Hawaii Becomes the First State to Introduce the Safe Child ActHawaii just made history, but there is more work to be done
By Barry Goldstein and Dara Carlin
The beautiful state of Hawaii has become the first state to introduce legislation that would make their children safe in the custody courts. The Safe Child Act is an evidence- based proposal that would guarantee that the health and safety of children is the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. The proposal would require courts to use current scientific research, a multi-disciplinary approach and trauma-informed responses to prevent outdated practices from continuing to place children in jeopardy.
Members of the public who have no contact with custody courts and even many professionals who fail to look at current scientific research and the patterns of mistakes are unaware of the frequency that the courts place children in jeopardy. Every year, 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. In a recent two-year period, researchers found news stories about 175 children murdered by fathers involved in contested custody. In many of these tragedies, the court gave the fathers the access they needed to kill their children. Although less than 2% of mothers make deliberately false reports, in cases involving concerns about child sexual abuse, the courts give the alleged offenders custody 85% of the time. This means courts are sending a lot of children to live with their rapists. In other words the present practices which were developed in the 1970s when no research was available are working poorly for children.
Important recent research from very credible sources explain why the custody courts have such trouble responding to domestic violence and child abuse cases. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will live shorter lives and suffer more injuries and illnesses as children and later as adults. Physical assaults are not required to create these catastrophic consequences and practices that demand the children “just get over it” are doomed to fail. This research demonstrates that the consequences of exposure to domestic violence and child abuse are far more serious than court professionals have understood.
At the same time, the Saunders’ study that was released by the National Institute of Justice in the US Justice Department raises serious concerns about the training received by evaluators, judges and lawyers in domestic violence cases. Dr. Saunders’ found that court professionals need training on very specific topics rather than generalized training in domestic violence which often means different things to different people. The professionals need to learn about screening for domestic violence, risk assessment, the impact of domestic violence on children and post-separation violence. Professionals without this specific knowledge tend to focus on the myth that women frequently make false reports and unscientific alienation theories. This leads to recommendations that hurt children. When professionals do not have the necessary level of expertise regarding domestic violence they usually deny or minimize true reports of abuse and this is a major reason why so many cases end with a dangerous abuser gaining access to hurt the children.
Hawaii Safe Child Act Will Protect Children
Hawaii already requires that courts give the health and safety of children the highest priority in custody decisions. This is a key provision of the Safe Child Act, but the children are not being protected because Hawaiian courts like most other courts have not integrated important scientific research that can help judges recognize domestic violence and child abuse and avoid responses that minimize the significance. Hawaii’s Safe Child Act will help judges protect children by mandating the use of current scientific research like ACE and Saunders and use of a more multi-disciplinary approach.
Hawaii-based Domestic Violence Survivor Advocate, Dara Carlin, who previously worked in the family court system had this to say, “Sometimes people just don’t know what they don’t know. My area of expertise was child abuse, not domestic violence, and when I began working in DV cases my mindset was ‘same issue, different victim’ – I had NO IDEA how wrong and ill-equipped I was! I graduated with a Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy with not a shred of DV or abuse-related training and in many of the existing PsyD, PhD, MFT and MSW schools, there’s still no such formal training! Can you imagine? One in four women will be a victim of DV sometime in their life but therapists are being graduated and licensed to practice without a clue! The real tragedy is, these professionals believe they know what they’re doing. I think the tendency is to over-simplify DV to he hit her, she left, ‘game over’ when by her leaving, the abuser is announcing ‘Let the games begin!’ Our judges in Hawaii are ‘booked to the max’ with cases as is but giving them the tools and the resources (DV experts/advocates) to assist them is a total win-win.”
