For our sixteenth Voice of the Child podcast we speak with Professor Joan Meier about the first ever nationwide study in the US on child custody cases which feature allegations of abuse, domestic violence and parental alienation, and how those allegations affect mothers’ contact rights in court.
The study, led by Professor Meier, features controversial findings which suggest cultural and gender stereotypes inside the US family courts are placing children at risk of harm.
Meier is a Professor of Clinical Law and the Director of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School, in Washington DC. She has received several national awards for excellence and leadership in improving the legal response to domestic violence.
In this interview, Professor Meier explains the findings from her research, raises concerns around “junk science” used in child cases, and calls for a Me Too Movement within the family courts to raise awareness about gender discrimination and the impact of gender bias on child protection.
She also offers us a sneak preview of her next project.
You can also read a transcript for the podcast here (for those who don’t want to use an external link, we are also adding the transcription below).
Hi and welcome back to the Voice of the Child. What happens In child custody or contact cases when a mother says a child is being abused by her partner, or she’s been subjected to domestic violence herself? And what happens when that partner then counters the allegations by saying that he is a victim of parental alienation? Professor Joan Meier has tried to answer those questions with America’s first ever nationwide study, and the controversial findings have been reported on by several media outlets, including the Washington Post and the New Yorker. Her research has also reignited the debate around gender stereotypes and significantly the effectiveness of child protection processes, which are meant to keep children safe.
A professor of clinical law and the director of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School, Professor Meier has received a number of national awards for improving legal responses to domestic violence and children in need. She was also a commentator for a PBS program called “Breaking the silence: children’s voices”, which looked at the impact of domestic violence on children and their mothers. Professor Meier your research attracted a significant response both in the US and the UK. What was the purpose of the study?
2 (1m 21s):
I decided to do this study because I had been working at DV Leap doing appellate work on behalf of survivors and protective parents who were trying to keep their children safe in custody cases and I was seeing a lot of disturbing things going on in the custody courts. And I had been doing trainings and scholarship and appeals on these issues and in particular, on parental alienation and it wasn’t changing anything. So I decided there was a real need for data. And as I embarked on this process of gathering data, I sort of thought to myself, you know, everything I know is anecdotal, it’s my own experience.
2 (1m 56s):
It’s definitely what I’m hearing from all over the country as well, but who knows, maybe we get all the bad cases and there’s plenty of good cases out there. And the data will tell us one way or the other. So the purpose was really to show wether as it seemed to US, um, Custody courts were really seeming to be biased against mothers who alleged abuse, uh, and that mothers were losing. Custody a great rates. Um, and that parental alienation crossclaims by the accused, a parent’s accused of abuse was a big part of the, the way that courts were denying.
2 (2m 32s):
These Abuse claims. That’s the goal, was to see whether that was accurate numerically and to do a very objective gathering of just observations. Here’s what the courts here’s, what’s being claimed. Here’s what the courts are saying. Here’s what the courts are doing numerically.
1 (2m 47s):
And how many judgments did you examine, over what period of time and which courts did they come from?
2 (2m 52s):
So the only way to get a national picture, which I was determined to do was to go online. And, um, in order to go in line, we use various search engines like Lexis and Westlaw and Google. And we spent a long time comparing, and we did a very long, quite complex search string in order to collect every case that was reported online, that involved Child Custody, possible Abuse claims, possible alienation claims. And that was pretty much all we, we screened out state cases child welfare cases we screened out same-sex cases only because we were trying to look at a gender analysis.
2 (3m 28s):
Um, we screened out some cases where parents were in prison. There was a number of things we screened at, but basically your paradigm of when Parent against the, had one heterosexual parenting against the other, uh, one of them, or both of them alleging abuse or alienation. So we ended up with 15,000 cases. I know that was your question. We ended up with 15,000 cases in our initial data set and our coders who were to law graduates spent about a year or half a year, triaging that number down too. What we ended up keeping in a dataset, which was 4,800 cases.
2 (4m 3s):
Um, and then they spent another year coding, all the cases again, objectively reading the opinions to code, who said, What who made what allegations, what did the court decide and what to do? Um, and it was complex because we coded many, many things, which we haven’t even finished analyzing all the things we coded. So it took a very long time. But, um, so far the analysis that I’m going to talk about today and that I’ve put in In in publications have been a very basic questions about when do courts believe a parent’s claims of abuse by the other parent?
2 (4m 35s):
And what do courts do in terms of switching Custody how often do they do that? And I should just say, when we’re thinking about numbers, the data set is a whole is large. It’s over 4,000, but for purposes of the analysis here is a much smaller analysis. It’s a little over 2,000 because, um, we are focused on cases where there was a custody, uh, a claim of abuse and we’re focused on cases where, um, a, there was a custody switched from one parent to the other, and anyone who’s read judicial opinions would probably know that they’re not the best at documenting the story of the cases.
