In New York, a New Look at Custody in Spousal Abuse Cases


In September 2002, child welfare workers, acting on a tip from a schoolteacher, arrived at a Bronx home to investigate a suspicious bruise on a 4-year-old boy. They the child’s mother was entwined in an abusive marriage, that she was living with her husband in violation of a court order to remain separate, and that the boy had been bruised before.

A year earlier, the child might have been whisked into foster care for safety, reports the New York Times. But in June 2002, a federal judge barred the city from removing children from a parent just because the parent was a victim of domestic violence, or because the parent had not acted to prevent the child from witnessing the abuse.

So the boy stayed with his mother, and they have left the father. Today, the mother regularly dresses her son in his favorite hockey jersey, waits with him for the school bus in the morning and is living out another day in a court-ordered experiment at the dangerous and much debated intersection of child welfare and domestic abuse policies.

Those who champion the change say it has left more children in the care of a loving parent, but they acknowledge that it comes with risks as the child welfare agency is just beginning to develop the range of services needed to prevent the mothers from staying in such dangerous homes or from keeping their abusers away from them when they leave.

Domestic violence has always been a tricky problem for child welfare workers. Studies have shown, for instance, that households victimized by domestic violence can be spectacularly dangerous, even lethal, for children. And even temporary interventions – the brief removal of children or the forced treatment of the parents – can be undone as battered mothers return again and again to their abusive husbands or partners. Even the bravest of actions – a mother’s permanent break – often provokes the highest risk of serious violence.

As a result, the Times said, the city has long recognized the delicate nature of these cases and increased specialized training for its workers who handle them. But in a March 2002 decision, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of United States District Court in Brooklyn found that the city’s judgment calls had too often punished the victim, and that the mere fact of domestic violence was not sufficient grounds for taking children away from their mothers.


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