Custody in Crisis: How Family Courts Nationwide Put Children in Danger

 

Six years ago, in 2010, an appellate court in Tennessee affirmed a family court ruling that had awarded Darryl Sawyer* primary custody of his six-and-a-half-year-old son, Daniel.

The court ruled in favor of Sawyer despite evidence presented by his ex-wife that alleged he had sexually abused their child.

Three years earlier, Daniel returned from a visit with his father with suspicious bruises on his bottom. His mother, Karen Gill, immediately took the three-year-old boy to his pediatrician. “Your instant reaction is that you don’t want it to be what it appears to be,” Gill said, choking back tears at the memory. “You really hope there’s another reason for why he has these marks on him.”

 (*All family member names are pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)

This is the beginning of a story on 100Reporters.org about how family courts across the U.S. are putting children in danger. I began investigating this more than two years ago. A friend and colleague, Linda Jue, executive director and editor of the G.W.Williams Center for Independent Journalism, was looking for a reporter to tackle this project. She told me that, according to an advocate she’d been in touch with, family courts were putting children in danger by awarding custody to a parent who was abusing them. I was incredulous. We met with Kathleen Russell of the Center for Judicial Excellence. I still was skeptical. How could this really be happening in the United States?

Then I started talking to mothers – there are certainly fathers too who have lost custody of their children to a mother who allegedly abuses the children – but the majority of protective parents I was encountering were mothers. They told me their stories and then I requested documentation of the evidence of the alleged abuse, knowing that this was the only way for a story about this unbelievable and unconscionable subject to be taken seriously.

I talked with more than 30 parents and survivors all over the country. They told me how child protective services agencies, health care providers, and law enforcement agencies corroborated the alleged abuse of their children, yet still the family courts were allowing their abusive ex-husbands unsupervised visits or custody of their children.

Included in the article is the story of Alina (not her real name), a 16-year-old who is now back with her mother. She told me that while in her father’s custody, “Sometimes he would choke me until I passed out,” and how she had tried to kill herself by taking a bunch of pills, “but I always woke up.” She told me how her father would twist her arms in different directions and withhold food if she cried about missing her mother. Alina is much better now that she’s back living with her mother, but she still has lingering anxiety and depression.

This story is the first in an ongoing series that was published Dec. 1, 2016 by 100 Reporters.org. Thus far, I have received many letters from parents facing similar battles as well as comments from child advocates. I welcome any comments and tips for stories. Here’s a link to the article on 100 Reporters.org: https://100r.org/2016/12/custody-2/

 

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Thank you for sharing, that was a great article describing the gaps where multiple systems intersect, but never merge. Child Welfare, Mental Health, Family Courts, Law Enforcement and Corrections all have a role in maintaining the safety of children and families, there is so much more work to do for these systems to work cohesively. The Congressional resolution is encouraging and worth learning more about!

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