. If the children show no fear, it convinces these professionals that the abuse allegations must be false. What the children understand is that their father would never hurt them in front of witnesses, especially someone he is trying to impress and in fact they could be punished if they showed fear. At the same time the mental health professionals are discrediting valid allegations based on information that is not probative, they tend to look only for physical abuse and miss many other domestic violence tactics that demonstrate the control and coercion he practices.