2 (5m 9s):
So there were a lot of cases that are in our data set, where we couldn’t tell who started with the children. So we don’t factor those cases into our analysis of custody switches.
1 (5m 19s):
That’s still a, a lot of data and having read the reports. Um, a lot of that data is quite complex. So let’s start with the overarching view of that data.
2 (5m 31s):
Okay. So the data was very confirmatory of the anecdotal experiences that we had been having and in hearing about it, in fact, it was much stronger than I even I expected, um, what it showed, if you look at the broad picture of all the cases, where there were abuse claims by women against men, and I’ll get it to the reverse in a minute. But when you start with those claims, um, overall averaging out different types of abuse claims, which I’ll talk about also in a minute, courts only believe a little over a third of women’s allegations of abuse, 36%, that alone, When I shared that at one point in a meeting with a custody evaluator, she, she kept, she, she was like, wait, what?
2 (6m 12s):
She couldn’t believe that courts weren’t believing abuse, because there’s a very widespread belief out there in this society. And I think in the courts that all you have to do is allege abuse to get away with stuff. And on the contrary courts are very skeptical of women’s allegations of abuse. I’ll add to that, that, um, uh, what, what we did not expect in this data, but what was really stark is that courts are particularly skeptical of child abuse claims by mothers. They a, what we found in general was that courts believed 43% of mothers partner violence claims, but only 21 are about a fifth 21% of child physical abuse claims only a little less than that, 19% of child sexual abuse claims.
2 (6m 57s):
And then we found, we looked at mixed claims, mixed adult, mixed child abuse claims, and there were different percentages for that. But as a result of those very low rates, like one fifth, uh, rates of believing child abuse claims and it averages out and around a third, but it’s even lower than that for child abuse claims. So it’s very stark. And I think that information right there that courts are very reluctant, are very reticent to believe child abuse claims is a powerful information that everyone needs to know. both any parent who is going to be alleging child abuse, but especially a mother needs to know that, um, and any evaluator or a guardian ad litum or a judge should know, there seems to be a bias against a bleeding child abuse claims, as well as domestic violence claims, to some extent, unless you accept the theory that 80% of women reporting child abuse are lying, or are crazy.
2 (7m 53s):
If you don’t start from that belief. And we have a problem of a great deal of skepticism about women’s child abuse claims. And what happens when fathers alleged abuse? We’re flipping it over now. Um, so I have a comparison of father is not so much on the allegations of abuse. I’m sorry to say. I had a comparison of fathers when we get to losses of custody and I don’t know if you want me to leap into that yet, or, okay.
2 (8m 25s):
So Losses of custody, um, overall, uh, again, averaging all the different types of abuse, women lost custody about 28% of the time when they alleged abuse against a father and those rates were higher again, when they alleged child abuse, uh, over a third of the time when they alleged child abuse, um, fathers by comparison lost custody on average, only 12% of the time. Uh, a great difference for 28% of the time. And when they alleged child abuse, um, very little, uh, the numbers are small here because we’re looking only at, in cases where a father started with children, they’re in the court records.
2 (9m 2s):
That and father is alleged child abuse against a mother’s, which is a fairly small percentage, but we had six cases where they alleged child sexual abuse as a mother or, or the household of a mother. And they lost custody in two of those, which was about a third, uhm, which is similar to the mothers, but the mothers have a much more robust set of cases and then child physical abuse. They were 65 where they accused mother’s of physical abuse. They only lost custody of 11% of the time in those. Whereas the mother lost custody 34% of the time when they accused a father of child physical abuse.
2 (9m 35s):
So all of it. And then when a father accused a mother of domestic violence, interestingly, you would think, and I think our data do show the courts are a little more skeptical of men accusing women of a domestic violence, but they still only lost custody of 14% of the time compared to 22% for women who allege domestic violence. So it averages out at a much lower rate of custody loss. So What what that implies, umm, which is again, consistent with the stories we hear in the cases I’ve reviewed the many, many hundreds, probably thousands at this point of the cases I’ve reviewed his there’s a punitiveness There’s a hostility to women who raise abuse claims, which is less evoked by men raising Abuse claims.
1 (10m 17s):
You also looked at cases in which fathers made claims of parental alienation after mothers had made claims of abuse or domestic violence. What happened in those cases?
