Purpose: Improve the Safety of Children involved in Child Custody Cases
The paramount concern of all child custody decisions must be to provide complete health and safety when determining the best interests of the children.
Whenever domestic violence or child abuse is raised as an issue either during or before a child custody matter is litigated any professional who provides advice or recommendations to the court must have substantial training and experience about Domestic violence and child abuse to fully understand safety issues including behaviors that are associated with higher lethality or injury risks; domestic violence dynamics; effects of domestic violence on children; ability to recognize domestic violence and research about batterer narratives. Any professional without this necessary expertise must consult with someone who has this knowledge prior to giving any recommendation to the court.
A post graduate degree in mental health such as psychology, psychiatry or social work absent specialized and approved training shall not be considered proof of domestic violence expertise. A court shall not refuse to qualify an individual as a domestic violence expert because the witness does not possess a post graduate degree if the witness can demonstrate expertise based upon training and experience.
In any custody case where either domestic violence or child abuse is raised during the litigation process and even where a court may have already heard and determined there is not significant enough domestic violence to warrant a restraining order and in which there is no substantial basis to believe the parties or children have a significant mental health impairment likely to interfere with parenting ability, courts should not order a mental health evaluation. The court may appoint a domestic violence expert to help the court understand the significance of evidence related to domestic violence and must permit parties to present evidence from a qualified domestic violence expert.
Courts shall look to current, valid scientific research concerning domestic violence to help inform its decisions in all cases where domestic violence or child abuse is raised during the course of custody litigation Courts shall not permit practices or approaches that do not have scientific bases and are not accepted practice within the specialized field of practice of domestic violence and child abuse. Professionals who engage in practices based upon such unscientific beliefs shall not be qualified to participate in custody cases where domestic violence or child abuse is raised during the course of litigation.
In cases in which allegations of domestic violence are supported by the preponderance of the evidence, the safe or safer parent shall receive sole custody absent clear and convincing proof that the parent creates an imminent safety risk to the children. The parent who has committed domestic violence shall be permitted only supervised visitation pending a risk assessment by a domestic violence/child abuse professional. In order for the abusive parent to obtain unsupervised visitation, the parent must complete at least a six month accountability program, accept full responsibility for past abuse, commit to never abusing the children or future partners, understand the harm the abuse caused and convince the court that the benefit of unsupervised visitation outweighs any risk. Termination of all visitation should be considered upon proofs of failure to comply as it will present the children with a known dangerous circumstance.
A parent shall not be penalized for making a good faith complaint about domestic violence or child abuse.
Courts shall not use approaches developed for “high conflict” cases designed to encourage parents to cooperate in any litigated custody case if there have been allegations of domestic violence and or child abuse which have been supported with an expert report opining there is a reasonable risk to children and shared parenting shall not be permitted in these cases absent voluntary consent of both parties. Consent must be determined to be without coercion or undue pressure.
In cases in which there are allegations of domestic violence, a history between the parties that includes restraining orders, criminal charges or other evidence of possible domestic violence, early in the proceeding, before the appointment of any GAL, evaluator or other neutral professional the court shall conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine if one of the parties has engaged in a pattern of domestic violence. If the court finds domestic violence and the non or less abusive parent is safe the court shall award custody to the safe parent and supervised visitation to the abusive parent. A finding denying the allegations of domestic violence shall not prevent the court from considering additional evidence of domestic violence later in the case.
In any case in which the trial judge engaged in or tolerated gender biased practices or permitted practices or approaches based on myths, stereotypes or other bias, an appellate court shall not defer to the judgment of the trial court.
In any case involving allegations of child sexual abuse, any professionals asked by the court for a risk assessment or evaluation must have specialized training and experience of a minimum of five years after completing training working with children and expertise in child sexual abuse. Investigators shall take sufficient time to develop a trusting relationship before expecting the child to speak about the allegations. It shall be recognized that children frequently recant valid allegations of child abuse so a recantation shall not by itself be treated as absolute proof the allegations were false. No negative inference(s) may be drawn from a decision by a prosecutor or child protective agency not to file charges against a named perpetrator of domestic violence or child abuse and shall not be treated as proof the allegations are untrue. Given the difficulty of proving valid complaints about child sexual abuse, judges who make a finding that the allegations were deliberately false must demonstrate they considered not only if the allegations are true but other common circumstances such as violation of boundaries, inadequate information to determine the validity of the allegations and mistaken allegations made in good faith. In cases in which a court determined sexual abuse allegations cannot be proven, the court shall consider new evidence in the context of the evidence previously considered. No decision shall be made by a court absent a full evidentiary hearing with the parent having a right to have an expert of their choosing heard by the court. No preference and no deference shall be given toany expert selected by the court and identical standards of review and credibility shall be applied by the trial court.
This law is designed to correct common present practices that have been shown to work poorly for the protection of children. The law seeks to encourage custody court professionals to look to current, valid, scientific research to inform their decisions and stop using the outdated and discredited practices described in the legislative history. The use of such flawed practices in prior decisions shall be considered a change of circumstance that entitles the parties to request the court to reconsider arrangements that were created based upon flawed practices.
Training and Retraining: Any judge who hears a case involving the issue of domestic violence and/or child abuse as part of judicial responsibility shall receive specialized training regarding the new practices adopted by this law and the specialized information it is based upon. They shall also receive retraining concerning prior practices which have not worked to sufficiently protect children. GALs appointed to represent children where domestic violence and or child abuse is raised during the course of litigation shall receive specialized training and retraining. The trainings shall be presented by domestic violence advocates and/or other similar experts knowledgeable about the safety practices described herein and current scientific research such as described herein. The state shall provide additional funding to domestic violence agencies to train advocates to serve as domestic violence experts in court and to help train court professionals.
