Crisis In The Family Courts


Posted in Uncategorized by abatteredmother on April 14, 2011

From The Leadership Council:

Official State Reports

New Jersey was the first state to give prominence to the goal of raising awareness of gender bias in the court system. Since the establishment of their gender bias task force, forty-five states and a number of federal circuit courts have established gender bias task forces, including: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West  Virginia, Wisconsin, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. These task forces were initiated by a variety of institutions and organizations, including the state supreme court, judicial council, and bar association. Thirty-four have published reports.

A number of state task forces collected and analyzed data on the experiences of women in family courts.


Danforth, G., & Welling, B. (Eds.). (1996). Achieving Equal Justice for Women and Men in the California Courts: Final Report. Judicial Council of California Advisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts

Noting that negative stereotypes about women encourage judges to disbelieve women’s allegations of child sexual abuse. Gender bias problems are particularly acute in family courts, and most problematic when sexual abuse of children is alleged in custody or visitation proceedings.  Negative stereotypes about women encourage judges to disbelieve women’s allegations of child sexual abuse. The report stated: “One striking example is the tendency to doubt the credibility of women who make these allegations, and to characterize them as hysterical or vindictive even when medical evidence corroborates a claim of child abuse.” (p. 149-150).

Another major problem area involved child custody and visitation disputes between parents when there has been a history of domestic violence. The committee also found that custody and visitation orders frequently fail to include adequate provisions to prevent further abuse, giving batterers unrestricted access to their children and therefore unrestricted access to their abused spouse” (p. 12).

British Columbia

Law Society of British Columbia Gender Bias Committee (1992). Gender equality in the justice system, Volume II . Author. [as cited in: Penfold, S.P. (1997). Questionable beliefs about child sexual abuse allegations during custody disputes.Canadian Journal of Family Law, 14 , 11-30.]

Noting that, although research indicates that false accusations of sexual abuse during child custody disputes are not a common occurrence, lawyers tend to advise women not to raise allegations of sexual abuse because they will jeopardize their chances of receiving custody.


Report of the Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Study Commission Executive Summary (March 1990)

Noting that “Many men file proceedings to contest custody as a way of forcing an advantageous property settlement. . . . Contrary to public perception, men are quite successful in obtaining residential custody of their children when they actually seek it.” (p. 7)


Wilson, T. Domestic violence in Maryland : More from the gender bias report . (Available:

Summarizing the conclusions of the Maryland Gender Bias Report on domestic violence, Trish Wilson states:

“[T]he most pervasive and difficult problems facing victims of domestic violence are attitudes and lack of understanding of many judges and court employees about the nature of domestic violence. Too often judges and court employees deny the victim’s experiences, accuse the victim of lying, trivialize the cases, blame the victim for getting beaten, and badger the victim for not leaving the batterer. All this is due to a lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, including lack of knowledge of studies of batterers which show that the violence is not caused by the victim; that batterers do not give up control when the victim leaves; and that batterers try to manipulate victims to affect the judicial process. This manipulation of the court process includes batterers and other abusers who misuse the court system in regards to divorce, custody, visitation, and child support as well as domestic violence.”


Abrams, R., & Greaney, J. (1989). Report of the Gender Bias Study of the Supreme Judicial Court [of Massachusetts ], 62-63.

Gender Bias Study of the Court System in Massachusetts, 24 New Eng. L. Rev. 745, 747, 825, 846 (1990).

Massachusetts was one of the first states to document the gender bias against women in family courts. This court-initiated study expressly found that “our research contradicted [the] perception” that “there is a bias in favor of women in these decisions.” Moreover, it found that “in determining custody and visitation, many judges and family service officers do not consider violence toward women relevant.” The Court’s study further found that “the courts are demanding more of mothers than fathers in custody disputes” and that “many courts put the needs of noncustodial fathers above those of custodial mothers and children.”


Final Report of the State Bar of Michigan Task Force on Race/Ethnic and Gender Issues in the Courts and the Legal Profession (January 23, 1998).

In 1993, Michigan passed an amendment to the “best interests of the child” statute which requires judges to consider certain factors in determining custody and visitation matters. MCL 722.23; MSA 25.312. However, research found a mixed picture when it assessed whether judges actually follow the statutory mandate.  Of the judges responding to the question about whether they consider violence or threatened violence when making custody and visitation decisions, only a little more than half of the judges (58%) indicated that they always considered it. Eleven percent said that they never considered it.

In addition, several women testified that custody of the children was given to the batterer, sometimes by an ex parte order. In one instance it was reported that an abusive husband was awarded custody because he had a “stable income.”


Final Report of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System,


Reports by Testimony Projects

Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project: A Human Rights Approach to Child Custody and Domestic Violence (June 2003), pp. 33-34, 47-49.

The Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence carried out a two year study of 57 battered women who had gone through a custody battle in Arizona family courts. In the Arizona study, 72% of the mothers said they were not given an adequate chance to tell the court their side of the story and 41% were ordered into mediation though the court knew there was violence. (p. 48)

The survey found that courts awarded joint or sole custody to the alleged batterers 56-74% of the time (depending on the county). Many of these cases involved documented child abuse or adult abuse.