2 (10m 27s):
Okay. So that switches me back to a slightly different subset of the study. We did, so for the most important part of what we were looking at was that comparison of what happens in alienation cases and how does that compare to the non alienation cases? So, um, if you look at the belief of abuse claims, what we found was that when mothers alleged abuse, but there was no cross claim of alienation, um, they were believed 45% of the time, if you just looked at domestic violence, but when alienation was crossed, claimed that dropped to 37%, you see a much more stark drop when you look at child abuse.
2 (11m 3s):
So without an alienation cross-claim women were believed 29% of the time about child physical, but with a cross claim of alienation, they went down to 18% and child sexual abuse is where you see the most stark and the most really stunning impact, uh, parental alienation, but also the stunning degree of skepticism by courts they’re are already very skeptical in a non alienation cases. They only believe women 15% of the time when there’s no alienation cross claim, but when there was an alienation cross claim, they believed women 2%, which represented one case.
2 (11m 36s):
So one out of 51 cases where mothers claimed there was sexual abuse of the child at the father’s house, and a father responded with an alienation claim, courts only accepted the sexual abuse once, that’s really stunning a finding. So it it’s, it does indicate with, again, our anecdotal reports that, um, parental alienation is a very powerful in reducing courts, willingness to believe abuse that it’s very linked. That claim is very linked with a disbelief in abuse claims.
2 (12m 8s):
And that’s very important in, in a larger field of family law and family law practice, because many people who teach and train and write about parental alienation are very insistent that it’s not about abuse, is not about disproving abuse, it’s a much broader problem. And I understand that the theory is much broader, but what this research shows is that its power is particularly great when used against women accusing fathers of abuse.
2 (12m 39s):
And that’s not surprising because the whole theory of parental alienation syndrome was first invented as a way of refuting child sexual abuse. So you’re seeing exactly that here, even though everyone is now arguing, that what the courts are doing is not parental alienation syndrome is parental alienation. What they’re actually doing is identical to what PAS called for which is to disbelief child, sexual abuse, and other child abuse claims.
1 (13m 2s):
There are lots of very interesting observations in the research. And one of those, is that in non abuse cases the data found that alienation allegations had a more gender neutral impact. Why do you think that was the case?
2 (13m 13s):
Right. So in the cases where a mother was not claiming abuse, but a father was still calling her an alienator or vice versa, we found, we did find a relative equity in outcomes. Now we don’t know if they were the correct outcomes, but, but the, the numerically, it was very close outcomes in terms of what happened in terms of belief and in terms of custody losses. Um, and my, my thinking on that is very consistent with what I just said, which is that alienation is seen as a particular weapon and is used as a particular weapon against mothers’ claims of abuse.
2 (13m 49s):
But when you get into alienation, without that particular target of attack by the alienation claim, courts are able to be more gender neutral in their assessment of it. And they’re able to just look at what does each parent doing are not doing that might undermine the other parent. Um, whereas in the abuse claims, everyone gets crystallized kind of magnetized around the abuse claim as a sign of alienation. And, um, so you see more gender neutrality or equity potentially in the non abuse alienation cases.
1 (14m 20s):
The research clearly highlights a skepticism by family law professionals, towards mothers who claim abuse. Where do you think that skepticism comes from?
2 (14m 29s):
Mmm, it is. That’s a very good question. I think the best way I can answer it honestly, is to invoke the “Me Too” movement. If you think back to what that movement was about or is about until we had that movement, it was normative to reject women’s claims of sexual abuse or sexual assault on the job, it was just, you could dismiss it. You could say she’s a liar. You could say she’s pathological, or you could say a, you know, nobody else has ever said such a thing.
2 (14m 59s):
You could just silence her. And, um, in myriad ways by punishing and silencing people to make the cost too great for coming out well, that’s kind of what’s going on in families and in family court still because we have not had a Me Too movement that attaches to families and family court, although we need it. And this data and in the larger protective parent movement is really trying to bring that. I think there’s a very long history of denying women’s allegations and violence by men, against women and children. If you go back, you know, a hundred or more years, you’re looking at a time when violence in a family is simply not ever acknowledged or recognized or admitted.
2 (15m 36s):
Rape was seen as, you know, virtually impossible to prove because it was virtually impossible to get corroboration and a woman’s accusation could never be believed on its own. Um, child sexual abuse has always been that way in terms of how we respond to it. It’s and it’s because it’s shocking and horrific and people really deeply do not want to believe it. So I think we have a long history of silencing the realities of male violence against women and particularly, and I guess children and the family.
2 (16m 8s):
And we haven’t come to terms with it yet. We’ve begun to in the larger world with the Me Too movement, we haven’t come to terms with it in the family of course setting or in families in general. And so you have this very polarized field where part of the field of family law professionals often feel like women are lying. And I think that’s just, maybe they they’ve met with a lot of men who were falsely accused and claim to be falsely accused. And they find these men sympathetic. And there are many, many things I I’ve spoken to women, uh, who, who act as the guardian ad litem to them who, you know, purport to be very objective, but the minute you send them a case, they start shredding and deconstructing what’s wrong with a mother.
2 (16m 46s):
And I think that’s a very common instinct that it’s easy to throw claims or accusations at women about what they’ve done wrong or why they’re not credible. There’s a myriad ways to call women not credible. It’s harder to attack men’s credibility and that’s a longstanding social issue. It’s not, you know, there’s, there’s not one particular problem. The other thing I’ll add to the family court scenario is that there’s a lot of money being made off of denying women’s claims of abuse, um, getting parental alienation assessments, getting treatment for supposed parental alienation and what they call reunification treatment.
2 (17m 18s):
There’s enormous money being made. I think frankly, if the money went away, if there was some way to make this all, I would like to see all of this rolled into the court and only handled by salaried professionals who didn’t gain by what they concluded. Um, I think we would see a more honest and objective assessment. I think there’s a lot of stake in finding alienation some of the professionals and most of them I think are very honestly doing the best they can and believe what they’re saying, what they’re doing and believe they’re helping families when they do it.
2 (17m 50s):
Um, but they don’t understand abuse they don’t necessarily really want to understand abuse of the way those of us who work in the abuse field, understand abuse and there’s just an ingrown skepticism. But, um, some of them, I think, know what they’re doing and are doing it intentionally. There are certainly loud and, um, very active people in the field who are notorious for being somewhat bullying in a way that they write in the way that they speak in the way that they deal in court. And that kind of fits what we know about the denial of abuse.
2 (18m 21s):
There’s a lot of bullying that goes on in that process.
1 (18m 25s):
One of the things that I kept thinking about when I was reading the research was that these decisions were being made by a very specific person. And they were the judges. Did you look at the gender of the judges whilst you were doing your research to see whether there was any correlation between the gender of the judges and the decisions being made?
2 (18m 43s):
That’s a great question. I get it almost every time I’ve interviewed it on. Unfortunately we were not able to look at the gender of the judges because I’m, we were looking at published opinions and they say, so and so comma J, so you don’t get a first name and you can’t tell the gender. And umm, so we couldn’t, we couldn’t measure that at all. I will tell you anecdotally that I have seen as many harsh skeptical female judges as male judges. I don’t see much difference in gender, frankly. And I’ve seen some wonderful leaders in the field who are trying to help children, who are male.
2 (19m 17s):
So I, I don’t know how far we can go with that. I think, I think a better way to look at it is, I mean, when we talk about racism among police forces, we often acknowledge that many of these officers are African American, and there’s a culture, there’s a culture of disbelieving women. There’s a culture of protecting men’s rights in family court. Women are a part of the culture too. Um, or they’re pressured to be part of the culture. They had the judges who’ve left the court and I’ve talked about the pressure on them to not believe women and to protect men’s rights.
2 (19m 49s):
Um, it, I don’t think it’s the individual so much, that’s the overarching sense of what’s right. And what’s right, is to protect fathers rights in the family courts
1 (19m 59s):
And, and that ideology is being carried out by women as well as men. Exactly. And why do you think women are willing to perpetuate that ideology?
2 (20m 11s):
Um, I think many women for potentially very legitimate reasons feel that men have, have not been treated fairly in courts and in the law and when it comes to parenting rights. Um, I think historically there was a truth to that. Certainly women had a maternal presumption long ago. Uh, that’s been gone for a very long time and um, doesn’t seem to be operative anymore at all. Um, but there is a belief that men have never been given, given their due as fathers. That’s one thing. The other one is that I’ve, and I’ve written about this in other articles a long ago.
2 (20m 45s):
There’s a really strong desire across society and within the courts to see more fathering in families. And so when men stand up and say, I want to be a father courts want to reward that very much. And there’s a real sense of that. You’re, you’re a good father, merely for asking for, for equal parenting time. And there’s a real resistance to believing that you might be asking for the wrong reasons because you want to abuse or because it’s an extension of your abuse. So I think there’s a real desire to protect fathers and fathering and to maximize fathering.
2 (21m 17s):
And some of that is, you know, very sympathetic to, even though it’s doing damage potentially. Some of that I think is, um, gender biased probably. Um, but who knows.
1 (21m 30s):
Your research obviously focuses on cases in the United States, but it’s had a phenomenal response here. Um, by way of an example, I published you research on my website and within minutes it went viral. I think on one platform it’s been shared over 3,000 times and the engagement, uh, with the research was significant. There were a lot of mothers who’d gone through the family courts in the United Kingdom who felt that the experiences outlined in the research really resonated with them, but there was also comment and engagement from fathers.