Present Response to Domestic Violence Custody Cases Working Poorly for Children: Research based on the outcomes of domestic violence custody cases demonstrate frequent arrangements that place children at risk and standard practices shown to work poorly for children. Nationally, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers annually and in a two year period starting in 2009 fathers involved in contested custody cases murdered 175 children often with the unwitting assistance of the courts.
Large Majority of Contested Custody are Domestic Violence Cases: Many court professionals treat contested custody as “high conflict” but between 75-90% are actually domestic violence cases. This flawed practice results in courts pressuring victims to cooperate with their abusers instead of requiring abusers to stop their abuse. The most dangerous abusers, the ones who believe their partners have no right to leave have developed a particularly harmful tactic of seeking custody as a way to maintain control, pressure their partner to return or punish them for leaving. Court professionals, anxious to keep both parents in the children’s lives fail to consider motivation or ask why a parent who had minimal involvement with the children during the relationship suddenly demands custody in response to the separation. As a result there is a pattern of courts supporting abusers and punishing victims who continue to view their partner as unsafe. Contrary to a popular misconception, children do not need both parents equally. They need their primary attachment figure more than the other parent and the safe parent more than the abusive one.
Failure to Recognize Domestic Violence: Although a large majority of contested custody cases involve domestic violence, at least 70% result in custody or joint custody to the alleged abuser. One of the causes for this problem is flawed practices that make it hard for judges to recognize valid complaints about domestic violence. Court professionals often discredit valid allegations based on non-probative information such as a victim returning to the abuser, failing to follow-up on petition for protective order, lack of police or medical reports and observing children interact with the alleged abuser without showing fear (not realizing children know parent won’t hurt them in front of witness). At the same time court professionals fail to look for a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviors that in addition to physical abuse often include, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, isolating tactics, economic abuse, monitoring behaviors, litigation abuse, past parenting behaviors and threatening or using custody as a tactic to pressure the partner to stay or punishing partner for leaving.
Court Response to Sexual Abuse Allegations Especially Problematic: By the time children reach the age of eighteen, one-third of the girls and one-seventh of the boys have been sexually abused. The stereotypical rapist or sexual abuser is a stranger, but 83% of these crimes are committed by someone the victim knows and for children this is often their father. Although children rarely make false allegations, 85% of sexual abuse allegations in custody cases result in custody to the alleged abuser. Sexual abuse of young children is extremely difficult to prove. Many instances of abuse leave no physical evidence and when there is evidence it often is no longer available by the time the child reveals the abuse. Many professionals particularly those who are not experts in child sexual abuse are reluctant to believe someone could commit such a heinous act particularly if they are successful in other parts of their lives. This stereotype also contributed to the Catholic Church sex scandal and the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University. Many flawed practices have contributed to courts sending children to live with sexual predators and often punishing protective parents who try to protect their children.
Many Court Professionals Believe the Myth that Mothers Frequently Make Deliberately False Allegations of Abuse: A new U. S. Department of Justice study led by Dr. Daniel Saunders of the University of Michigan found that most evaluators and other court professionals have inadequate domestic violence training and those without needed training are more likely to believe this myth. Current scientific research establishes that deliberately false allegations by mothers in contested custody cases occur between one and two percent of the time. Nevertheless many court professionals continue to make recommendation based on this myth and this has been shown to work poorly for children. The use of this myth is an important factor in the widespread failure of custody courts to support valid allegations of domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
Gender Bias against Women Continues to be Widespread in the Court System: New Jersey was the first of over 40 states and many districts to create court-sponsored gender bias committees. They have found widespread bias against women particularly women litigants. Among the common examples are giving women less credibility, requiring a higher standard of proof and blaming women for the actions of their abusers. The use and tolerance of this bias is an important factor in keeping the myth that women frequently make false allegations alive. Judges and other professionals who engage in gender bias usually do so unconsciously, but there has been a lack of openness to hear this complaint and appellate courts are not reversing cases when this bias is in place.
Domestic Violence is a pattern of coercive and controlling tactics by one partner against another in an intimate partner relationship designed to maintain control over the partner and make the major decisions in the relationship. These tactics are intended to induce fear in the partner. Although abusers often use physical violence as one of the tactics, not all abusers engage in physical violence and most tactics are not physical and not illegal. Common tactics include verbal, emotional, psychological and economic abuse, isolating tactics, threats including threats to seek custody if the victim leaves, controlling behaviors, monitoring, litigation abuse and especially demands for custody or joint custody in order to pressure the partner to return or punish the partner for leaving.
Promoting safety of the children includes both preventing direct assault of the children and creating situations that have been shown to increase the likelihood the children will engage in harmful behaviors. Separating children from their primary attachment figure which has been shown to increase the risk of children to suffer depression, low self-esteem and commit suicide when older and witnessing domestic violence which has been shown to interfere with the ability of children to reach developmental milestones and increase the likelihood the children will engage in a wide range of harmful behaviors when older are common examples of situations that create a safety risk for children.
Domestic violence cases are cases in which there is an allegation of domestic violence or evidence or information that supports the possibility that one or both parties engaged in domestic violence tactics. The fact that no finding has been made should not be used to deny it is a domestic violence case because it requires domestic violence expertise to determine if the allegations are valid.