About Barry

Barry Goldstein is the co-author with Elizabeth Liu of Representing the Domestic Violence Survivor REPRESENTING THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SURVIVOR, co editor with Mo Therese Hannah of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY and author of SCARED TO LEAVE AFRAID TO STAY. He has been an instructor and supervisor in a NY Model Batterer Program since 1999. He was an attorney representing victims of domestic violence for 30 years. He now provides workshops, judicial and other trainings regarding domestic violence particularly related to custody issues. He also serves as a consultant and expert witness.

Barry's new book, The Quincy Solution: Stop Domestic Violence and Save $500 Billion demonstrates how we can dramatically reduce domestic violence crime with proven practices.

Contact Barry today to speak at your event, consult or as an expert witness!

Contact Barry!

Why Family Courts Don’t Understand Dangerous Cases

What happens when a consumer product in responsible for the deaths of even a few children? The response generally includes investigations, recalls and fixes. Records compiled by the Center for Judicial Excellence establish that over 700 children involved in contested custody disputes have been murdered in the last ten years. In many of these cases, the court gave the killer the access he needed to kill the children.

Just like some consumer product safety issues, family courts are quick to deny responsibility and oppose needed reforms. In the recent Thomas Valva murder case, the New York Court System denied any responsibility without any investigation or consideration of the other New York murders associated with the family courts. The Bartlow Study interviewed judges from communities that suffered these child murders. Dr. Bartlow asked what reforms were created in response to the local tragedy. The shocking answer was none because they all assumed the revenge killing was an exception.

Family Courts Use Same Practices for Safe Parents and Dangerous Abusers

Most child custody disputes involve two safe parents. Court professionals are taught to use a high conflict approach that assumes both parents are safe and they just need to learn how to cooperate better. This approach generally works when both parents love their children and that is their first priority. When one of the parents is an abuser who is willing to hurt the children as the best way to hurt the mother, these standard court practices undermine the court’s ability to recognize the danger.

Most child custody cases are settled more or less amicably. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that require trial and often much more. A large majority of the most dangerous cases involve a history of domestic violence. This does not necessarily mean the father has committed the most severe physical assaults which is what court professionals are looking for. Instead, these are abusers who believe she has no right to leave and so they are entitled to use whatever tactics are necessary to regain what they believe is their right to control their partners and punish them for leaving. Unfortunately, these abusers understand the best way to hurt a mother is to hurt her children. Family courts are not even considering this likely scenario which makes these cases even more dangerous.

The use of practices designed for safe cases for disputes involving abusers, places protective mothers in impossible situations. If she cooperates with her abuser as the court demands, she is placing her children in jeopardy. If she tries to protect her children as any good mother would do, the court will punish her in ways that really punish the children. Attempts to help the court understand the danger the father poses are viewed as a lack of cooperation and alienating the children. Small wonder the courts get such a high percentage of abuse cases catastrophically wrong.

In our still sexist society, mothers continue to provide most of the child care. In almost all of the dangerous cases, the father allowed or demanded the mother provide most of the child care. In any other type of court, this would be understood as an admission by the father that the mother is a good parent. What are the chances that when the mother decided to leave her abuser and report his abuse, she suddenly became crazy or unfit? And yet this unlikely scenario is routinely used by abusers and believed by the courts and evaluators with inadequate domestic violence training. This practice is better understood as pathologizing the victim.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention goes to the essence of the best interests of a child. Children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will live shorter lives and suffer a lifetime of health and social problems. Most of the harm is caused not from the immediate physical injuries that court professionals focus on, but from living with the fear and stress abusers cause. Contested custody is usually the last chance to save children from the awful consequences. The most important question for the courts is whether there is anything we can do now to save children from these consequences. Courts that are not informed by ACE don’t even consider this issue or the need to reduce children’s fear and stress. Courts routinely treat the children’s fear of the abuser as an obstacle to the arrangement the court wants to create instead of a warning that such outcomes are harmful to children.

The Saunders Study is scientific research from the National Institute of Justice in the US Justice Department about the qualifications of judges, lawyers and evaluators to respond to domestic violence cases. Most court professionals do not have the specific domestic violence knowledge needed to recognize and respond to domestic violence. They tend to be experts in the law or psychology and mental illness but not domestic violence or child sexual abuse. As a result, true reports of abuse are routinely disbelieved and protective mothers are punished for trying to protect their children.

In other words, courts that fail to use ACE are minimizing abuse and courts that fail to use Saunders are disbelieving true reports of domestic violence and child abuse. This is how children lose their last chance to overcome the awful consequences of exposure to ACEs.

Conclusion

What happens when family courts don’t understand the fundamental nature of the cases they must respond to; when they don’t use current scientific research; when they rely on professionals who are not experts in domestic violence and child abuse; when they tolerate gender bias; and when they fail to investigate their most tragic mistakes? Children continue to be murdered by fathers the court found to be safe. Children suffer the consequences of exposure to ACEs. The domestic violence homicide rate starts to rise again. Mostly, precious children suffer in silence.

In the context of other scientific research, the new Meier study from the National Institute of Justice confirmed that family courts are getting most domestic violence custody cases wrong. This is to be expected because all of the standard mistakes tilt courts in favor of dangerous abusers and against protecting children. Today, our family courts routinely err on the side of risking children.

No judge wants to hurt children. As long as they have no effective mechanism to reform failed practices and integrate current scientific research, the courts will continue to ruin children’s lives. Many courts have responded to a local tragedy by denying responsibility and saying we just have to accept that sometimes children will be murdered.

The Safe Child Act is for those of us unwilling to accept frequent child murders and constant abuse. Our proposal says the health and safety of children must be the first priority; courts must integrate current scientific research; courts should use a multi-disciplinary approach that includes domestic violence and child sexual abuse experts when they are the main issue in the case; courts must hold an early hearing in abuse cases limited to abuse issues so abusers cannot distract attention with less important issues and cases can be quickly and safely resolved; judges and other court professionals must be trained about current scientific research and retrained to stop using the misinformation they have heard throughout their careers; and states should provide additional funding to domestic violence agencies so that advocates can help by training court professionals and serving as expert witnesses. Why would any state delay proven reforms that will protect children? Remember, abuse cases are the last chance to save children from the consequences of exposure to ACEs and in too many cases it is the last chance to save children period.

BARRY GOLDSTEIN