1 (22m 0s):
Who’d gone through the court process in the UK for various different types of hearings. Um, and one father posed a question and he said, well, surely all this research does is confirm that in this particular context, women are less honest than men. Do you think that there is room for that view within your research?
2 (22m 20s):
My research leaves that wide open, anyone can take that view. My research does not refute that view. The only way to refute that view is to look at, um, outside research into the veracity of women’s allegations of abuse. And there isn’t a lot, but there is actually surprising. There is more than I would have expected and particularly looking at child abuse and child sexual abuse, past research before parental alienation became a thing and found that women’s claims of child sexual abuse were likely credible, definitely good faith in the vast majority of the time, but likely credible in 50 to 75% at a time.
2 (22m 57s):
So, you know, half to two thirds of the time outside evaluators who were not overly gullible and who are fairly conservative as evaluators, were finding that these allegations were credible at least, um, a a very, you know, half to more, uh, more than that, uh, of the time. And what you see in this study is courts are believing it only 15% of the time. And when alienation is claimed once out of 51 cases, there is no way that that is reflecting truth. There is no way. And the other way to know is to talk to and interview the mother’s about or Even look at things like our appellate briefs, DV Leap’s, appellate briefs, where we detail the evidence of abuse that the court is choosing to reject.
2 (23m 40s):
I’ve had case after case where there’s multiple layers of corroboration of child sexual abuse. You had a kid acting out sexually. The police are being called against, um, a, an eight year old because she’s making, she’s being sexual with her classmates. Um, that’s, that’s not a sign of, of coaching. That’s a kid acting out. Kids do that kind of acting out most often if they’re sexually abused, not for many other reasons. And then this kid had hallucinations and then, and you know, uh, three out of four evaluators, uh, who had expertise in child sexual abuse thought that, um, there was a good chance she had been sexually abused.
2 (24m 16s):
They never say for sure, but nonetheless the court chose not to believe it and to believe, uh, a psychobabble theory about enmeshment in the alienation and whatever, and, um, chose not to listen to the expertise that was presented at trial on dissociation and how children respond when they’re forced to be with an abuser. The courts are choosing not to believe what’s right in front of their face in many of these cases. And if you get into the weeds of the facts and the evidence and the information, I think it becomes harder to just airily declare that these courts are all doing it right.
2 (24m 48s):
And all these women are lying, but yes, you can make the argument in this study does not refute that
1 (24m 54s):
There are lots of themes that emerge from the research, including human bias. Are you concerned that genuine allegations of child abuse are being ignored or overlooked because of judicial bias?
2 (25m 5s):
Absolutely, but it’s, it’s not judicial bias alone. It’s judicial bias, which has been encouraged and led by other professionals who are neutral court appointees like guardians ad litem or whatever you call them in the UK. Um, or, um, custody evaluators. Um, sometimes the parenting coordinators, there’s a whole stable of psychologists, usually sometimes lawyers and other people who get appointed supposedly to advocate for the child or the best interest of the child. And they are misleading courts into denying abuse and myriad studies of evaluators in the U S and also I believe across the pond have found that these evaluators don’t know enough about abuse and are quick to dismiss it for based on misconceptions and myths about what, uh, you know, how abuse looks and sounds when it happens.
2 (25m 54s):
Um, a lot of the talk about alienation that’s used to deny Abuse describe the behaviors that are commonly found in abuse families. And then they described them as evidence of alienation. So there’s been a whole co-opting of what we know about abuse under the rubric have alienation and they slap the label on, in the course go, Oh, okay. The courts don’t know better often. So I, you know, with regard to bias, I think there is some among the judges. I think there’s probably more however, among these professionals who are making money off of this.
2 (26m 25s):
Um, and that’s not the only reason they believe what they’re doing, obviously. Um, and there’s a lot of bias and I think a lot of judges are being misled and there was a great podcast I’ll point, your listeners too. And that was done by, um, Reveal and it’s called bitter custody. And in one case it has a story about, uh, children who were sent to a reunification program and cut off from their preferred parent who in that case was a father. And they’re in the interview with these children now that they’re older and the judge is interviewed afterward and he says, Oh my, I don’t think we know what’s going on in these programs.
