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Hawaii- Pass the Safe Child Act

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Hawaii Must Pass the Safe Child Act

House Bill 1701 will protect Hawaii's children- with your help

With great excitement, the Stop Abuse Campaign announces that the Safe Child Act has been introduced into the Hawaiian Assembly. House Bill 1701 will protect children in family court and their abused mothers in a comprehensive way. What follows is the testimony in support of the bill drafted by our Research Director, Barry Goldstein. Passing this bill in Hawaii will be the first step in passing it everywhere else, and you can play a role in making that happen. Click the red button at the bottom for instructions on submitting input.

Good Morning Chair Morikawa, Vice Chair Kobayashi and House Human Services Committee Members,


My name is Barry Goldstein.  I have worked in the domestic violence movement for 33 years and wrote some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody, particularly books for professionals based on the most current scientific research. I am also the research director for the Stop Abuse Campaign.  I appreciate your consideration of HB1701, the Safe Child Act, which will protect children in Family Court.


I would like to share with you why I first created this proposal in the hope that you will support HB1701 and make it the law for Hawaii’s children.


The custody courts developed their practices in the 1970s, when there was no research and many popular beliefs assumed domestic violence (DV) was caused by mental illness or substance abuse. Although we now have substantial research that could help judges better protect children, courts have been slow to adopt reforms based on current research.  


I have seen all too many preventable tragedies across the country, including Hawaii.  When a battered mother or her children are murdered by an abuser using custody issues to gain access, it is easy to see that something went wrong.  More often, children are sent to live with abusers and effectively silenced.  When they commit suicide several years later or die from a drug overdose, no one wants to make the connection to the custody decision.  I have spoken to many young adults who aged out of custody orders, and the pain and suffering they continue to endure is unspeakable.  Without fail, they are angrier with the professionals who had a chance to save them than they are at anyone else, even their abusers.


The statistics tell the horrific story.  Every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers.  In a recent two-year period researchers found stories about 175 children who were murdered by fathers involved in contested custody cases (two in Hawaii).  Although deliberate false reports of abuse by mothers occur less than 2% of the time, in child sexual abuse cases the alleged offender wins custody 85% of the time.  As painful as these statistics are, the survivors’ stories are so much worse.


Hope for Protecting Our Children


Two recent studies from very credible sources can protect children in domestic violence custody cases and provide wonderful improvements to our society. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies are medical research that initially was used by doctors to diagnose and treat patients.  Dr. Vincent Felitti, the lead author of the original ACE Study, believes that prevention is the best use for his research.


The ACE research proves children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will live shorter lives and suffer more illness and injuries as adults.  Domestic abusers use coercive and controlling tactics to scare their victims into doing what the abuser wants.  Living in or with such fear, that the direct victim and the children have no way to control, causes the worst kind of stress that leads to a lifetime of misery.


While the ACE Research demonstrates that DV and child abuse are much more damaging than previously realized, the Saunders’ Study explains why court professionals without the specific specialized training needed to understand DV so frequently disbelieve or minimize true reports of abuse. The Saunders’ Study, from the National Institute of Justice in the US Justice Department, found that judges, lawyers and evaluators need specific training in screening for DV, risk assessment, post-separation violence and the impact of DV on children (the ACE Research).  Professionals without this knowledge tend to focus on the myth that mothers often make false reports and unscientific alienation theories.  These mistaken beliefs inevitably lead to outcomes that harm children.


The Safe Child Act for Hawaii


I co-edited an important book with Dr. Mo Therese Hannah entitled Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody.  It contains chapters by over 25 of the leading experts in the US and Canada including judges, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, journalists and DV advocates.  We hoped that by putting all the important research together in one volume it would help the courts respond better to DV.  We had similar hopes when the Saunders’ Study was released and the ACE Research started being used beyond the medical community. But the custody courts have been slow to integrate this important research into its standard practices.  That is why I included a provision in the Safe Child Act to require courts to consider current research that will help courts protect children.


The Saunders’ study demonstrates the need for a more multi-disciplinary approach.  Domestic Violence is not caused by mental illness and children respond in many different ways to abuse, including outward appearances that they are doing well.  This has led many evaluators to disbelieve true reports of abuse.  Psychologists and psychiatrists can be very helpful when custody issues involve psychology or mental illness, but often courts need expertise in child sexual abuse, medical issues, substance abuse or DV.  


The Safe Child Act, in the form of HB1701, encourages court professionals to receive more of the specific training they need, but also encourages the use of specialized experts who can help courts recognize and respond to DV and related issues.  An early hearing regarding DV issues as HB1701 provides makes it more likely the courts will recognize true reports of abuse and thus protect the children.  Since false reports by mothers are rare, this proceeding will often allow cases that otherwise would take many months or years to be resolved in a few hours. This lets children know much sooner who they will be living with, and their lives are less disrupted.  


Economic abuse is an important part of DV, and abusers often use litigation to deliberately bankrupt their victims.  The quicker resolution of DV cases will save money on lawyers, evaluators, parent coordinators and investigators.  This means the resources are available to families for their children’s needs.  These good practices also save judicial resources.  As part of the research for my Quincy Solution book, I asked doctors who work with the ACE research if children can be saved after exposure to ACEs.  Their answer was probably yes, but the safe parent must control medical decisions so the children can get any therapy and medical treatment they need to reduce the stress.  It is also important that children are not exposed to further abuse.


Your constituents in Hawaii spend about $4.5 billion every year to tolerate men’s abuse of women.  Most of this expense comes in health costs, higher insurance premiums, crime and the inability for direct victims and children to reach their economic potential.  Accordingly, Hawaii will enjoy substantial financial savings from the Safe Child Act, but more important, your children can be safe in their homes.


Rather than tell you about the pain inflicted on battered mothers and their children when courts disbelieve true reports of abuse, let me instead convey the incredible excitement and hope, when abused mothers heard that Hawaii became the first state to introduce the Safe Child Act.  Children know much more than adults would prefer, but when you pass HB1701 you will shield thousands of Hawaiian children from trauma that none of us want them to suffer. I am sure you entered public office to make a positive difference so let me assure you that passing HB1701 into law will be the best gift you could ever give to the children of Hawaii.


Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony in support of HB1701.


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