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Custodians of abuse
Across the nation, family court is the last place a mother concerned about child sexual abuse by the child’s father wants to find herself

Changes in Massachusetts family courts since 1989

A 1989 MASSACHUSETTS study commissioned by the state Supreme Judicial Court showed that mothers engaged in custody disputes with their ex-husbands or boyfriends can fall victim to gender bias. Family courts held mothers to higher standards than fathers. Judges and other courtroom personnel, for example, scrutinized mothers’ habits, work schedules, and relationships, as if looking for any reason to prove them unfit. By contrast, fathers who simply sought custody were viewed as undertaking what the study termed " an extraordinary act of commitment " to his children.

When it came to allegations of child abuse in custody battles — typically, allegations lodged by women against men — court officials often presumed that the claims were false. The 1989 study showed that a majority of Massachusetts family-court judges even agreed with the statement that mothers only charge child abuse " to gain a bargaining advantage in the divorce. " Judicial attitudes ranged from " skepticism " to " disdain. " And judges made what the study described as " inconsistent and ... questionable " rulings, such as granting alleged abusers unsupervised visits.

Court officials today say that much has changed since the study was published 13 years ago. The Massachusetts family court has almost completely changed its face since 1989. Only six of the judges interviewed for the SJC gender-bias study still remain on the family-court bench. Forty-four new and younger judges, about half of whom are women, now hear divorce, custody, and child-support cases in the 14 family courts statewide. " The field of judges looks different, " says Sean Dunphy, chief justice of the Massachusetts family and probate courts. Today’s judges are more enlightened about domestic violence and child sexual abuse than judges were in 1989 because, he maintains, " they’ve been exposed to significant training. " Many family-court judges spent legal careers practicing domestic-relations and child-welfare law. And their knowledge of child abuse has grown and evolved, just as society’s has.

Since the troublesome SJC findings became public in 1989, judges say, the family-court administration has taken concerted steps to improve judicial responses to these cases. Dunphy, for instance, helped to create a 59-page protocol to assist judges in addressing child sex-abuse charges in the mid 1980s, when he served as first justice of the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. As chief justice, he has distributed these extensive guidelines to all his 49 colleagues on the family-court bench. Administrators, in addition, have drafted judicial-conduct provisions prohibiting biased behavior. And each year since 1994, they’ve devoted $100,000 toward official training of judges and family-service officers on domestic violence.

Such reforms have had an effect, according to David Sacks, the first justice of the Hampden Probate and Family Court. " Does the system need help? " he asks. " Absolutely. But there is real progress on this issue. " He then adds, " In my experience, we treat [disputed custody] cases [with abuse charges] very seriously. The nightmare of a family-court judge is placing a child at risk. "

- Kristen Lombardi

IF YOU’RE A PARENT, it’s your worst nightmare: finding out that your child is being molested — by your spouse. If you seek a divorce as a result, or are already going through one when you make the discovery, you hope that family court will do the right thing: grant you sole legal and physical custody of your child. In fact, you can’t even imagine that there could be any other outcome in the custody judgment. But for many parents — in nearly every instance, mothers — just the opposite occurs: the alleged abusers don’t just get unsupervised visitation rights, they get full custody.

How can this happen?

Easy, say family-law attorneys, child-abuse advocates, and child-law specialists. Family courts aren’t equipped to adjudicate criminal matters. They exist to settle divorces, wills, adoptions, guardianships, and other matters related to litigation between family members.

Three recent studies that looked at the outcomes of custody disputes involving child-abuse claims — one study surveyed California courts, one surveyed Massachusetts courts, and a third tracked 300 cases over a 10-year period in courts throughout the country — all came to the same conclusion: the nation’s family courts are failing to protect children from abuse.

"Family courts are not in a position to litigate the complexities of child sexual abuse," explains Seth Goldstein, a Napa, California–based attorney who represents men and women in custody disputes involving child-sex-abuse charges. Goldstein, who also founded the Child Abuse Forensic Institute, in Napa, says that most family courts are "overburdened" with cases and don’t have time for the lengthy trials and investigations that child-abuse allegations demand. "In many family courts," he says, "you often have only one sitting judge to hear hundreds of matters that have to do with many, many things, so the courts are compelled to move things along as quickly as possible. The system is just not conducive to [dealing with] child abuse."