2 (26m 59s):
Maybe we should take a closer look, and that’s my paraphrase. He says something else, but the gist of it, is I had no idea. And that’s what I think is happening with judges. They have no idea, they’re being told by these psychologists, these are good programs and they should send the children in there. They don’t know what’s actually happening. And now that children are ageing out enough to be able to talk publicly about what happened to them there and that’s posing a bit of a problem for some of the programs, but it hasn’t really filtered up to the judges yet. So unfortunately, family court as a place where it, a lot of junk science and invalid assertions, psychological and sociological, psychosocial assertions about treatment, about diagnosis, about labels are made and of courts don’t know better.
2 (27m 42s):
They don’t know it’s unreliable. Now I will say going beyond that, that when they have an expert on staff telling them it’s unreliable, they often refuse to accept that. So there is some bias going on there too, but I don’t think it’s necessarily mostly bias on the part of the judges. I think there’s a lot of misleading going on.
1 (28m 1s):
On the point of bias. We’re seeing a phenomenon in the UK, which has been going on for quite some time now where mothers who speak to that legal representatives about domestic violence they are experiencing, are often told or advised not to mention it to the judge at all, because it will lead to them losing custody of their children, or in England, we call it contact and not having that contact with their child. And in some cases being permanently separated from their children. This is obviously something that’s happening here in the UK, and it’s been happening for some time. Do you see similar advice being given to women in the U S and what do you think of this practice?
2 (28m 36s):
That’s a very difficult question. Obviously, my study confirms that this is happening in the courts. Women are losing custody, which to us is they may or may not lose all contact, but losing the care of their children is, is very, very significant. Um, and they’re losing it the most when they alleged child abuse and there’s a cross claim of alienation. So it’s happening whether the advice is being given about domestic violence. I don’t think so. However, I do think it’s beginning to be given around child abuse claims. Um, it’s clear from this data, the courts are less reactive and punitive about domestic violence claims.
2 (29m 9s):
They also don’t give them that much weight, so it’s less risky for women, but it also doesn’t help them as much as one might hope with regard to safe custody. Um, but child abuse claims are very risky for women. I can’t say I know it’s happening a lot, but I have heard of cases here and there, where lawyers have said, it’s too risky. You may lose your children. And I’m at a point, people used to ask me this, like 10 years ago, they would say, would you advise clients not to bring it up? And I would say, I don’t really know. It would depend on the evidence. Well, now with this data, I would advise parents not to bring up child, women not to bring up child sexual abuse, unless there is, you know, eye witness evidence, or, you know, maybe a past conviction of the abuser.
2 (29m 54s):
If all they have is a child’s report and it’s going to be sort of a battle of the experts, and he’s probably going to claim it alienation, don’t bring it up because it’s your ticket to losing custody at this point, I would say. Child physical abuse is less clear, but it still seems pretty high risk, but child sexual abuse as the one where I think I would have to say that I would actually give that advice and say, here’s what we know empirically your odds are of losing custody. In fact, I can give the odds here, hold on. Sorry. I don’t, I don’t have the answer on that particular data point, but I have the odds earlier when it’s not involving alienation, um, mothers have 2.5 times the odds of losing custody when they’re alleging both physical and sexual abuse, then when they allow a child sexual abuse alone, for starters, So that mixture is really bad.
2 (30m 45s):
Um, mothers who alleged child abuse by father are at a one in four risk of losing custody to the alleged abuser. So it raises your risks,
1 (30m 58s):
But what do women then do if they’re genuinely concerned about their child, but they’re being told not to mention it in court. How can they protect their children in those cases?
2 (31m 7s):
I’m sorry to say that the courts are making it very, very difficult, if not impossible to protect children in these cases. And that’s, you know, I have a client, I had a consult client recently, who I said, these are the data. This is what will happen if you don’t win. And your odds of not winning are very, very high. And she said to me, I can’t not fight for my children’s safety. And I said, I hear you. I respect that. I just need you to know, you know, the risk you’re taking and you’re taking that risk with your eyes open. You know, some women feel like that, that they have to act from their heart.
2 (31m 40s):
Other women look at the risks and say, I have to act pragmatically here. If, if my children are going to be even worse off than they would be, if I don’t bring it up, I better not bring it up. Even though I can’t, it means I can’t protect them completely and protecting them a little bit from what would happen if I do bring it up. And it’s a terrible, terrible, um, a rock and a hard place for mothers who, who love their children it’s is unconscionable that we’re doing this to mothers and children.
1 (32m 9s):
I think there are very few cases worse, I think, than having to decide how you’re going to protect your child in those sorts of circumstances
2 (32m 17s):
Or how you’re going to have to let them not be protected. Exactly.Yeah.
1 (32m 22s):
Now you’ve been looking at these issues for more than 15 years and a PBS program. You took part in about the impact of domestic violence on children and mothers specifically sparked heavy criticism when it ad in 2005, particularly from fathers and fathers rights groups, which led to the PBS ombudsman at the time, Michael Gettler stepping in and making a judgment call on the documentary a, which wasn’t a very favorable, calling it a flawed presentation that diminished the impact and usefulness of the examination of a real issue by what Did indeed come across as a one-sided advocacy program.
1 (32m 53s):
How do you feel about Gettler’s comments on the documentary, 15 years on?
2 (32m 58s):
It was a very powerful documentary in particular because it was called, um, “Breaking the silence: children’s voice”s, and it focused on children. It had interviews with children and feeling of children, one in particular I’ll never forget, who is whispering from her father’s house on the phone to her mother “get me out of here”. And when you see that you realize what mothers are being put through on what children are being put through in these cases, although, you know, you can write it off and say, that was one case where these were four cases in this particular show.
2 (33m 28s):
So here’s what I think about that. It wasn’t presented to be a neutral study like mine is, it was presented to, to give a perspective of what was being done to some children in some cases, and those things were being done to those children in those cases. And, um, you could liken it to a story about the Holocaust interviewing survivors of the concentration camps and saying, well, you didn’t interview any of the Nazis. You didn’t interview the guards. Is this a fair depiction? It’s a fair depiction of what the survivors experienced.
2 (33m 59s):
There are some things that, you know, interviewing the other side, you’re just going to get denial and obfuscation. Um, you can do that and pretend to be balanced in doing that. Or you can just say, um, uh, atrocities are atrocities and here I’m describing some. How representative they are remains to be seen. So I don’t think there was anything wrong with the documentary. I think the fathers’ rights outcry was to be expected. I think PBS in the ombudsman were more shocked than they should have been, but I think most of the world doesn’t understand how vocal and aggressive fathers rights organizations are, and how much they seek to, And often inflicting pain, um, those who work with, um, victims and advocate for victims.
2 (34m 47s):
And so they’re very well organized. They’re very powerful sometimes. And they threaten to sue all over the place and they had the resources to do it. Unlike most battered women who are completely out of money and don’t have the resources to sue the bad evaluators, et cetera. So, um, so they have a lot of, a lot of, um, intimidation power. And so, yeah, so the ombudsman stepped up and did his critique, which I don’t listen to a whole lot more than the fathers’ rights people listen to my listen to that, that documentary.
2 (35m 16s):
Um, what they did ultimately was a, another show on the demand of a fathers’ rights people. And I was supposed to be kind of the other side, but it was really, it was more like a family court story of how we try to be balanced and fair. And it didn’t, it just whitewashed everything. It didn’t really go in either direction. Um, it wasn’t, I don’t even think it got much attention, ultimately. Your research
1 (35m 38s):
Raises a lot of concerns around the way these cases are handled. What can child protection professionals do to ensure that children are the priority and these kinds of cases and parents are not unjustly punished for trying to protect their children. I think child protection professionals
2 (35m 53s):
Absolutely need to shed the idea of parental alienation is what’s happening. When mothers allege child abuse, they need to just get rid of that. There is no science behind that. And even the current experts in alienation say, that’s not what it’s about. I have yet to see any of them say it’s being misused in that way to deny true abuse, but they’re, they’re moving slowly in a direction, some of them I think, and they say, it’s really not about child abuse claims. You have to evaluate child abuse on it’s on its face. So everybody family, of course, and child welfare professionals need to be taking the question of alienation, friendly parents in measurement, any of those labels out while they assess abuse and they need to assess abuse based on expertise about abuse not based on this kind of ideology that says women lie all the time and that the women are able to convince their children to not only report false things, but to emote false things and to hallucinate false things.
2 (36m 52s):
And to remember false things, all of that stuff is been fabricated. There’s not much science behind it, if any, and yet, and the whole system is relying on this notion that is so often false. Um, we need real experts in sexual abuse and only experts in sexual abuse, assessing sexual abuse. Um, and I think we need real experts in family violence and domestic violence assessing all other abuse claims because child welfare professionals in particular have been very slow to understand how adult domestic violence radiates through the family and victimizes children inherently as well as often physically as well.
2 (37m 27s):
Um, I think child welfare professionals have been very slow to understand coercive control, which is a huge part of what we know about domestic violence and domestic violence perpetrators. Um, and often you don’t have smoking guns and major injuries and broken bones, but you may have a lifetime of terror and existence of terror that comes from the coercive control of this perpetrator and child welfare professionals need to recognize that because that has profound implications for child safety both in the moment and after separation because the, and it’s usually the men, but the perpetrators who utilize coercive control are the most dangerous for not only adult victims, but for children, First of all, and second of all children are much more at risk after their parents separate than when they’re there, they’re in a unified family, um, even if the perpetrator never laid a hand on the children after separation, anyone who has been battering, an adult or utilizing coercive of control is a much greater risk to children after separation.
