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Report: U.S. Family Courts Often Award Custody to Alleged Abuser

According to a new investigative report, family courts systemically discredit claims of child abuse and award custody to the accused parent. (serggn/iStockphoto)
According to a new investigative report, family courts systemically discredit claims of child abuse and award custody to the accused parent. (serggn/iStockphoto)
February 13, 2017

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Over the past eight years, custodial parents killed 58 American children after a court ignored abuse claims by a protective parent, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence.

And a new investigative report, published by 100Reporters.org, says family courts systemically discredit claims of child abuse and award custody to the accused parent.

Reporter Laurie Udesky, the author of that report, interviewed 30 families from across the nation who lost custody battles even after their children's claim of abuse was substantiated by police or child protective services – only to see the abuse continue.

Udesky says the crisis is fueled by a lack of accountability in a family court system that too often dismisses credible evidence of abuse, while accepting questionable theories that can subvert the protective parents' credibility.

"There is a dubious theory called parental alienation syndrome that’s used to discredit the abuse and it says that the mother is brainwashing the child," she states.

Udesky adds it's a systemic problem in which judges, custody evaluators and mediators often see the father as the more confident, credible and financially stable parent.

This is not to say that all custodial parents who abuse their children are men. In the analysis by the Center for Judicial Excellence, for example, of the 58 murders of children by a custodial parent, six of the perpetrators were women.

Udesky maintains court officials would benefit from additional training on domestic violence and child sexual abuse.

The article cites research coauthored by Linda Krajewski, an adjunct professor of psychology at San Bernardino Valley College and Geraldine Stahly, emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

In that study, Krajewski and her colleagues surveyed almost 400 parents who lost custody while trying to defend their children.

"Quite often the person who has been identified as the perpetrator, as the abuser, winds up getting custody and sometimes we wind up with protective moms losing custody and even being on supervised visitation at least in part because of their efforts to defend their children," Krajewski states.

Krajewski says part of the problem is that the mothers often were abused themselves, and suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that hamper their ability to present themselves well in court.

She also notes that the fathers can often afford much more effective legal representation.

There is little research on court costs, but Krajewski and Stahly's preliminary analysis of a national survey of the same 399 protective parents surveyed showed that the costs were about $100,000 for some 27 percent of these parents who ultimately declared bankruptcy.

This story was produced in partnership with Laurie Udesky for 100reporters.org, based on original reporting Udesky produced as an associate of the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism and supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA