"Time's Up!" - The Department of Justice Report

by Barry Goldstein 

An excerpt from the article ~

Clusters of Qualifying and Disqualifying Beliefs

The heart of this study was to consider how the training, knowledge, experience and beliefs of evaluators and other court professionals affects their recommendations and decisions. The study found clusters of beliefs that appear to be connected to training, experience and biases rather than the facts and circumstances of the case. This tended to confirm the belief that evaluations often tell us more about the evaluator than the parties being evaluated. 

One cluster of beliefs by evaluators (and judges) included the mothers often make false allegations about dv and child abuse, survivors alienate children from the other parent, dv is not an important factor in making custody decisions, and children are hurt when survivors are reluctant to co-parent. These professionals tended to have less training in domestic violence and had personal beliefs supporting patriarchy and sexism. I will refer to these as unqualified professionals, but please understand that is my term. 

Evaluators with better training, more familiarity with domestic violence and an understanding that mothers rarely make false allegations of domestic violence or child abuse tended to recognize that dv is important in custody decisions; victims do not alienate the children; and victims do not hurt children when they resist co-parenting. I will refer to these as qualified professionals. 

Department of Justice Report Demands Custody Court Reforms

One of the problems of asking professionals general questions about their response to dv is that they know they are expected to take dv seriously and this affects the responses received. Accordingly, Dr. Saunders used a vignette in which the mother described three incidents of physical abuse two of which are indications of a higher lethality risk. She also said he had a history of controlling behavior. The father said the incidents were isolated, occurred when he had been drinking and were exaggerated by the mother. The mother initially took the child to another city and seeks to limit the father to supervised visits even though he hasn’t physically abused the child. His psychological tests show no evidence of any major mental illness while her tests provide indications of anxiety, depression and paranoia. Qualified evaluators were more likely to investigate coercive control and the belief the father’s abuse caused the mother’s mental health issues. They were also more likely to recommend sole custody for the mother. Although supervised visits were recommended relatively rarely, qualified evaluators were the ones more likely to do so. Unqualified evaluators were more likely to support joint custody. “Of particular concern was the relatively high percentage of evaluators who recommended that the victim receive physical custody and the parents share legal custody. The potential negative implications of this arrangement need to be explained to evaluators given the likelihood that many abusers will use the arrangement to continue harassment and manipulation through legal channels.” (Report P. 14). 

One of the main focuses of this study had to do with how often evaluators and other court professionals believed the myth (my term) that women frequently make false allegations of abuse. This was something that unqualified professionals often believed while qualified professionals understood is rare. The Saunders’ study found a close relationship between evaluators and other professionals who believe the myth, a lack of necessary training and recommendations that place children at risk. It is this ignorance and bias that has led to so many disastrous outcomes. Significantly, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers every year and in a period of two years starting in 2009, we found stories about fathers involved in contested custody murdering 175 of their children often with the unwitting assistance of the courts. The Saunders’ report is especially important because it establishes both that the courts are making frequent mistakes in domestic violence cases and demonstrates the kinds of common flawed practices that create these tragedies. 

The danger of relying on unqualified professionals was demonstrated in a Bergen County, New Jersey case. The girl complained that her father and grandmother had touched her inappropriately. The father immediately denied the allegations and claimed alienation. Based on the evidence, the father certainly engaged in a pattern of coercive and controlling tactics and either sexually abused the child or violated her boundaries. The unqualified professionals in the case considered only sexual abuse or a deliberate false report and when they could not verify sexual abuse using flawed methods, concluded the mother was responsible for false accusations and separated the child from her primary attachment figure. At the first supervised visitation, the girl had a letter for her mother in which she said she was sorry for being such a bad girl. She believed she was a bad girl because telling her mother what happened led to the worst punishment in her young life. You can bet she will never make that “mistake” again which means if anyone else ever abuses her she will not tell. 

DYFS, which is the child protective agency in New Jersey, selected a series of mental health professionals without the knowledge Saunders believes is needed. In the course of treatment, one of these “experts” learned that the father had broken into his prior girl friend’s apartment and she needed to obtain a protective order. Anyone who knows how to recognize domestic violence would have found this information compelling and indeed would have inquired about his history of abuse long before giving him custody. The professionals in this case ignored this critical evidence because they did not understand its significance. DYFS later hired a psychologist to review the case. She immediately recognized the significance of this and other evidence and recommended returning custody to the mother. She was the only expert to cite research to support her conclusion. Her report was ignored and the child forced to continue her punishment. The judge also refused to hear the testimony of a domestic violence expert although that may soon change. Unfortunately this is not an unusual case in the broken court system and confirms the lack of qualifications regarding domestic violence is far more common in custody courts than among the professionals who agreed to participate in the Saunders’ study. 

The leading study about false allegations in the context of contested custody was led by Nicholas Bala and cited in the Saunders’ report. The study dealt with reports of child sexual abuse and found mothers in contested custody make deliberately false reports only 1.3% of the time. In contrast, fathers in contested custody cases were sixteen times more likely to make deliberately false allegations. It is important to understand the context. This does not mean that mothers are that much more honest than fathers, but rather this finding only applies to contested custody cases. The problem is that a large majority of contested custody cases are domestic violence cases in which abusive fathers use the tactic of seeking custody to regain control of his partner whom he believes has no right to leave. Accordingly these fathers believe they are justified in using any tactic to regain control including false allegations. 

There is no reason to believe mothers would be more likely to make false allegations of domestic violence than child sexual abuse. Abuser groups claim that they make frequent false reports of both types of abuse. Why would there be any difference in the frequency of false reports of these two types of abuse? Nevertheless, Dr. Saunders was unwilling to use the Bala study as evidence regarding domestic violence. I do not say this to be critical of Dr. Saunders who I deeply respect and admire. The difference, rather, is based on the purpose of the decision. Dr. Saunders was conducting careful scientific research that requires specific cites for everything reported. I am interested in making decisions in the custody courts which requires a preponderance of the evidence. It is extremely likely the Bala study also applies to domestic violence and therefore professionals should realize that false allegations of abuse by mothers are rare. In contrast, the unqualified professionals relied on by the courts assume mothers frequently make false allegations when there is no valid research to support this claim and the available information suggests the opposite. 

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