The Arizona studies main findings were:

a. In spite of evidence of violence against women and/or their children, (and with such violence documented in 63% of the cases) the courts consistently ordered sole or joint custody to perpetrators in 74% of the cases in Maricopa County and 56% of the cases in the other counties combined.

b. Income level, which was highly skewed towards father, seemed to have the most impact on the ultimate custody decision.

c. A mother represented by an attorney was more likely to win custody.

d. Having a custody evaluator more likely resulted in the mother losing custody.

e. By and large, the systems of control the perpetrator established pre-divorce, including physical and sexual violence and child abuse, were maintained post-separation with the added ability to use the court system to abuse the victims.

f. Having an order of protection had no impact on the final custody decision; contrary to Arizona law, the courts simply ignored the documented existence of domestic violence.

g. The courts ignored well-known research and federal standards as 100% of the victims were ordered to go to mediation or a face-to-face meeting with the abuser.

h. A large number of perpetrators had weapons or used alcohol or drugs when with children.

i. A large number of judges thought that since the parties were separated, domestic violence was not a concern.

j. In a large number of cases, unsupervised visits were awarded or the supervisor was an untrained person such as a family member.

Heim, S., Grieco, H., Di Paola, S., & Allen, R. (2002). Family Court Report. Sacramento, CA: California National Organization for Women.
(download the entire report-PDF format)

EXCERPT: After significant research, CA NOW declares the present family court system in California to be crippled, incompetent, and corrupt. The bias in the system results in pathologizing, punishing, and discriminating against women. The system leaves decisions, which should be made on facts in a courtroom, to extra-judicial public and private personnel. The system precludes the parties, particularly the mother, from her rights to due process, including a trial, long cause hearing, or adjudication, to which she is entitled, much less an appeal of these decisions. Mothers are coerced into stipulations through the rubber-stamping of definitive evaluations and reports, which become the court’s ruling. The present family law system in California exists to enrich attorneys and allied mental health and mental health professionals. This system allows mothers to be taken to court time after time, challenging what is in “the best interests of the child,” therefore subjecting them to a system that has no end for them or their children. In the most egregious cases, perfectly fit mothers who were the primary caretakers of their children lose custody to the fathers who are motivated by evading support obligations, and are often known abusers.

Human Rights Tribunal on Domestic Violence and Child Custody sponsored by the Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project based at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts (2002) [3]

A multi-year, four-phase study using qualitative and quantitative social science research methodologies by the Wellesley Centers for Women. Battered women reported having to participate in wrenching custody battles with their ex-spouse to keep their children. They noted that their problems were aggravated and sometimes prolonged in the courts or by social service agencies. The battered women testified that they have been wrongly perceived as hysterical and have been accused of lying.The research found widespread adoption of “parental alienation syndrome,” and found “a consistent pattern of human rights abuses” by family courts, including failure to protect battered women and children from abuse, discriminating against and inflicting degrading treatment on battered women, and denying battered women due process. Histories of abuse of mother and children were routinely ignored or discounted. They also reported that evidence of abuse was often ignored, judges were insensitive, and guardians ad litem – the court-assigned advocates for children – made poor assessments. Domestic violence advocates reported that women who fear the family court process stay in abusive situations instead of seeking help.

Slote, K. Y., Cuthbert, C., Mesh, C. J., Driggers, M. G., Bancroft, L., & Silverman, J. G. (2005). Battered mothers speak out: Participatory human rights documentation as a model for research and activism in the United States.Violence Against Women, 11(11), 1367-95.

This article describes the work of the Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project, a multiyear effort that documented human rights violations against battered women and their children in the Massachusetts family court system.

EXCERPT: Battered women with children often receive painfully ironic mixed messages from the government. On one hand, they are urged by state actors-such as the police, child welfare agencies, and district attorneys-to leave their batterers and flee to a confidentially located shelter to protect themselves and their children. On the other hand, once these women finally do take the courageous step to leave, they are often pressured by those working in the family court system to negotiate child custody and visitation with their batterers and to encourage an ongoing relationship between their batterers and their children, many of whom have been victimized by these same men. Battered mothers are often expected to yield to custody and visitation orders that may require them and their children to maintain long-term, unprotected contact with the batterers. If they fail to comply with these court orders, they risk being held in contempt of court or even losing custody of their children to the batterers.

The Voices of Women Organizing Project (VOW). (2008). Justice Denied: How Family Courts in NYC Endanger Battered Women and Children. Brooklyn, NY: Battered Women’s Resource Center. (Executive Summary)

EXCERPT: 80% of women said their abuser threatened to take away their children and used the court to follow through with that threat. 10% of women said they stopped reporting abuse for fear of losing contact with their children.

Mothers were told by their lawyer, the law guardian or the judge not to oppose visitation, even when they felt it was unsafe or when their children protested.

Tracy, C., Fromson, T., & Miller, D. Justice in the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court: A Report to the Community, Domestic Violence Report, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Aug/Sept. 2003), p. 94.


A study of the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court conducted by the Philadelphia Women’s Law Project in cooperation with the court, found that litigants are often denied due process, and that applicable legal standards are “not always observed, particularly in the consideration of abuse in custody proceedings, leaving families at risk.”

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