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Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute
9/02 Press Release on the impact of court awarded custody to abusive parents

For Immediate Release
Contact: Robert Geffner, Ph.D. (858) 623-2777

SAN DIEGO, CA, SEPTEMBER 27, 2002 - Family violence experts from all over the nation have called for sweeping changes in the child protective system to ensure that children are not placed in abusive situations. The recommendations are part of a report resulting from a think tank, which last month explored the impact of court awarded custody to parents who have been physically or sexually abusive to their children or who have committed acts of domestic violence on a non-offending parent, even resulting in murder, in some cases. The initial think tank was held as part of the "6th International Conference on Family Violence: Working Together to End Abuse," hosted by the Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute in San Diego and Children's Institute International in Los Angeles. The follow up has been occurring as part of the 7th International Conference on Family Violence September 24-28, 2002 in San Diego.

As a result of the think tank and follow up discussions, participants released the following Declaration:

"Children have a fundamental human right to a safe environment, and to be protected from all forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, violence and exploitation. Despite the best efforts of many good people, there remain serious problems that too often result in children being denied these basic human rights in our juvenile and family courts."

Among the think tank's key recommendations are development of national standards for child custody evaluations, appointment of competent counsel for children at risk of abuse, and barring the use of "parental alienation syndrome," a pseudoscientific theory that has resulted in placement of children in the custody of abusive parents, in judicial proceedings. "We can't let these children down. They've already been let down by an abusive parent. We have to change the child family and dependency court systems, so they do not do additional harm," says Dr. Steve Ambrose, Vice President of Programs for Children's Institute International. "The courts are sadly failing to protect too many children who have been exposed to family violence in their homes."

According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, there were an estimated 826,000 victims of maltreatment nationwide in 1999, which is equivalent to a rate of 11.8 victims per 1,000 children

High profile cases such as the OJ Simpson custody hearings mirror the difficult and heart-wrenching decision courts must make as a matter of course on behalf of children. Former victims of abuse and experts in the fields of child abuse, child advocacy and research, and family violence discussed ways to improve the system in order to avoid further endangering the well-being of abused children.

The panel concluded that appointing legal counsel for children is critical, for courts to have a greater likelihood of protecting children who are truly at risk of serious abuse if the children involved in those cases are provided competent counsel who are required to act like real lawyers. With counsel, the children's well-being is more likely to be addressed by the courts.

"Despite the well intentioned efforts of many dedicated court professionals, we believe that there are far too many children who are not being adequately protected by our family and juvenile dependency courts," says Dr. Robert Geffner, President of the Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute and Chair of the think tank. "Too often, decisions are made on children's behalf based on unsubstantiated theories like 'parental alienation syndrome,' without adequate representation from the children themselves and relying on biased court evaluations by mental health professionals. In the worst cases, placement and visitation orders are rendered that place children in physical and/or psychological jeopardy."

To ensure that children are appropriately protected by our family and juvenile dependency courts, the think tank recommended the following reforms:

1. In light of the fact that "Parental Alienation Syndrome" is not a bona fide disorder or condition, and is neither a valid nor reliable means of determining whether child sexual abuse or domestic violence has occurred, it should be deemed inadmissible in any judicial proceedings. Despite the fact that PAS does not meet the tests set forth in either the Frye or Daubert decisions, its widespread use by custody evaluators, guardians ad litem, and judges often results in children place in the custody of abusive parents.

2. More research and development, including reliable and valid instruments to screen and assess domestic violence in custody cases and follow-up studies on the outcomes of child custody decisions in high conflict cases.

3. Implementation by all states of the model code of conduct for appointed counsel for children as approved by the American Bar Association Board of Governors.

4. Holding accountable under the law any professional whose gross negligence causes harm to a child.

5. Development of national standards for child custody evaluations, including: creation of child custody panels based on education, experience and training; selection of evaluators in individualized cases; review of evaluation reports including content and timeliness; and removal and oversight of panel members.

6. Uniform selection, training and evaluation standards for first responders and child protective agency workers in cases involving family violence, child abuse and domestic relations/family law courts. Training must be expanded to focus on skill development in situations that most closely replicate the complexities of domestic violence cases.

Editors Note:
Please feel free to download this press release for distribution to the media, state legislators, Congress, your local NOW chapter, etc.
File: FVSAI_092702_Press_Release.doc


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