Case Study in Tragedy
Case Study of a TragedyA look at one family's tragedy shows the fault lines in Family Courts
By Barry Goldstein and Melanie Blow
Today the Boston Globe shared a story about one little girl’s tragically mishandled claim of child sexual abuse. An example of a problem faced by thousands of children across America, a problem that is easily solved through states passing the Safe Child Act. After all children deserve to be protected and our family courts need to prevent children from suffering trauma.
This groundbreaking story marks one of the first times that a major national media outlet has exposed the custody court scandal that has placed millions of children in jeopardy. Although the reporters focus on one tragic story, they included research and statements from national experts that showed how the lack of training, bias and flawed practices create widespread failures in protecting children.
In 2005 a PBS documentary film produced by Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur exposed the widespread failure of custody courts to protect children. PBS caved to the pressure from abuser groups and limited the availability of the film thus undermining its ability to encourage needed reforms. In 2006, reporter Sarah Childress used the notorious Shockome case to illustrate how courts allowed abusers to use the bogus Parental Alienation Syndrome to win custody from good mothers. The Stop Abuse Campaign is hopeful that the Boston Globe story written by investigative reporters Nestor Ramos and Evan Allen will mark the beginning of the end to widespread failed practices that undermine the ability of court professionals to recognize true reports of domestic violence and child abuse. The case exposed in the Boston Globe is not the exception. Only the use of standard outdated and discredited practices by unqualified professionals could have exposed the young girl to an additional five years of sexual torture.
“The case’s disturbing details provide a window into a system that one recently retired judge described as broken. The state’s family courts are overrun with volatile, complex claims, dozens of judges, lawyers, and advocates said in interviews with the Globe — but woefully short on tools to resolve them.”
The nation’s rising divorce rates in the 1970s and 80s roughly coincided with the rise of awareness about child abuse and the laws to minimize it. This could have created synergistic learning for both fields, but instead lead to the development of a huge family court industry with little knowledge about child abuse and domestic violence, and the development of a Child Protective Services with little knowledge of the complexities of divorce and custody litigation.
“The court system in which the girl’s case lingered for years was never intended to bear the responsibility for her safety.”
“It is very common for courts to punish and retaliate against mothers,” said (former)lawyer, author, and Research Director of the Stop Abuse Campaign Barry Goldstein, who also trains family court judges, “not realizing what they’re really doing is punishing the child.”
Child sexual abuse went from taboo to sensational to controversial in that same timeframe. Meanwhile, experts gained substantial knowledge about sexual and non-sexual child abuse, but it was slow to disseminate to either the masses or the courts. Judge Blake, the Judge responsible for the case in the Boston Globe demonstrated this lack of knowledge.
“Allegations of sexual abuse have trailed Stanley [the man accused of sexually abusing his daughter] for nearly 20 years, starting in his childhood…’ Even if it happened, it happened when she was 11? [and he was 12]’ Blake said, referring to the sister, according to the trial transcript. ‘I don’t know how it’s relevant.’”
Someone with adequate training in child sexual abuse would understand that adults who sexually abuse children should never be considered “safe” around children. Experts may talk about “successfully treating” sex offenders, but such an offender is still considered unsafe to be left alone with children.
Most of us, including judges, struggle to understand the emotional complexities that accompany child sexual abuse. Put simply, when a parent sexually abuses a child, it doesn’t undo the rest of their relationship with their child. As such, children will frequently recant their stories, change their stories, and often are happy to spend time with their abuser. Properly trained judges who understand that and don’t say things like “Bernson had acknowledged in her testimony that the girl loved her father and liked seeing him; a social worker testified that their supervised visits had gone well.”. Nor would statements like this lead to the conclusion that it is safe for the father to have unsupervised time with, or custody of, his daughter.
The Adverse Childhood Experience study shows us that ten identified Adverse Childhood Experiences are harmful to children. That doesn’t mean that everyone who increases a child’s ACE score is at equal risk for continuing such harmful behavior. People who sexually abuse children should not be considered “safe” around children. However, both physical abuse of children and drug addiction can often be stopped completely with the right interventions. In this case, the girl’s mother “had marijuana in her system when the girl was born, according to a DCF report” and “she [the daughter] also said her mother had hit her and her stepfather had threatened her.”
The judge concluded that both parents were “bad”, but there was more documentation of the mother’s “badness”, and she was “bad” in more ways. The judge’s decision to remove the girl from the mother and award her to the father, rather than mandate the mother receive therapy, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes and consent to monitoring was a mistake that harmed the child. When faced with the near certainty of her daughter experiencing more sexual abuse from her father, helping the mother would have been a better decision.
Courts and CPS both generally have a poor understanding of domestic violence. Domestic violence is drastically under-reported, but is behind most contested custody cases. In this case, when the judge sees that a mother “objected to Stanley’s visitation with the girl even before the sexual abuse allegations surfaced.”, one must ask “why?” Most parents, even imperfect ones, want their child to have a relationship with both parents if they feel that is safe.
Many, many things went wrong in this case. The good news is that a single piece of legislation, the Safe Child Act, stands to make cases like this rare. By insisting judges get training based on significant, modern research such as the ACE study and the Saunder’s Study (which documents that judicial belief in false reports is common but the reports themselves are very rare), many of the errors documented here could be prevented. Changing the judicial standard for family court judges from the “best interests” of a child to the “health and safety” of a child ensures that the prevention of ACEs becomes a higher priority than other details that often get in the way- including the desire to punish mothers viewed as “uncooperative”. It will also ensure that genuine experts are used to evaluate claims of child abuse and domestic violence.
Hawaii became the first state to introduce the Safe Child Act when Vice Speaker John Mizuno recently introduced the bill into the Hawaii House of Representatives. Other states need to pass the Safe Child Act to protect their children and prevent trauma being caused by custody courts.
The Boston Globe presented readers with a look at how complex the systems children depend on for protection can be, and just how many ways they can fail. The good news is that there are solutions out there. We just need to put them in place.