Colorado attorney Alan Rosenfeld, who specializes in representing parents in custody disputes involving child-abuse allegations and has counseled approximately 1000 mothers trying to protect their children from abusive ex-husbands, is blunt: "If we ever sat down to design the worst possible system that protects the smallest number of children, it would look a lot like the family courts look today."

Nearly 25 experts in custody litigation involving child-abuse claims were interviewed for this article. All had the same three complaints about family court — regardless of which state’s court system they were familiar with:

Family courts do not rely on criminal investigators to examine child-abuse claims. They rely on family advocates called guardians ad litem (GALs), whose charge is to investigate allegations of abuse, abandonment, and neglect and to represent the best interests of the children in disputed custody cases. More often than not, they are licensed psychologists or social workers. Sometimes, they are attorneys. They may be highly trained in their own areas of expertise, but that doesn’t qualify them to evaluate physical evidence of abuse and to interview victims and alleged abusers. Yet in contested custody battles, they are frequently called upon to do just that. Their recommendations carry significant weight in judicial decisions that set the course of a child’s life.

Normal courtroom checks and balances don’t exist in family court. Unlike in criminal and civil court, there are no juries. And family courts do not mandate legal representation. Therefore, the only litigants with attorneys are those who can afford them. In this atmosphere, judges have extraordinary powers and can work with near-complete impunity. It is not uncommon, for example, for judges to hold hearings in which important rulings are made with only one party present (called ex parte hearings); such hearings can violate basic constitutional rights of due process.

Gender bias and traditional stereotypes of how women and men parent children continue to prevail in family court. As a result, while conventional wisdom has it that mothers almost always fare well in family court, statistics show otherwise. In 1996, the Williamsburg, Virginia–based American Judges Association released a report, "Domestic Violence and the Courtroom," in which it noted that wife batterers and child abusers convince family-court officials that their ex-wives are "unfit" or "undeserving" of sole custody in roughly 70 percent of contested custody battles. A 1989 Massachusetts study commissioned by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) showed that gender bias often hampers the administration of justice for women in custody decisions. It’s true that mothers are almost always awarded full or joint custody of their children in divorce cases where custody isn’t disputed. Yet the study found that when there was a fight over the children, fathers won primary or joint custody more than 70 percent of the time — whether or not there was a history of spousal or child abuse. (See "Changes in Massachusetts Family Courts Since 1989," this page.) Although the study is 13 years old and a number of things have changed since it was first published, at least 23 states have conducted gender-bias studies since — and all have made similar findings.

America’s ‘darkest’ secret

IT’S HARD TO say how many children are affected in these cases. Massachusetts family courts mediated approximately 9450 custody cases in 2001; multiply that by 50 and you get an extremely rough estimate of how many such cases are heard nationwide every year — 472,500. Of these, it’s impossible to say how many involve charges of child abuse. Massachusetts family courts, for instance, do not keep statistics on the types of custody cases litigated. To date, the most reliable and largest national study of the incidence of child sexual abuse in contested custody cases occurred in 1990, when the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, in Denver, surveyed 9000 custody disputes in 12 family courts across the country. Fewer than two percent involved child-sex-abuse charges.

The number is small. But the implications for the children concerned are staggering. Take, for instance, Idelle Clarke’s 16-year-old daughter, who is now living with her father, a man twice found by Los Angeles child-protection workers to have sexually assaulted her.

