It is common practice to assume that the best interest of a child includes access to both parents. Co-parenting is a critical element in any parenting plan, and courts want children to spend time with both parents. Under normal circumstances, this is in the best interest of the kids.
But what happens when it is not? And what happens when one parent’s fears and accusations are not taken seriously – and then the child is hurt?
In 2012, a 15-month-old boy named Prince was killed by his father for the insurance money while the toddler was on a court-ordered visit with his dad. Prince’s mother, Hera McLeod, had opposed the visit, given Prince’s father’s history of violence. But McLeod’s warnings that her son would be in danger with his father fell on deaf ears, and now her son is dead.
McLeod is not the only parent whose concerns have gone unheeded: “In many instances, women are advised by their attorneys not even to raise their concerns for fear of being seen as vengeful, ‘crying wolf’ and alienating judges who are reluctant to deny a parent access to a child. Women who have been victims of domestic violence sometimes don’t make for good witnesses because of the trauma they have experienced.”
This problem is one that Maryland is now studying. Governor Larry Hogan recently announced the formation of a working group to study how child abuse or domestic violence allegations made during child custody proceedings are handled, the Washington Post reports.
Gov. Hogan’s working group will study child custody court proceedings involving child abuse or domestic violence allegations from a perspective of trauma-informed decision making. Chaired by Maryland Secretary of State John Wobensmith, the working group is comprised of Maryland legislators, parents impacted by current family court practices and domestic violence or child abuse, and recognized custody experts and organizations to hear about the new research regarding how these cases are adjudicated.
The goal of the working group is to raise awareness of a troublesome epidemic of children and parents’ reports of child abuse and domestic violence not being taken seriously when they are made in the context of a custody proceeding. With current judicial practices, children may be at higher risk of having to stay with the allegedly abusive parent after a custody proceeding according to findings from the research presented at the first working group meeting.
Maryland Senator Susan Lee, the sponsor of the legislation that created the working group (Senate Bill 567), said, “Courts and the entire state apparatus should do everything in their power to reduce the likelihood that children are placed with abusive parents. This workgroup will explore best practices to identify trauma behavior and mitigate preventable, life-altering harm.” The working group will discuss how to incorporate the latest research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their processes and decision-making, and the group will make recommendations to Governor Hogan and the General Assembly about how Maryland courts can develop policies and practices that will help to ensure the safety and well-being of children and other victims of domestic violence.
The report from the working group is due December 1, 2019.
Ms. McLeod called the Maryland task force, “a positive, early step. . .to develop a creative strategy that would add rigor and reduce the negative impact implicit bias plays in family court.” (Washington Post)
Hopefully, what these legislators and other stakeholders learn throughout this series of working group sessions will create a change in how things are done that will make a difference in the lives of children and even save lives. Lives like Prince’s.
If you are involved in a child custody dispute, a Bethesda family law attorney from McCabe Russell is prepared to represent you and protect your child’s best interests throughout the process.
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