F m i l y L a w : D is o r d e r i n t h e C o u r t s
By Helen Grieco, Rachel Allen and Jennifer Friedlin
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is the country's largest and longest running women's rights organization. NOW is committed to fighting discrimination against women and girls, and ensuring their equality in every aspect of society. NOW is structured in chapters, and California NOW (CA NOW) is the largest chapter in the country, with 100,000 members and donors. Imagine this: A mother endures years ofabuse at the hands of her husband. One day, her husband strikes the children or gets caught in the act of sexually abusing one of the kids, and she decides she has got to break free. She files for custody, assuming she's got an open and shut custody case. But the family court judge fails to look at all the evidence and the professionals who are supposed to evaluate the family ignore all the signposts of abuse. Eventually, the mother loses custody. In order to see her children, the mother may have to pay for supervised visits or she may lose all rights to her kids. No, you say, this can't be. Well, think again. In the 1990s, CA NOW started getting call after call that fit this pattern. In fact, as then president of CA NOW, Helen Grieco received so many calls from desperate mothers that sheformed a statewide task force to strategize how to best address the startling trend. Under Grieco's leadership, CA NOW proposed legislation, lobbiedfor statewide reform, called for investigations of court funding and worked to get public attention on the injustices women faced in family courts. In an effort for CA NOW to ascertain how widespread the problems were, Grieco createdand posted a questionnaire on the CA NOW website to collect information on individual cases. Rachel Allen joined CA NOW as public relations director in 2001, and had worked on the family law issue as president of the Marin County NOW chapter for several years. In 2002, Allen and Grieco (along with Sue DiPaolo and Elena Perez) analyzed the findings of the hundreds of questionnaires submitted, and tried to answer the question of how and why so many women were being victimized by the courts. The end product was the "CA NOW Family Court Report, 2002,"which presented findings from analysis of over 300 mothers' cases. The report showed that perfectly fit mothers were regularly losing custody of their children to less-than-fit fathers, and put forth an explanation for why it was happening. Analysis of the data rendered stunning statistics. We found that 76 percent of respondents' cases involved allegations of some kind of abuse by the father and that in 69 percent of those cases the offender was given unsupervised contact or custody. Although conservative commentators and right-wing fathers' rights groups tried to discredit the research by saying that the sample was not representative of a larger problem, we knewthat the 300 cases we studied and their staggering similarities exposed trends that were impossible to ignore. This study and the calls we have continued to receive over the years from flabbergasted mothers have revealed that the courts are regularly ignoring evidence of child abuse and domestic violence when deciding contested custody cases. In addition, we have documented a common pattern of gender bias, denial of due process, corruption, fraud and reliance on unscientific labels to pathologize normal mothers. These women speak of judges who beratethem in court and dismiss crucial evidence; attorneys who bail on them midway through their case or who side with the father instead of representing the interests of the children; andevaluators who decide they are unfit parents for a whole slew of often contradictory reasons. Evaluators have been known to support denying awoman custody because she: is "too close" to her children; breastfed her children for too long; did not cooperate in giving unsupervised access to an abusive father; works outside the home; doesn't work outside the home. We hear from motherswho walked into the court as the primary caregiver and protector of their children and walked out unable to even send the kids a birthday cardor talk to them on the phone. These mothers often lose custody to men who have criminal records, histories of domestic violence and/or child abuse and substance abuse problems. Some of the men have never even met their children. How can this happen? One of the roots of the problem, we believe, stems from the activities and advocacy efforts of so-called Fathers' Rights groups. Connected to a larger right-wing ideology, the movement for "fathers' rights" rests on a belief in unquestioned patriarchy – some have even called for the overturning of the 19th amendment! They seek to abolish child support and to instate automatic joint custody. Although fathers' rights advocates refer to "equality," "equal access" and "shared parenting," they are not fighting for joint childcare responsibilities inside of marriage. Instead, the call from fathers' rights groups for equal parenting turns up only after divorce, a transparentploy to use rhetoric to reduce men's financial obligations to their children and their ex-wives and tomaintain control over their families, even after the marriage is legally dissolved.These groups have helped propagate bunk psychological syndromes like Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which is based on the unfounded"theory" that mothers regularly brainwash their children to say that they have been abused by their fathers. PAS is then used as a legal strategy tojustify taking children from their mothers, while subverting evidence of abuse by fathers. Fathers' Rights groups claim that fathers are discriminated against in family courts, receiving custody of children only a small percentage of the time. The truth is, however, that when fathers fight for custody, they get it 50 to 70 percent of the time. Sadly, all too often they get custody even when it is not inthe best interest of the child. Meanwhile, the fathers' rights movement has been gaining strength and legitimacy. Fatherhood groups are well funded, well organized and publicly supported through conservative mouthpieces in the media. In addition, the Bush Administration supports the so-called "responsible fatherhood" agenda. Some organizations, such as the National Fatherhood Initiative receive millions of dollars from the federal government, much of which is not accounted for in direct programming. Some people suspect that a portion of the money may even be used to litigate custody cases on behalf of fathers. (For more about the history and activity of the fathers' rights movement, see the CA NOW Family Court Report at http://canow.org/famlaw_report/famlawreport.php.)
