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Date: 24 Feb 2002
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Bay Area BusinessWoman Balancing the Scales of Justice by Julia Hawkins 01/02/2002 http://news.babwnews.com/publish/view_article.html?article_id=53 Click the website to see additional links, comments and feedback on this issue
Elize St. Charles, founder of the nonprofit, Los Gatos-based charitable organization Our Children Our Future, said in a recent interview that women need to know that family courts are unjust in many abuse and battery dispute cases. “The myth has to be shot that women prevail, as 70 percent of the women who divorce to get away from violent husbands will fail to either protect their children or themselves and custody will go to the father or to a foster family.” St. Charles, an MBA and business consultant was fortunate to regain custody of her own children after a kafkaesque-like custody battle and went on to found Our Children Our Future (OCOF) to help women in domestic violence and child abuse custody cases.
The suffering the children and mothers endure in abuse-based divorce and custody disputes and its effects on their lives is a national problem, reflecting legislative and judicial bias against women and disregard for the rights and safety of children.
OCOF’s mandate is to advise national organizations, host conferences, and provide educational material to the public and media while tracking a national trend of escalating judicial prejudice against women who report violence and abuse.
OCOF’s book, Exposé, The Failure of Family Courts to Protect Children from Abuse in Custody Disputes, an anthology of reports from professionals from 12 disciplines, documents these issues. Exposé has been endorsed by 70 organizations as well as by such national leaders as Gloria Steinem, Gavin de Becker, Dr. Paul Fink, Appellate Court Judge Sol Gothard, Bruce Taylor, Esq., Rita Smith, and Dr. Elizabeth Morgan. The book has been instrumental as source material for the California State Assembly members and senators in the passage of important child protection bills.
“What women and the many good men out there find most astonishing is that women are losing custody to men with power and control issues (i.e., abusive) at an ever escalating rate."
“In fact, if a mother mentions domestic violence or child abuse, she is much more likely to lose custody to the abuser. Batterers are twice as likely to seek custody and more likely than good fathers to gain custody of their children,” said St. Charles.
St. Charles cites a survey by California Protective Parents Association which found that 91 percent of the fathers named as the offender in cases of child sexual abuse were awarded full or partial unsupervised custody of their children. “Women need to be aware,” says St. Charles, “that if their custody of their children is contested by their ex-husbands during divorce or at any time thereafter until the children are 18 years old, they are likely to lose even joint custody.”
In seeking to alert the country to the issues and to promote zero tolerance for child abuse and domestic violence, OCOF collects and publishes evidence showing that children have no voice in custody disputes, that mothers are often held to a standard fathers do not have to meet, and that most mothers who attempt to protect their children from abuse or exposure to domestic violence are subjected to draconian or unexplained and unreasonable demands, and can be slapped with gag orders, denied access to their children and even jailed for their efforts.
In case after case, family courts hand down decisions that ignore medical evidence, witness reports, police records, and other such testimony that criminal courts accept without question.
Parents can even lose custody ex-parte, in other words, without an opportunity to present evidence in court. Family courts do not have to reveal their methods for arriving at their decisions nor publish their reasons.
Most of the nation’s custody disputes are settled out of court, but when they are contested, as they are more frequently in cases of child abuse and domestic violence within higher income or wealthy families, mothers are discovering that fighting to protect their children is costly, and they more often than not lose their homes, savings, and personal wealth from legal expenses. Women who seek the family court’s protection often will be demeaned, humiliated, and punished by a legal structure that is neither accountable for its decisions nor free from corruption.
Alanna Krause’s story is an example of what can happen in a biased family court. Her mother was unable to protect her against her abusive father (Marshall W. Krause) because of his status in the community — former counsel, board member, fundraiser for the ACLU of No. California and past president of the Marin County Bar Association — and his financial clout as an attorney.
During the many years she was forced to live with her father, (Marshall Krause) she made nine reports to Child Protective Services and several to the police without success because, she was told, she had no witnesses. In punishment, her father had her confined to jail and then in mental institutions.
