For nearly two years, Jacqueline Franchetti was embroiled in a custody battle for her two-year-old daughter Kyra. She had been pleading with the courts to give her sole custody or to at least require visitation to be supervised. Kyra’s father, Roy Eugene Rumsey, had been engaging in disturbing, threatening behavior toward Jacqueline, stalking her and telling her when they argued, “You’ll be sorry.”
Early in her pregnancy, Jacqueline had given Rumsey an ultimatum to either get help for his anger issues or she would end the relationship. He refused, so she left him. “I heard the messages that many of us heard to ‘get out’ of an abusive relationship,” she told Scary Mommy. “But they don’t tell us what happens once we leave our abuser and end up in family court. The abuse does not end … it gets worse.”
Jacqueline told me that the first time she went to court, she believed any judge would see her ex’s behavior and “throw the book” at him. Instead, she said, she found herself fighting for her and her daughter’s life. “Our nation’s family court system protects the abuser, not the child,” she said. “I can tell you from experience, the safety of the child is not the top priority in child custody cases.”
Best Interests Of The Child?
Even though the “best interests” of the child is generally stated as the top priority, Jacqueline’s assessment bears out upon examination of what actually happens in family courts across the United States. When mothers tell a judge they fear for their or their child’s safety, the judge often suspects the mother may be exaggerating in order to gain custody, or worse, that the mother is engaging in an abusive tactic called “parental alienation” — trying to turn the child against their other parent. These judges are working with little data, faced with a “he said, she said” situation in which they may or may not have thorough reports compiled from social workers or attorneys assigned to explore the accusations.
And judges worry about father’s rights. The prevailing assumption is that children thrive best with both parents in their lives — which is probably true in cases where there is no abuse. But this assumption frequently overrides accusations of abuse. Far too often, women in particular are not believed.
In Jacqueline’s case, when she told the court that Rumsey had stalked her and Kyra and that he wasn’t following court orders or medical directives, which she says is considered physical child abuse, Nassau County Judge Danielle Peterson told her to “grow up.”
“Because of Judge Peterson,” Jacqueline told me, “Kyra will never grow up.”
It may be tempting to sympathize with judges and other decision makers in child custody battles who give parents accused of abuse the benefit of the doubt. Divorce and separation are messy, tempers get heated, people want to emotionally harm one another or do whatever it takes to simply not have to deal with their child’s other parent. It may seem reasonable to question the motives of a woman accusing her ex of abuse.
However, just as with cases in which a woman alleges sexual assault, there are extremely few cases where a mother lies for her own personal gain or out of vengefulness. A study conducted in 2019 by Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore examined 27 custody cases from across the United States involving alleged abuse that was at first doubted and eventually proven to be true.
In every case, the father was the abusive parent, while the mother fought to protect her child. In every case, courts were at first doubtful of the mother’s motives for alleging abuse. Two thirds of the mothers were “pathologized” by the courts (accused of parental alienation, for example), and 59% of fathers were awarded sole custody, with the rest awarded joint custody or unsupervised visitation. Later, 88% of these children reported additional abuse, in many cases becoming so serious that the children’s health worsened. All cases were eventually turned around, the abuse verified.
So we see that it is common for a mother to be punished for speaking up about an ex-partner’s abuse. When she does so, she risks losing custody of her children entirely and being forced to hand them over to an abuser. Jacqueline told me this had been the case with her too. Her attorney even initially advised her that it may damage her “credibility” to allege abuse against her ex to the court.
Recently in Florida, Allison Kessler had been begging the courts to keep her and her four-year-old son Greyson safe from the boys’ father, whose behavior had become increasingly erratic and threatening. He’d sent her texts saying Kessler deserved to “have your head separated from body, and deserve to die.” The same day the judge denied Kessler an order of protection, Greyson’s father shot and killed the boy and then turned the gun on himself.
A Mom On A Mission
“Killing the child is the ultimate form of revenge by an abuser,” Jacqueline Franchetti told Scary Mommy. This is why it’s so critical that the family court system take meticulous care in investigating allegations of abuse.
Jacqueline told me that CPS had noted that Rumsey had an “overly aggressive play style,” had “anger and rage issues,” and “would cuss and threaten” Jacqueline. They also knew he had purchased two guns when Kyra was only six months old — one of which was the gun he eventually used to shoot her. And yet they still concluded there was no domestic violence and that the situation was “low risk.”
“Over a half million children are court-ordered into a home of a parent who is physically, sexually, or mentally abusing them,” Jacqueline told me. “Imagine being a child who is forced by our judicial system to live with your rapist, and you have no way out.”
These are decisions where children’s lives literally hang in the balance. And yet, at Jacqueline’s last hearing, she said Judge Peterson literally told her, “This is not a life or death situation.” It was, though. Jacqueline will never get to hold sweet Kyra again. The courts took this from her just as much as her child’s killer did.
Legislation To Protect Children
In New York state where Jacqueline lives, she has been hard at work with lawmakers to pass three bills meant to better protect children, one of which is called Kyra’s Law. That one would make the child’s safety the top priority, would mandate that judges receive training, and would stop practices that allow abusers to gain custody.
Another bill has to do with reforming supervised visits. It would ensure abused children are protected quickly and that the non-offending/safe parent gets sole custody. The third bill would require training for child custody evaluators, mandating that forensic evaluators and child custody evaluators be trained in domestic violence, child abuse, and trauma.
Kyra was failed at every level of the court system. No one who looked at their case was able to perceive the danger that Jacqueline knew and told them existed. There were people in Kyra’s life who could have confirmed that her father was a danger, but those people were not interviewed. The bills Jacqueline Franchetti is working to pass will ensure that those making these life or death decisions for children are properly trained to see the signs of abuse.
Jacqueline shared that it has been a challenge to get this far, because of the intense trauma and PTSD she suffered as a result of battling the court system and then grieving her daughter’s senseless, preventable death. “It was like my brain was scrambled,” she told me. “I had a hard time even putting sentences together from the trauma.” But every day, she pushes through anyway, determined to make herself heard so that other children do not suffer the same fate as Kyra.
Despite not having a lot of money, Jacqueline has traveled to Albany and Washington, DC multiple times, each time doing everything she could to maximize every minute she got with lawmakers. She’d study photos of representatives beforehand so she could identify them immediately. She would talk to lawmakers in the elevator or in hallways while walking from one office to another.
What You Can Do
I asked Jacqueline what she would tell parents who are trying to protect their children from an abusive ex or from an ex who is threatening abuse. “Until we make legislative changes,” she said, “more children will be court-ordered into the home of an abusive parent.” Therefore, she says, we have to focus on changing the law.
“Call your legislators to educate them,” she told Scary Mommy. “Ask them to work with you to make changes.” And reach out to Kyra’s Champions, the legislative arm of the Kyra Franchetti Foundation, which is looking to expand efforts into all 50 states.
“Advocacy takes many forms,” Jacqueline says. “From contacting your elected representatives, asking a question at a town hall, joining a committee or a task force, and of course, working on legislation.”
“Every day, I try to make Kyra proud,” Jacqueline told me. “I channel her energy, her spunk, her fierceness. My love for her will never end. I hope my work, in her memory, leads to lasting change and protecting many more children.”
We hope so too, Jacqueline.
If you are in an abusive relationship or fear for your safety, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or text “START” to 88788.