What Does Domestic Violence Have to do with Shared Parenting?
Barry Goldstein, NOMAS Task Group on Child Custody.
Domestic violence became a public issue at a time when virtually no scientific research was available. This led to the implementation of many practices that are harmful and biased against direct victims and their children. Today we have a specialized body of scientific research which includes what should be the obvious fact that domestic violence advocates are the best experts society can look to for accurate information.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the Centers for Disease Control demonstrates the harm from tolerating domestic violence is far greater than previously understood. Children exposed to domestic violence face shorter life expectancy and a lifetime with greater health and social problems. Although most professionals focus only on physical abuse it is living with the fear engendered by coercive and controlling tactics that leads to the worst kind of stress. Living with this stress leads to a lifetime of harmful consequences.
The present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, substance abuse, crime, suicide and school drop-out and many other health and social problems is based on the present level of domestic violence and child abuse. The United States loses over one trillion dollars every year on health costs, crime and the failure of those impacted by domestic violence to reach their economic potential. This comes to about $3,000 per person. The financial costs to other industrialized nations is probably somewhat less based on the high costs of health care in the United States, but still very substantial. This depressing news has an exciting counterpart. When nations decide to implement best practices to prevent domestic violence they will improve the health, happiness and success of their children.
Putting Shared Parenting in Context
Custody courts have been particularly slow to reform old responses to domestic violence, integrate current scientific research and use a multi-disciplinary approach that includes advocates when trying to recognize and respond to reports of domestic violence. Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably. This is even true in many cases that include domestic violence where the abusers are unwilling to deliberately harm their children by attempting to remove the mother from their lives. The problem involves less than 5% of cases that require a trial and often much more. Many court professionals have been taught to view contested custody as “high conflict” cases by which they mean the parents are angry at each other and act out in ways that hurt children.
Most courts have developed practices to help and often pressure the parents to work more cooperatively. These practices could work well in other cases, but a very large majority of contested cases involve domestic violence. This means the courts are pressuring the victim and children to cooperate with their abusers instead of pressuring the abuser to stop the coercive and controlling tactics. Many laws seeking to promote shared parenting provide an exception for dangerous cases like domestic violence, but the use of outdated practices frequently causes courts to disbelieve true reports of abuse. And too often abuse concerns are viewed as an obstacle to the desired outcome.
A large contributor to the problem are well organized and aggressive organizations that promote the interests of domestic abusers. They have developed a variety of practices including shared parenting to help them regain control when the victim tries to leave. A cottage industry of lawyers and psychologists has developed because in domestic violence cases the abusers usually control the money so it is more lucrative to promote approaches that help abusers. Courts often treat these biased and ignorant professionals as if they were neutral. The misinformation they provide also poisons other cases when judges believe the bogus claims.
Abuser groups—who would call themselves men’s rights or father’s rights groups– have promoted shared parenting as a way to get their foot in the door. In our still sexist societies, the mother is usually the primary attachment figure and more involved parent so if one parent had to be chosen it would be the mother. Fathers make arguments about treating both parents equally and keeping both parents in children’s lives.
The Saunders’ Study from the US Department of Justice was designed to consider the knowledge and training of judges, lawyers and evaluators concerning domestic violence. Among the findings were that abusers use the decision-making in shared parenting to regain control because they will not agree to anything the victim wants. They use the visitation exchanges to harass and assault the victims.
The purpose of abusers seeking custody is to force the victim to return or punish her for leaving. Shared parenting is a first step toward giving the abuser full custody. Shared parenting puts them on equal footing despite the past history. Courts think shared parenting saves resources, but most cases return to court so the benefits are illusory.
There is good research that found shared parenting is always harmful to children because it is so disruptive. There is legitimate research that shared parenting can work if it is voluntary, the parents are able to cooperate and live nearby. Of course, those cases are not likely to lead to problems. Shared parenting is never appropriate in domestic violence cases or even when there are abuse reports. The present outdated responses to domestic violence often prevent courts from believing true reports. The consequences to the children and for society are catastrophic. Shared parenting provides an incentive for court professionals to disbelieve victims. Given the risks to children, legislatures must reform the old practices that often fail to protect children from adverse childhood experiences. Shared parenting should be taken off the table until effective practices can be implemented to make sure all children are protected. We must stop erring on the side of risking children.