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Review of Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues, by Mo Therese Hanna, Ph D and Barry Goldstein, J.D.

Review by Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D.,
published in Domestic Violence Report (2010)

Dr. Silberg is the Executive Vice-President of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence 

            Professionals who interface with abused children or victims of domestic violence [DV] are encountering an increasingly more common scenario. Despite laws in every state protecting children from being in the custody of abusive fathers, approximately half of women who have been domestic violence victims and watched themselves and children suffer from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse are losing custody of these children in family court proceedings to the parents of the children who perpetrated that violence. I have talked with many professionals who encounter this phenomenon in their practice for the first time, and they are shocked, overwhelmed and demoralized. Even when battered women keep custody, courts almost always order visitation that fails to protect the children. These outcomes are challenging to the core as they shake our fundamental belief in the fairness of the American society we have come to believe in. The question of why this happens and what to do has seemed overwhelming and unanswerable.

Yet, the book, Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody finally gives the legal community, advocates, mental health professionals, and the media some answers. Most importantly, the book outlines a roadmap for potential changes that could finally expose the dirty secrets of family court and prevent these tragic outcomes in the future.

Professor of Psychology Mo Hanna from Siena University and Attorney Barry Goldstein have organized a compendium of insightful articles from authorities across the country who tackle the problems of custody, domestic violence and family court from every angle. Although I am quite familiar with the issues, and the challenges of this perplexing problem, I still found much to learn from these experts. The book is organized around four sections---- Parameters of the Problem, Survivors Stories, Causes and Contributors to the Problem, and Solutions and Strategies. 

Joan Zorza in the first chapter insightfully outlines the judicial trends that have led to the frequency of these custody errors.  She points out that the Family System Dynamic which looks at family systems from the point of view of mutual responsibility has created an environment where blaming victims of domestic violence is a logical outcome.  This dynamic has been further facilitated by the theories of Richard Gardner who provided easy answers for family court by encouraging courts to see abuse allegations as likely manufactured by vindictive women with his concept of “parental alienation”. The concept of “Unfriendly Parent” also promulgated by Gardner leads courts to value the parent who most likely promotes a relationship, while simultaneously ignoring the legitimate reasons for this ”unfriendliness,” suspicions of abuse.  I was particularly impressed with some of the original legal ideas suggested by Ms. Zorza in domestic violence cases, such as the potential violation of  Sixth Amendment rights when a judge requires a victim to forgive her perpetrator, violating the precepts of several religious viewpoints.  Other chapters in this section including articles on recognizing domestic violence, gender bias, and the Father’s Rights movement are equally compelling.

The second section has articles directly from the survivors of these tragedies.  Read these articles at your own risk as the heartbreaking facts don’t get easier even if you are familiar with this phenomenon. Particularly impressive is the article by Karen Anderson summarizing the development of the Courageous Kids movement, a movement of children who have been victimized by a parent and then re-victimized by the court system.  Anderson points out that protective fathers can face equal hardship in protecting their children from abusive mothers, some thing I have faced in my own practice.

The third section gives deeper insight into the complex causes of global system failure from multiple perspectives. Garland Waller describes how the media shies away from complexity and gives pointers on how to simplify the story and avoid the legal pitfalls these stories often present. Other chapters in this section analyze Parental Alienation Syndrome, judicial decision-making, coercive control, and how the courts are influenced by batterer manipulation tactics.

Before this problem can be completely solved, the public with the help of a concerned media will need to express their outrage to lawmakers.  I found the final section of the book the most compelling with articles that propose how to overcome the current barriers to public exposure and activism, and how to litigate these cases. Lundy Bancroft describes what will be needed for a truly effective grass roots advocacy movement to take off and address this problem. I was impressed with Michael Lesher’s chapter, “Leveling the Landscape: Family Court Auxiliaries and How to Counter Them,”  provides a strategy for cross-examining experts who misrepresent the facts by focusing specifically on their lack of command of the actual facts of the case. Other chapters on overcoming abuser’s legal tactics, case preparation, fighting false allegations of parental alienation syndrome, and the perils of custody evaluations provide a “how-to” for attorneys litigating these cases.

There is much to learn from the many experts here on law, mental health, sociology, advocacy, the media, and human behavior. The only criticism I have with the book is the pagination system which was confusing as each article begins over again from page 1 with a numerical prefix. Nonetheless, I will be citing these chapters often.

I consider this book compulsory reading for Family Court Judges, family law attorneys, DV advocates, custody evaluators, and child mental health professionals.  If you feel you are already familiar with these issues and solutions, buy the book anyway, and give it to someone who needs to read it the most. Wide dissemination of the information in this book can only lead to increased justice and safety for abused women and children.

Copies of Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody are available for $125 plus $10.95 shipping and handling from Civic Research Institute, P.O. Box 585 Kingston, NJ 08528.

The review is reprinted with permission from the Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Report