April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and it is an occasion for being reminded that “it should not hurt to be a child.” The soul-destroying, long-term consequences of child physical/sexual abuse and neglect obviously merit a year-round focus, but media attention to such awareness campaigns helps encourage parents, especially mothers, to seek help if they suspect child abuse.
At the same time, however, the long and exhausting journey that parents must take to secure protection for endangered children, often involving legal battles costing many thousands of dollars, is rarely mentioned.
Who wants to hear that no amount of money can assure justice in systems that disbelieve children and distrust protective parents?
It is, however, a grim reality. Parents who act appropriately and lawfully to protect their children may be punished by family court judges for reporting abuse or for refusing to force their terrified child to visit an abusive parent.
In the worst cases, custody is reversed and the protective parent may be denied any contact with his or her child. The message: failure to be a “friendly parent” is worse than child physical or sexual abuse.
The non-profit agency I work for, Justice for Children, often finds itself on the front lines of complex cases of child abuse, arising during separation and divorce, that may be litigated for years. Although Child Protective Services (CPS) investigates abuse reports, these cases are generally treated with suspicion and ruled out as “custody battles” despite urgent, compelling evidence.
Rarely prosecuted by the State, intra-familial abuse allegations are relegated to a domestic relations court of equity where a serious crime against a child is reduced to a civil law question of property. Such courts, in contrast to the traditional adversarial nature of a courtroom, allow judges to apply injunctions or writs instead of monetary damages, according to the principle of “fairness. “
Family courts in most (if not all) jurisdictions are considered “courts of equity.” A recent New York case in which the Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether a teacher imprisoned for molesting boys can see his own child illustrates the limits of an approach that considers a child just a piece of property to be divided.
The systemic failures and practices that place abused or at-risk children in the care or custody of a dangerous parent are well known, but it has taken over 15 years for these agonizing and sometimes tragic cases to be officially recognized as serious problems in our judicial and CPS systems.
The Catch 22 nature of a parent's duty to report, and penalties for failure to protect, sinks protective parents in the quicksand of family court litigation. Very little help is available from public agencies or non-profits. Abusers know they have unparalleled opportunities to abuse and control their children and ex-partners with few consequences.
Non-profit advocates have been working for years to get these issues before federal agencies.
Last month, the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) held a Roundtable at George Washington University Law School, sponsored by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence with help from the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project. Judge Susan Carbon, OVW director, , and participants from other federal agencies listened to a panel of mothers and a courageous 13-year-old share their experiences in family court.
In the experts' panel, we shared our extensive knowledge of how CPS and family courts can fail abused children and their protective parents. A report on the roundtable will be posted soon on the OVW website.
Change must also happen in state CPS agencies and family courts. Court appointees (psychological evaluators, Guardians ad litem, children's attorneys, mediators and parenting coordinators) should not evade oversight or consequences for negligent practices that harm children.
Policies forcing children to reunite with their sexual assault perpetrators need immediate re-evaluation. These are just of few of the many changes recommended by advocates and legal/mental health professionals.
The worst betrayal a child can endure is sexual/physical abuse or neglect by a parent. Assuring a child that if they tell they will be protected, but then failing to protect heaps betrayal upon betrayal.
We need to carry through on our promises to children. This is the next level of child abuse awareness our society needs!
Here are some further resources for anyone who wants to explore the issue further:
From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running From the Family Courts and What to Do About It, by Amy Neustein, Ph.D. and Michael Lesher, J.D., Northeastern University Press, 2005. www.upne.com/1-58465-462-7.html
Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody edited by Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D and Barry Goldstein, J.D., The Civic Research Institute, 2010. http://www.civicresearchinstitute.com/dvac.html
Eileen King is Regional Director of Justice for Children-DC. She welcomes comments from readers.