Cindy Lederman

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A preliminary injunction recently issued by a prominent federal judge in Brooklyn lambasted this city’s Administration for Children’s Services for acting hastily in removing children from mothers who were abused by their partners. In excoriating the agency for “benign indifference, bureaucratic inefficiency and outmoded institutional biases,” U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein took government bureaucracy to task for failing to understand the complexities of family violence.

While advocates for victims of domestic violence celebrated in New York, observers around the country also hailed the decision as a watershed moment that they hoped would help to change the way Americans look at the complex relationship between domestic violence and child welfare.

“This is a landmark decision,” said Judith Beals, the executive director of Jane Doe Inc., a Boston-based organization that oversees domestic sheltering programs across Massachusetts. “The judge really understood the realities of battered women’s lives.”

Weinstein’s decision in the case of Nicholson v. Scoppetta highlighted the agency’s failure to determine whether a battered woman had attempted to protect her children before taking them away from the mother and placing them in alternative settings that often proved dangerous. The 183-page decision illustrated 10 cases in which the administration’s insensitivity to battered women resulted in its failure to act in the best interest of the children and families concerned.

Battered Mother Separated from Children for 21 Days

Among the cases was that of Sharwline Nicholson, a 32-year-old working mother of two.

One night, the father of her 3-year-old daughter attacked Nicholson in her Brooklyn apartment during a visit from his home in South Carolina. Following the assault, which resulted in a broken arm, fractured ribs and head injuries for Nicholson, administration officials determined that she could not care for her children. Rather than agree to her request that the children be placed with a relative in New Jersey, the agency decided to put her small children in foster care.

Over the next eight days, the child-protection manager assigned to the Nicholson case failed to act promptly to file a petition with the court to get an approval for putting the children in foster care, Weinstein wrote. The manager also gave conflicting testimony in the case regarding his understanding of how to file such a petition.

In the petition of neglect that the manager eventually filed with the court, he justified his actions by alleging that Nicholson had failed to cooperate with the services that had been offered to her. However, nowhere did the manager indicate what those services were and what Nicholson’s reasons may have been for failing to comply.

The manager also said that Nicholson failed to follow the child-welfare agency’s instructions that said she should get an order of protection against her attacker. But Nicholson had attempted to get the order. Local police denied it because the man did not live in New York and she did not know his address.

One week after the children had been taken from Nicholson, the family court ordered that they be returned to her so long as she lived with a cousin rather than return to her apartment. No one ever asked whether Nicholson’s former partner had access to her apartment, according to court documents. If they had, they would have learned that he did not have the key and that he had never lived there.

After eight days of total separation, the welfare agency permitted Nicholson to see her children for the first time. Her daughter had a rash on her face and yellow pus coming from her nose. She also appeared to have scratched herself, according to court documents. Nicholson’s 8-year-old son had a puffy eye that he attributed to an abusive foster mother. However, following the visit, an agency worker decided that Nicholson’s cousin’s apartment did not have enough bedding for the children. So, rather than assist Nicholson in moving the children’s bedding from Brooklyn, another 14 days passed before she got her children back, Weinstein wrote.

The children were finally returned to Nicholson a harrowing 21 days after the separation and 14 days after the family court officially released her children to her.

New York May Not Be Bad, But Others Have Similar Cases

Experts noted that the Nicholson decision likely represents some of the most egregious cases in the country, due in part to the resource constraints that make the large New York system among the most overburdened. But they added that too few child-services departments are doing enough to create procedures that are sensitive to the myriad needs of women and children who face violence in the home.

“This may not be happening in such an extreme form, but in every state I hear similar stories,” said Lynn Rosenthal, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, a group based in Washington. “The biggest problem is that child-protective services try to give a one-size-fits-all plan. But to simply tell a woman to get a protection order or go to a shelter may not work for her.”

