#FamiliesToo: Family Courts Discredit Women’s Abuse Allegations

A study by GW Law professor Joan Meier found that courts fail to protect children by favoring fathers in child custody battles despite a mother’s allegation of abuse.

December 2, 2019

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GW Law professor Joan Meier said courts favor fathers in child custody cases when the mother makes allegations of abuse against them. (Photo courtesy of GW Law)

By Tatyana Hopkins

Mothers who report abuse —particularly child abuse— lose child custody at astonishing rates, according to a new study by Joan S. Meier, a GW Law professor of clinical law.

Ms. Meier has long been a national expert on domestic violence and the law. For more than 20 years, she has spearheaded advocacy on behalf of adult and child victims of abuse in the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts, and trained legal professionals on best practices in domestic violence cases.

Most recently, she and a team of experts undertook a national study to determine the extent to which courts discredit claims of abuse and remove custody from parents who claim abuse and what role gender plays in these outcomes. The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s research, development and evaluation agency.

Ms. Meier will also soon launch the National Family Violence Initiative at GW Law, where her research and experience will help state lawmakers revise their custody statutes,  among other things.

She discussed her research with GW Today:

Q: What inspired this research?

A: This research grew out of years of advocacy, litigation, scholarship and judicial trainings I had been doing alongside colleagues around the country. We noticed a troubling trend in the nation's family courts—mothers' reports of fathers' abuse of themselves and the children were not being taken seriously. In particular, we found that a theory called "parental alienation" was being widely used in family courts to deny the credibility of abuse claims. The theory suggests that when mothers allege that a child is not safe with the father, they are doing so illegitimately to “alienate” the child from the father.  This theory is also used to discount children’s own fears and anger toward a father, suggesting that such children have been turned against their father by a vengeful or pathological mother.

The results have been a pattern of denial of abuse and subjections of children to dangerous fathers without adequate protections.  At the most extreme, a database of children who have been murdered by a separating or divorcing parent has identified almost 100 children who family courts declined to protect after a protective parent warned that the other parent was dangerous. 

We knew things were going badly for the nation’s children. So, I decided that neutral, objective data  would either demonstrate the truth of our troubling experiences or would show us that these cases were not representative. 

Q: What has existing research shown?

A: While there were a handful of studies examining custody case outcomes in cases involving domestic violence in particular states, there were no national data on family courts’ responses to domestic violence, and there have been no studies at all of family courts’ responses to child abuse reports, as distinct from adult partner violence.

The previous studies of custody and domestic violence did, however, indicate that state courts studied were not always taking domestic violence into account sufficiently, or at all, in their custody and visitation determinations. In other words, the existing research confirmed that there was a problem in at least some states – but it had not yet gotten national attention or made much impact on court practices or policymakers.  

Q: What are the major findings from your study?

A: Basically, the study confirms the complaints of survivors of abuse and their advocates that family courts are not taking abuse claims seriously and are often not protecting children who are at risk from a parent. 

We found that courts generally believed abuse claims a little over one-third of the time, 36 percent across the board. More specifically, they believed child abuse claims 20 percent or less of the time. When the mother alleged abuse by the father and the father cross-claimed alienation as a defense, courts’ rejection of such claims increased significantly. 

Specifically, in alienation cases, courts only believed mothers’ partner abuse claims 37 percent of the time and child abuse claims only 2 percent (child sexual abuse) and 18 percent (child physical abuse) of the time. Child sexual abuse was only believed in one out of 51 cases where the mother reported the abuse and the father cross-claimed alienation. Also, when fathers claim alienation, the rate at which mothers lost custody after alleging any type of abuse shot up from 26 percent to 44 percent.

Q: What factors contribute to the justice system’s overall failure in its assessment of abuse allegations?  

A: Judges are inadequately trained and lack knowledge about domestic violence and are even less knowledgeable about child abuse and child sexual abuse. Also, court-appointed evaluators who make recommendations to courts, as well as many judges, tend to be adherents of parental alienation and skeptics toward abuse claims by women. 

The best way I can articulate why abuse claims are so discredited in court is to point to the #MeToo movement, which showed that women's claims of sexual abuse by men on the job have long been poo-pooed, rejected, trivialized and demonized. While the #MeToo movement has started to chip away at the denial of abuse of women in the employment context, it has not yet had that impact in our courts or even in the family context. That’s why I have dubbed this work #FamiliesToo.

As a society, we need to recognize the depth of denial about men's abuse of family members and stop acting on it.  

Q: Now that the report is released, what kind of further work do you think needs to be done related to these issues?

A: I believe that public awareness and concern along the lines of the "Spotlight" story about the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal is what will change the hearts and minds of those who have the power to protect children.  

My goal is to build on the public education that is already happening with this study, through media like The Washington Post and New Yorker, and through continued presentations to professional and public audiences. State-level advocates are already using the research to urge their lawmakers to tighten up their custody statutes to require courts to take abuse more seriously, and I hope to work with them more consistently under the auspices of my soon-to-launch National Family Violence Initiative at GW Law. 

The initiative will include a State Law Clearinghouse to inform and guide state legislative changes, using  the study and a  federal non-binding resolution I helped to get unanimously adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives, to inform and guide state legislative changes.  The initiative and I also will engage in selective appeals in the Supreme Court to contribute to the needed changes.  One such case is in pending in the Supreme Court right now and we are cautiously optimistic about its chances for review.