Family Violence & Sexual Assault
9/02 Press Release on the impact of court
awarded custody to abusive parents
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
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
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
To ensure that children are appropriately protected by our
family and juvenile dependency courts, the think tank recommended the
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
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.
Please feel free to download this
press release for distribution to the media, state legislators, Congress,
your local NOW chapter, etc.
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