Lest anyone reading this should draw the conclusion that we are simply interested in bashing men, we are not. We are well aware that thereare many loving, caring fathers who are deeply concerned about doing right by their children. We are also aware that these men rarely demand sole custody and the removal of the mother from the child's life. We have heard from many decentmen who are just as disturbed by the family court's treatment of women and children as we are. And, as you will see on the pages of this book, some of these men have become our allies in the fight for justice in the legal system. Theproblem we have been struggling with does not have to do with these men; it has to do with the abusive men who use the court system to continue terrorizing their families. After all, what better way to further abuse a mother than by taking her children from her? As CA NOW took up this issue, we found allies around the country who were just as concerned as we were. Although many media outlets shied away from this complicated topic, media stars like Dr. Phil were brave enough to speak out against what he called "America's silent epidemic."Feminist icons like Gloria Steinem have weighed in, too, calling the crisis in the family law courts an issue that "the women's movement,which provided leadership in past reforms and crucial struggles to make law more gender free, supportive of children and families, and economically just, must lead on." One of the most amazing outcomes of this horrific situation is the steely determination of the women who have been through the system to change it. After losing their children, women from Delaware to Alaska have fought back in an effort to change the system and to prevent the same thing from happening to other women. These women have written legislation, formed organizations,started court watch programs, built websites, held conferences, organized demonstrations and protests and worked to get media exposure. A couple of years ago, after researching an article about moms who turned their personal tragedies into political crusades, freelance journalist Jennifer Friedlin suggested a project that would highlight the work being done across the countryto change the way custody decisions involving allegations of abuse are made. This book is borne of our mutual desire to underscore and applaudthe achievements of the mothers and the various professionals who are working for justice. In this collection of essays, you will hear from experts – from psychologists and legal experts to journalists and moms – who have been fighting on the frontlines for mothers' rights. Karen Andersonturned her own personal struggle to protect her children from sexual abuse into a crusade onbehalf of all mothers. Dr. Lundy Bancroft has been a fierce supporter of battered moms and now calls on these women to spearhead a mothers' rightsmovement. Sharon Bass shares her insights on the issue of court appointed evaluators and their far reaching influence. Dr. Robert Geffner lends his expertise on child sexual abuse and the ways it is treated in the family law arena. Retired judge Sol Gothard gives his perspective on the family courts based on nearly fifty years of experience. Professor Mo Hannah explains her motivation for organizing the country's leading conference on the issue of battered women and custody. Karen Hartley-Nagle tells the story of her family law case andhow it inspired her to run for office on a family law platform. Paige Hodson turned her experience in the courtroom into a battle for protective legislation– and won! The legal team of Kristen, Diane and Charles Hofheimer offer advice to motherson how to present their cases in court. Filmmaker Dominique Lasseur explains his motivation for making the groundbreaking film, "Breaking theSilence." Professor Garland Waller advises people on ways to get media attention, and journalist Kristen Lombardi explains the difficulties of reporting onthese issues. Professor Geraldine Stahly allowed us to print her research on domestic violence and custody, and blogger Trish Wilson makes a powerful argument against assumed joint custody.This book will help explain how the courts work and give any mother going through thefamily court system some of the tools she will need to protect herself and her children. And,for mothers who may have lost their children, we hope these essays will provide you links toresources that may assist you in your effort to regain custody of your kids. This book will not replace good counsel and a strong support system,but we hope it will provide you a greater understanding the issues, and that is may inspire you to help join the movement for change. We have found that lawyers and domestic violence agencies are always looking for more information that can help them serve their clients,and we trust that this book will meet this need. We believe that this book will also inspire other women's rights organizations to take up this issue, and that it will give them the tools and information they need to get started. Mostly, we hope that this book will generate greater activism among people interested in righting the numerous wrongs of the family court system.We know that this book is just one step in the battle to reform the family court system. But CA NOW is committed to fighting for change until we win. Whether you are a parent, a psychologist, a lawyer, a judge, a journalist, an activist or a concerned citizen, we encourage you to get involved and to fight along side us aswe work to ensure that our family court system never again strips a fit parent of her parental rights in favor of an abuser.
Tags: abuse, abuses, child, civil, constitutional, discrimination, domestic, human, rights, violence