She eventually ran away to Los Angeles where the juvenile court took her case and ultimately found her mother fit and her father dangerous. Her father has pled no contest and is under a domestic violence restraining order. http://www.newsmakingnews.com/krause,statebar,12,10,01.htm http://www.newsmakingnews.com/krausealanna1,7,02.htm http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/Research/PAS/PAS4/pas4.html
Mothers will fare better if they do not claim domestic violence or child abuse as grounds for divorce. The catch-22 in such a situation is that if a mother does not report abuse to the authorities she can be convicted of felony child endangerment, but when she does, the professionals who make recommendations and judgments tend to minimize the accusations or discount them as irrelevant, going so far as to find fault with the mother because she is an easy target. Mothers who were fit parents, more than likely the primary caretaker during the marriage, are all of a sudden deemed unfit to parent by the family courts.
Eileen King, the Washington, DC-based director for the national nonprofit organization Justice for Children, faults the family court’s intrinsic bias. “The system has failed children because child protection workers often assume that charges must be false if they were made in the context of a divorce.
“Also, prosecutors won't pursue such cases unless they’re certain they’ll win, and judges who don’t understand the dynamics of child abuse are often angered by the cases and react harshly to the protective parents by denying them custody of their children.”
The experience of enduring bad judgments and orders of the San Francisco family court is what one woman likens to the boxing term “dope-on-the-rope,” “You are placed in a helpless position and beaten mercilessly.”
Lower-income women will run to shelters despite the fact that their chances of being pursued and murdered is increased when they do so. Or they will stay in the marriage because of threats, poverty, dependency, ignorance, or because they believe they can reduce violence by their passivity.
Women in the higher economic brackets, often better educated and confident about their legal rights and the courts impartiality, will attempt to escape family violence through divorce. When they find themselves in court, they assume they can defend their parental and spousal rights. But as OCOF documents, these women are increasingly failing to protect their children or themselves against the judicial system’s too often erratic and prejudiced decisions.
The increase in the granting of custodial rights to an abusive father is due to many factors, although most evidence points to a gender bias that permeates the court system and misogyny still ingrained in our culture. This is thoroughly documented by government studies in 40 different states.
Lynne Gold-Bikin, chair of the American Bar Association’s family-law section, views this tendency as evidence of a backlash against feminism. “Judges tend to punish women who work while rewarding men who take even the slightest interest in their children.”
Many judges still believe that victims bear responsibility for their injury, that family violence doesn’t occur in white-collar families, that witnessing abuse is not harmful to children, or that preservation of the father’s ties to the children — no matter the gravity of the charges and legitimacy of the evidence against him or even the child’s feelings of strong aversion — must be maintained for the child’s welfare.
Two funding changes have materially contributed to the increase in father custody awards.
In 1992 the federal government mandated that states had to raise child-support payments or lose welfare funding which resulted in more men seeking custody to avoid child support payments.
The other major change is that since the 1970s, the Children’s Protective Services must focus on keeping families intact in order to receive funding. In order to fulfill its mandate and prove its success, this agency finds it expedient to downplay abuse in order to document that it encourages family togetherness by granting fathers access to their children.
Also, since the 1980s the bond between mother and child is no longer considered primary. Joint custody is now deemed in the “best interests of the child,” a theory reasonable on its face but often unworkable in practice and not recommended in high-conflict divorces.
Some family court decisions are based on pedophiliac and abuse tolerance, others on cronyism and misogyny, and still others on simple corruption. Since men most often have more money, the wealthier ones can hire the lawyers, the psychologists and other court-appointed experts (and thereby indirectly the judge) and thus ultimately control the family court’s disposition of cases.
All women and men should be concerned about the plight of mothers who fail to protect themselves and their abused children. Research and statistics confirm that family violence is passed from one generation to the next. Hence, inappropriate judicial decisions reinforce the vicious cycle of power and control dynamics within families.
Furthermore, attitudes that override fair hearings and due process in one area of state and national policy will override fair hearings and due process in other areas. We should be concerned because bad courtroom decisions eviscerate the legal system’s ultimate power and integrity. “Besides,” says St. Charles, “with a divorce rate of 40-50 percent, it could happen to you, to your friend, to your neighbor — even to your children.” ---------------------------------------------------- For information, or to find out what you can do to help OCOF, visit the website at www.ocof.org; email firstname.lastname@example.org or write P.O. Box 1111, Los Gatos, 95031-1111.
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