(WOMENSENEWS)–Susan Lob says it’s simple: Good mothers should keep their children.
But Lob, director of the New York-based Voices of Women Organizing Project, says that doesn’t always happen in the New York family court system when it’s women who have been abused by their children’s fathers.
Instead, in a report released today, Voices of Women says family courts retraumatize battered women by forcing them to confront men they fear and granting custody to abusers 37 percent of the time despite the women’s roles as primary caregivers.
"What struck us was the impossibility of women losing custody to the men who abused them," said Lob. "That just seemed unbelievable."
The group laid out four recommendations: fund an independent court watch project to enforce procedures; ensure that court decisions protect children and reflect their best interest; take abuse allegations seriously and hold abusers accountable; and ensure that court proceedings are fair and just.
"The courts’ own rules and regulations are often not followed," Lob said. "Those kinds of things just seem so blatantly unfair and unreasonable."
Authors issued specific suggestions for each of the four recommendations, including increasing accountability for judges by halving 10-year judicial appointments to five-year terms and seeing children in courtrooms at least once a year to ensure custody decisions are benefiting them.
"All of this is done for the best interest of children, and we feel like children are not being represented," Lob said.
System Works Against Women
Lob said the court system turns their allegation of abuse against women making the accusation, who are sometimes painted as unreliable or unfit due to emotional problems.
The mothers they surveyed are not perfect parents, Lob said, but they were primary caregivers who were not accused of endangering their children. Courts, she said, should protect abused women who want to protect their children.
The report, "Justice Denied: How Family Courts in NYC Endanger Battered Women and Children," says 7.5 percent of cases in family court focus exclusively on domestic violence. Most cases, 55 percent, involved child support; 26.5 percent involved custody or visitation; and 6.5 percent involved child protective proceedings. Up to half of cases in family court involve some aspect of domestic violence.
The report represents two years of interviews with around 75 domestic violence survivors, focus groups of battered women and teens in foster care, and meetings with court personnel.
In 2003, New York created 38 Integrated Domestic Violence Courts, which consolidate domestic violence cases of different types–criminal, family and matrimonial–under one judge. The idea was to provide a more comprehensive view of family problems. This system has since handled about 60,000 cases involving 12,000 families.
All the women interviewed for the report identified themselves as victims of abuse and were involved in family court cases in 2005 or 2006. Eighty percent said their abusers used the courts to follow through on a threat to gain sole custody of the children and prevent the children from being in contact with their mothers.
Nearly a quarter, 23 percent, of the women did not have attorneys, and 90 percent of those who did had court-appointed lawyers. (The authors did not report how many male counterparties had attorneys.)
Lack of Court Safety
About 30 percent of women said they felt unsafe in the courtroom, and 40 percent felt unsafe in waiting areas.
The mothers recalled long lines outside a Bronx courtroom, where women trying to evade abusers waited in the open, and judges revealing confidential addresses while reading from court papers.
Fifty-seven percent of the women did not know about Safe Horizon, a New York organization that provides supports for crime and abuse victims.
Sixty-seven percent of the women could not afford copies of court transcripts, leaving them unsure of how accurately the official records reflected the proceedings. About 15 percent said transcripts were not accurate.
Women were advised, sometimes by lawyers, not to mention domestic violence in one-quarter of cases, and not to challenge custody for fear of worsening the situation.
"To me, that’s the shocking thing," Lob said. "We’re in a position where it’s actually sound advice for a woman not to raise these issues."
Fifty-eight percent of women said that asking for child support triggered retaliation from their abusers.
When they appear in court, battered mothers, still fearful of their abusers and suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, often provide a weak portrait to courts of how they juggle stresses, the report concluded.
"It’s two different things that together make a woman look even worse," Lob said of the emotional toll and mixed legal advice. "If she’s suffering from PTSD and she’s not been able to bring up the abuse, people wouldn’t understand why she’s acting the way she is."
Human Rights Model
The project followed the lead of the New York-based Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project, which trained lay people to survey human rights violations. That group helped Voices of Women train its non-legal membership to interview survivors and developed questions based on their court experiences.
Voices of Women also consulted with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Long Island University and Adelphi University and partnered with the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project.
Ramona Ortega, past director of the Human Rights Project, said the report is a glimpse into a complicated court system that violates basic human rights.
"Each piece comes together in a way that really traumatizes women and-or takes away their rights," Ortega said. "There’s sort of a number of elements that work in concert to put this woman in a situation where she has very few options."
Voices of Women, with about 60 members, formed in 2000 as an initiative of the Battered Women’s Resource Center to change the family court system, which it considers repressive to battered women.
The report’s authors note that theirs is the latest in a string of studies documenting problems in family courts. Advocates characterize the problems as human rights violations. Projects in Massachusetts and Arizona point to similar custody struggles by battered women.
In January, at the Battered Mother’s Custody Conference in Albany, N.Y., an annual gathering of abuse survivors, women talking about similar concerns attended from all 50 states.
Stories are more common than statistics regarding what happens to children who end up in abusers’ custody. But some of the mothers who are involved in battered women’s groups such as Voices of Women have not seen their children in months or years and say they return from abusers’ custody as traumatized teens.
The report’s authors want to raise awareness among judges and court personnel, but they also want to boost the family court into greater public view.
"When people aren’t part of these systems or don’t have contact with these systems, they don’t realize how ineffective and inefficient they are," Ortega said, adding that she thinks problems in family court would not be so pervasive if they received more publicity.
Unlike criminal court, family courtrooms are often a place for mediating family disputes. This difference, Lob said, leads to misperceptions that family courts are more casual with weaker consequences.
"What we’re saying is these courts can take your kids away," Lob said. "To me, that’s just about as serious as what anybody can do to you in any other situation."
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women’s eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.