2 (38m 27s):
These are things child welfare professionals need to know. They need to focus on risk, not just what happened and what can we prove happened. But what do we know about the dynamics in a family that pose risk? And I don’t see them doing that very much on this, over here, certainly. Um, I don’t know about over there.
1 (38m 44s):
I think we have the same concerns here in terms of getting up to date, progressive, sophisticated, evidence-based information. Uh, and I think in a lot of ways, our systems are quite similar. You’re going to be kept very busy over the next few weeks with your current research, but I wanted to ask you whether you had any other research projects, uh, that you’re thinking of carrying out. And if we can have a sneak peek?
2 (39m 9s):
Um, I have so many things I want to write. Some of them are empirical and some of them are not. I need to get this data out more widely than it has been so far. I need to educate the child abuse field. And I’m working on that, uh, with regard to this data and other things related things. Um, and I’m also trying to get out analysis and thinking and about why family courts are the way they are and how they can change and how we can change the laws to help them change. In terms of future research, I, um, have my eye on a incredible data set that is managed by the Center for Judicial Excellence based in California, which has, um, piggybacked on other people who had, who had begun many years ago to collect to track child homicides, uh, that were committed by a parent.
2 (39m 58s):
Um, usually in the context of separation or divorce, um, and the Center for Judicial Excellence has been doing an amazing job of collating and continuing to track these and to try to analyze how many of them could have been prevented in others. How many of them are cases where a court knew, um, a was warned that a child was at serious risk from this parent, usually the father, but not only there are some other cases in there too. Um, and they’ve already identified just based on media, about a hundred cases where these children did not have to be killed.
2 (40m 32s):
And of course it could’ve of protected them but wen unnoticed, but we haven’t been able, we haven’t had the resources to, um, analyze all 700 and some which they have in their data set now, or to more, more thoroughly analyze the hundred that they’ve flagged. Um, and we desperately need research funding for that work. And I’m, I’m in my new center at GW, I’m going to be looking into finding funding for that, whether I do it myself or I do that in tandem with the sensor itself and some researchers we bring in remains to be seen as I couldn’t do it hands on, I’d have to hire someone anyway, but we need reporters as well as potentially lawyers who have some time to do some digging into these case files and be able to demonstrate what courts knew and when they knew it and, and why they did or did not protect the child.
2 (41m 19s):
Um, so I’m hoping that that’s a new area of empirical research that we’ll find the support to do. And then there’s a lot of pieces of this data that we haven’t analyzed yet, like visitation, or even just looking at who ends up with custody without worrying, who started with custody. If we do that, we will be able to bring in a lot of the cases we had to screen out when we were looking at custody and reversals. Um, and that’s the data that I think we need to get out. Um, we need to look at visitation. We need to look at corroboration. We want to look at the child welfare agency cases and analyze what was happening in those.
2 (41m 51s):
We want to do a more specific analysis of the child sexual abuse cases to see if we can come up with some qualitative, as well as quantitative analytic, um, explanations of what’s happening in those cases. So, um, there’s a lot more to be done with this dataset, which is incredibly rich and complicated. And in the, the other thing I’ll say, if there are any US listeners to your podcasts, um, the data is all organized by state, and we very much hope that state researchers will download their set of cases. They can either use our coding, or they can recode along the lines that they want to, their cases.
2 (42m 26s):
In most States, it’s a manageable number, California. It’s an unmanageable number 500 plus I think cases, but, um, most States it’s much, much less than that and they, they can wrap their minds around and then they can do state based analysis and use those for law reform. So I hope that happens too. If you had just one sentiment that you were able to show with child protection professionals, what would you say to them? I would say know where you have expertise in where you don’t, if you don’t have genuine expertise in child sexual abuse, make sure you get someone who’s a true expert, meaning they have worked with children.
2 (43m 4s):
They have been able to identify true and false cases. Um, they can help you assess. Um, I would also say don’t, um, don’t use alienation or that kind of thinking to discredit allegations of child abuse and in particular, do not use the fact of custody or access litigation as a reason to discredit reports to child welfare, because it should be, I think, obvious that if a parent finds out the other parent is abusing the child, there is likely to be custody access litigation that does not mean it is false.
2 (43m 41s):
It does not mean it was fabricated for false litigation. On the contrary It means someone is trying to protect a child. And I hope I would say to child welfare, I hope you will go back to your initial mission and purpose, which is to protect children and stop buying into the idea that you’re protecting them by maintaining access with a parent they’re afraid of, and that they say has been hurtful to them.