The Hidden Danger For Mothers And Children In Family Court

by Misha V.
Originally Published: 
A distraught mother holding her child because there is a hidden danger for them in family court

When Ohio judge Judith Nicely awarded Larry Mason* custody of his nine-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son, the children locked themselves in the bathroom, held knives to their throats and threatened to kill themselves.

Despite their mother, Rose Mason,* fighting to regain custody, the judge upheld the order, citing the children were “alienated” from their father and needed to re-establish a relationship.

The eleven-year-old was later pushed by his father through a plate glass window — breaking his hand, which required emergency surgery, severing two tendons, a nerve and causing permanent damage.

Rose reports her ex-husband was abusive to her and the children and had also been incarcerated for possession of child pornography. Criminal court documents in 2008 show Mason was incarcerated for downloading “numerous obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy pictures, writings and other matters of indecent character” and served 15 months in federal prison.

In Ohio, an obscenity conviction does not prevent parents from having unsupervised contact with their children and Mr. Mason was still granted custody when he was released.

During our interview, Rose stated, “The courts didn’t pay attention to his crime, the abuse or the children’s cries for help. They refused to believe it was domestic violence and child abuse — once they label you an ‘alienator’ you are branded and they treat everything you say as suspicious.”

Mason’s case is one example of an alarming trend where batterers gain custody, often due to gender bias in court, fueled even more by the abusers claims that they’ve been “alienated.”

Studies by Joan Meier, Daniel Saunders and the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force On Violence shows that gender bias in the courts often works against, not in favor of, mothers in custody cases.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Gender Bias Task Force also uncovered substantial evidence of gender bias against mothers in family courts. “Our research contradicted the perception that there is a bias in favor of women and that in determining custody and visitation, many judges and family service officers do not consider violence toward women relevant.” The report also found “courts put the needs of noncustodial fathers above those of custodial mothers and children.”

Research now shows “alienation” claims are frequently raised by abusive men in custody cases–when the stakes for children’s safety are highest—and are often fueled by the discredited disorder, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), (also called “parental alienation” or “gatekeeping”) that becomes a potent weapon for undermining abuse and domestic violence by framing the protective parent as fabricating allegations.

PAS is defined as when “a child turns against a parent because of the other parent’s manipulation and indoctrination.” Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist who tried to normalize pedophilia and sexual abuse, first coined the “syndrome” in the 1980’s.

PAS isn’t recognized by the American Psychological Association and isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Dr. Paul Fink, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, describes PAS as “junk science at its worst.”

Legal authorities are just as skeptical. A 2015 American Bar Association report, Parental Alienation Syndrome: 30 Years On and Still Junk Science, concluded “Despite having been introduced 30 years ago, there remains no credible scientific evidence supporting parental alienation syndrome.”

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) have also spoken out against PAS, stating it “threatens the safety of abused children.” But despite widespread repudiation, PAS is still accepted in family courts.

PAS is even more dangerous when it is invoked in custody cases that involve suspicions of abuse, according to research conducted by Joan Meier, an attorney and professor of clinical law at George Washington University, “In family court parental alienation is predominantly used when there is an abuse claim and the introduction of parental alienation then taints that abuse allegation and becomes like a teflon, impenetrable defense for the abuser.”

And in many cases of PAS when the children display fear, anxiety or anger towards the reportedly abusive parent, often the same parent alleging alienation, the child’s behavior is dismissed by the courts as just another example of the “alienation” and isn’t examined further as a likely trauma response to the abuse.

Although the definition of PAS is gender neutral, currently mothers are at great risk for losing custody in PAS cases involving child abuse/domestic violence.

Abuse is not only regularly dismissed in court, but can also be extremely dangerous to prove. Batterers terrify their partner out of calling the police or reporting the abuse — because when they do the consequences are so often deadly.

Victims who flee a batterer are 70 times more likely to be murdered in the first two weeks after escaping and are 500 times more at risk for severe violence after leaving. But when mothers attempt to disclose the abuse in court to protect their children, they are often told if there is not a significant amount of evidence then the court will not consider it during a custody hearing.

And the very act of disclosing the abuse often works against mothers and the courts punish them for even mentioning it.

Since many custody cases use court-appointed evaluators — psychologists who review a custody petition and make a recommendation. If that evaluator, who often only meets the family once or twice, also discounts the abuse and/or substantiates an alienation claim, they enable the abusers to gain custody. In Mason’s case, once she disclosed the abuse to the evaluator, he described her as “an alienator” and “delusional.”

“Judges can be misled, nobody wants to believe abuse is really happening and then this supposed “expert” comes in testifying that there is no abuse and no problem–essentially giving the judge a reason to dismiss it” states Meier.

Parental alienation claims gain more power by playing right into many falsehoods, such as mother’s always get custody and that they make up allegations.

While decades ago, mothers may have been more likely to gain custody, now judges and evaluators, out of a distorted sense of fairness, are going to the other extreme and can be less likely to believe abuse.

“Despite conventional wisdom where people think moms are the ones favored to get custody, the system right now is favoring abusers” states attorney and family court expert Robin Sax in the investigative report Children Lost In The Family Court System.

The American Judges Association now reports that batterers get custody or shared custody in 70% of abuse cases. In another study, sexual abusers reportedly got custody in 85% of the surveyed cases. Experts conservatively estimate that 58,000 children a year have unsupervised contact with an abusive parent.

When judges discount abuse the consequences can be deadly.

When Andrea Gallegos told California Judge John M. Pacheco she feared for her son’s life if his father, Alex Baeza, got custody, he replied, “I think you’re overreacting all right? Now, if you continue to act this way… I’ll have to take custody away from you.”

After Judge Pacheco awarded the father shared custody, he brutally murdered the child.

This was not an isolated tragedy. One study found, between June 2009 and January 2010, 75 children were murdered by abusive fathers involved in custody cases.

Family court judges are often poorly trained in recognizing signs of abuse and an over-reliance on court evaluators, inherent gender bias and allowing PAS into the courts has contributed to this escalating problem.

“Family court is generally seen as a place that should protect children, but judges in family court often don’t think they should have to deal with child abuse,” states Meier. “They think that belongs in criminal court or with child protective services, which leaves abused kids involved in custody cases at great risk.”

Compounding the issue is judges and court evaluators operate largely unchecked with little accountability.

“In criminal court, judges know they’ll be reversed if they make a bad decision, But in family court, judges get out of hand, and there’s no oversight” states Paula Sharp, a former NYC Public Defender.

Anna Frank lost custody of her 9-year-old son in New York after the court evaluator reported their claims of abuse were “fabricated.”

Her son deteriorated significantly while living with his father and repeatedly reported his father’s abuse to his teachers. After an exhausting legal battle, Frank finally regained custody and she filed a complaint against the evaluator with the Office of Professional Discipline (OPD), the state agency tasked with overseeing court appointed psychologists.

But OPD claims they are limited in investigating complaints in custody cases due to confidentiality.

“This refusal of OPD means that psychologists who are incompetent or even corrupt can continue to make money by doing custody evaluations that could end up misleading the courts and harming children and their families,” states Nancy Erikson, an attorney for Frank.

It is unconscionable that any evaluator should be permitted to utilize a diagnosis, such as PAS, that is not accepted by the leading psychiatric associations and one that has such a lengthy history of exposing children to continued abuse.

It is well past time for the nation’s courts to recognize their inherent bias, heed the strong recommendations of experts, drop the widely discredited theory of PAS and stop this pervasive pattern of minimizing abuse. The lives of our children are far too important to do otherwise.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of minor children.

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