"This is one of America’s darkest, most shameful secrets," says Clarke, a 54-year-old Southern California mother whose case has become something of a cause célèbre among the burgeoning community of women and advocates seeking reform of the nation’s family courts. (See "Five Steps Toward Family-Court Reform," page 3.) After a nine-year custody battle that began in Los Angeles County Family Courts in 1993 and ended in California Supreme Court last October, Clarke not only lost custody of her daughter, but cannot have any contact with the girl. No phone calls. No visits. Nothing. Family-court judges simply didn’t believe that the girl had been sexually assaulted by Clarke’s ex-husband, Ovando Cowles, even though two separate, exhaustive sex-abuse investigations by LA child-protection workers found that she had been. Instead, judges maintained that Clarke had brainwashed her daughter into making up bogus charges about her father. So now, even though her daughter lives just minutes away from Clarke’s Sierra Madre home, she hasn’t been able to see the girl in the two years since the initial family-court judgment, which prohibited Clarke from going within 100 yards of her daughter. "It’s a punishment greater than those given to serial rapists," says Clarke, who is now preparing to file a January 14 petition asking the United States Supreme Court to hear her case. Meanwhile, Clarke’s daughter doesn’t just live with the man who’s sexually abused her on at least two occasions. The teenager, who is developmentally delayed, lives with her abuser not understanding that the people who want to protect her, can’t. And that those who can protect her, won’t.

In the small world of contested custody cases in which child-abuse claims arise, Clarke’s situation isn’t an exception. It’s more the rule. Colorado attorney Rosenfeld has seen mothers lose custody of children who’ve contracted sexually transmitted diseases from their fathers or who’ve made graphic disclosures such as "Daddy took Mr. Cocky and I played with him and took a tissue and cleaned it up." Nevertheless, for years, parents who’ve lost their children to abusers have believed their cases were exceptions. Until Clarke went public with her story.

In 1999, the now-defunct Los Angeles New Times published a detailed account of the prolonged custody battle. (See "Additional Reading," page 4.) Since then, Clarke has fielded countless phone calls from women across the country who, like her, expected to find justice in the family courts, but found something quite different instead. "Rarely a day goes by where I don’t get a call from a mother," she says. The outpouring inspired her, along with four mothers from California, Alaska, Michigan, and New Jersey, to organize the grassroots group United for Justice, whose members include hundreds of women in 49 states caught in Kafkaesque nightmares in the nation’s family courts. Says Clarke, "Women are being routinely punished and abused if they bring up child-sexual-abuse allegations in the family courts." And it’s not just Clarke and other mothers who’ve lost custody of their children who make this claim.

New York–area sociologist Amy Neustein, along with two co-authors, is writing a critique of the family-court system for Northeastern University Press. In 1988, she established the Help Us Regain the Children Legal Research Center, which tracks custody battles involving child-sexual-abuse claims. Over the past 14 years, she has compiled a database with nearly 1000 cases, and has identified a frequent and disturbing pattern: "the penalization of mothers for bringing these allegations to the court’s attention in the first place."

In a 1999 study on judicial responses to mothers’ child-abuse complaints, Neustein and a colleague followed 300 cases through the family courts in places across the country for a 10-year period, from 1988 to 1998. Only 10 percent of the 300 cases resulted in what Neustein termed "a positive outcome" — meaning that the mother had won primary custody of her children and the alleged abuser had gotten supervised visits. In 70 percent of the cases, the mothers had to send their children on unsupervised visits and share custody with the alleged abusers. More than 20 percent of the cases led to what Neustein referred to as "a negative outcome" — i.e., the mother lost visitation rights altogether. Too often, she concludes, "The system retaliates against mothers with such ferocity that they lose their rights."

Her research, which entails combing through court transcripts, depositions, sex-abuse evaluations, GAL reports, and judicial findings from the 1000 child-custody cases in her database, has exposed punitive measures commonly issued by judges against mothers who continue to charge child sexual abuse. Family-court judges, for example, hold women in contempt, throw them in jail, scale back their visitation privileges, and even forbid them to seek psychological care for their children. In some instances, judges have gone to the extreme of ordering women not to have any contact — no letters, no phone calls — with their children.

"What I have seen in the family courts goes beyond the maltreatment of any other afflicted class in the history of this country," Neustein maintains. She ticks off a shocking number of injustices committed against mothers. Family judges routinely refuse to hear evidence of child sexual abuse; fail to give mothers a chance to testify in court on critical matters concerning abuse; hand down judgments against mothers in ex parte hearings without giving them prior notice; and evade the rules that guide courtroom conduct. She says, "People would be flabbergasted by what I have found in the family courts.... It’s as if you’re looking into a world that’s completely outside the normal range of legal conduct."

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Issue Date: January 9 - 16, 2003
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