When domestic violence first became a public issue in the 1970s there was almost no research available. Popular assumptions believed that mental illness and substance abuse caused the abuse. The courts turned to mental health professionals as if they were the experts in domestic violence. We now know the original assumptions were wrong. Evaluators often look for psychological causes for domestic violence and assume any abuse reports are false if the children aren’t acting out in obvious ways. Mental health professionals are experts in psychology and mental illness and can provide great assistance when those issues predominate. In other cases we may need expertise in child sexual abuse, substance abuse, medical issues or domestic violence. A few hours of training can be helpful, but doesn’t provide the level of expertise needed to recognize and respond to domestic violence and child abuse.
In one tragic case from Westchester County, New York, a recently retired police officer with the best possible reputation personally and professionally killed his two teenage daughters and then himself. The news coverage focused on how someone who seemed so good could commit such a heinous act. The local newspaper interviewed various professionals to answer the question. The law enforcement professionals, some of whom knew him personally could not fathom why he would do this. This is because abusers act very differently with the outside world than they do with their immediate family. The mental health professionals attempted to concoct an unlikely psychological explanation but even they said their guess was unlikely.
The reporter interviewed Barry Goldstein who shared the research about the 175 children murdered by fathers involved in contested custody. The most dangerous abusers are those who believe she has no right to leave. Court professionals often have difficulty recognizing the danger because they are looking for someone who has committed the most serious physical assaults. It turned out that the mother recently asked for a separation and filed a complaint with the police. We desperately want to prevent tragedies like this, but these murders can only be stopped if we understand the causes. This case illustrates the problem of limiting the investigation to psychology when the cause involves domestic violence dynamics.
The Hawaii Safe Child Act requires new domestic violence training for judges. Experience in other states suggests that a significant change in the law together with additional training promotes the benefits of this training. Judges who otherwise might assume they already understand domestic violence will want to understand how to implement the new law.
Putting Children First
No judge wants to hurt children. Part of the problem has been that legal professionals are trained to consider each case and each issue separately and in doing so miss the patterns that are so important in understanding domestic violence. Courts assume that once they make a decision, absent an appeal, the findings must be correct. These beliefs have encouraged defensiveness in response to criticism and unfavorable research findings.
The ACE Studies are medical research that initially was used by doctors to diagnose and treat patients. The doctors would otherwise not consider that childhood trauma from decades earlier was the likely source of present medical conditions. Dr. Vincent Felitti, the lead author of the original ACE Study believes prevention is an even better use of his research. The present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, crime, suicide, substance abuse and many other health and social problems is based on our present level of domestic violence and child abuse.
The good judges, lawyers and psychologists in Hawaii have no chance to protect Hawaii’s children until they integrate important research like ACE and Saunders into their standard practices. They must also encourage a multi-disciplinary approach that includes domestic violence advocates who Dr. Saunders found have the most knowledge of the specific issues the courts need in domestic violence cases.
The same best practices that are most likely to prevent child murders are even more likely to save courts from less dramatic outcomes that sentence children to a childhood of pain and torture. We must change practices that pressure victims and children to cooperate with their abusers and instead require the abusers to change their behavior in order to earn a relationship with their children. Hawaii’s Safe Child Act will move practices from the 1970s to the best practices we know in 2016. Best of all children will no longer have to cry themselves to sleep but instead have the opportunity to reach their potential. This is truly what it means to live in paradise.
The present legislative session in Hawaii is very brief and so the Safe Child Act moved very quickly to the first legislative committee. We did not have an opportunity to speak with Hawaii’s judicial and legal community. Unfortunately, they completely misunderstood how the law would work and its important benefits. They expressed strong opposition based on this misunderstanding and the committee felt it had to defer action. The Stop Abuse Campaign and our allies are working to create a dialogue with those who expressed opposition in hopes that a better understanding of our proposal with change their position. We will also use the delay to inform legislators and the public about the enormous benefits from the Safe Child Act. The law to make courts safe for children will again be considered although this may not occur until next year.
We are enormously grateful to Vice Speaker John Mizuno and his assistant Charles St. Sure for their assistance in getting the bill drafted and submitted. We appreciate everyone who supported the Safe Child Act and look forward to celebrating its ultimate victory.