Rosenthal noted that child-protective services need to be more aware of and sympathetic to the intricacies of domestic abuse. While child-protective services try to operate in the best interest of the child, pulling a child out of a home where domestic violence has occurred is often too simplistic a solution, Rosenthal said.

In many cases, child-welfare workers overlook the manifold ways in which mothers try to protect their children from the effects of violence in the household, assuming that if a woman is in a violent relationship she must be an unfit mother as well, she said.

“Most battered women work hard to protect their children,” Rosenthal said.

In fact, some women go to great lengths to protect their children from the impact of domestic violence. Experts noted that some women try not to scream while they are being beaten because they don’t want to frighten her children, while others choose not to report domestic violence because they are too afraid of losing their children.

In an article in 2000, the Journal of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts cited the case of a Florida woman named Mary who put her children to sleep with their shoes on in order to pave the way for a quick escape should her husband come home in a drunken rage. She removed the shoes once the man of the house was fast asleep. Some people might assume that Mary’s actions signaled impaired judgment, but advocacy experts said that such behavior indicates a woman is doing her best to protect her children as she copes with the myriad mental and physical burdens caused by an abusive relationship.

Massachusetts Changed Rules Ten Years Ago

Child-protection advocates say that if state and city agencies want to do right by the 3 million children funneled through the nation’s child-protective service systems each year, their personnel must begin to better understand the role domestic abuse is playing in children’s lives. Some states, such as Massachusetts, are already leading the way.

About 10 years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services officials began thinking about the interplay between domestic violence and child welfare. As a result, the department built a domestic-violence unit, which advocates say has enabled the system to better protect women and children.

Beals of Jane Doe Inc. said that her organization has determined that 40 percent of child protection cases involve domestic violence. “By having specialists at hand, Massachusetts is able to handle child abuse within the context of domestic violence.”

The model has been so effective that other social-service systems in Massachusetts, such as the welfare and housing departments, have also established domestic-violence units. Unfortunately, the success of the program has uncovered another problem: the lack of room in shelters to accommodate women who want to leave abusive relationships with their children in tow.

In Miami-Dade County, the courts have been at the forefront of addressing the needs of women and children. Six years ago, Cindy Lederman, administrative judge of the juvenile court in Miami-Dade County, launched the Dependency Court Intervention Program for Family Violence, the first effort by a court to examine the relationship between child maltreatment and domestic violence. The program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, offers a variety of tailored services, including safety planning, counseling, crisis intervention and court accompaniment, to women whose children face juvenile court. Safety planning is the process of encouraging women to structure detailed actions to take to enhance their safety while they stay in the relationship or during the highly dangerous period immediately after they leave the relationship.

Prior to a hearing, Lederman informs women about confidential advocacy services. Although Lederman never learns who has used the services, she said that the program has enabled the court to deliver extensive resources to battered women and their children. The outcome, Lederman said, is that the court is now in a better position to help women to maintain custody of their children while paving the way for these women to get themselves and their offspring out of harm’s way.

“There have been cases where the mother is a domestic-violence victim and the child has been battered, but we don’t think we need to remove the child from the mother,” said Lederman, noting that 75 percent of the women who screen positive for domestic violence accept services.

“In some cases where the mother hasn’t done enough to protect the child, the child has to be removed. But when the mother is doing what she can, then we need to commend them for that and not take the child away,” she added.

While there are signs of hope in places such as Florida and Massachusetts, it is still unclear how New York City’s child-welfare agency will respond to the recent Weinstein opinion. Despite repeated requests for an interview, the agency did not offer Women’s Enews the opportunity to speak with anyone who could address the multiple concerns raised in the Nicholson decision.

An agency spokeswoman did, however, provide a report that indicates that it has established a subcommittee to develop a response to cases involving domestic violence.

The subcommittee is receiving consulting services from Lonna Davis, the founder and former director of the Domestic Violence Unit in Massachusetts’ Department of Social Services.

Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance journalist based in New York.

For more information:

National Network to End Domestic Violence:

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform:

Jane Doe Inc.: