Jane says her ex-husband sexually abused their four-year-old son. Six years ago, she filed for custody of her children, and her battle isn't over.
A group of Maryland lawmakers and experts want to see child custody court proceedings change after years of alleged gender discrimination.
The group is one of the first in the country to provide a list of 21 recommendations to the state legislature to protect children from abusive parents. Two years ago, the group began evaluating empirical data to help inform family court judges. Under the recommendations judges, attorneys, and child custody evaluators would get more training to spot the signs of abuse, victims of domestic violence would have increased protections, and courts would no longer accept parental alienation claims, in which one parent turns the child against the other parent.
Last August, DCist/WAMU reported research that showed judges favored fathers over mothers in custody battles over children in Maryland–even when fathers were accused of or found guilty of abuse.
Professor Joan Meier at George Washington University Law School, and other researchers, provided data supporting the group's recommendations. Meier's research shows that when a mother is accused of alienation, she is twice as likely to lose custody compared to when she is not. But in cases where a father claimed a mother was pitting a child against him to disparage his character, Meier found a judge ruled that the mother's claims of child abuse were unsubstantiated. The study looked at more than 2,000 custody cases involving child abuse, domestic violence, and alienation nationwide.
Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery County), one of the lawmakers making recommendations, says the suggestions are just "ground zero" of increasing awareness about the issue.
"There's a call to action to protect our children from being revictimized by a system, that at its highest purpose, is designed to preserve their rights and safety," Lee told DCist/WAMU
Lee hopes to propose a bill that would allow the court to deny custody or visitation to a parent under certain conditions that would harm the physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing of a child. Lee already proposed the legislation during this year's session but was unable to pass the bill because the pandemic caused the legislative session to end early.
Jane, a mother who testified in front of the group last year about her own struggle to report the alleged abuse of her four-year-old son by her former husband, says she's happy about the recommendations. DCist/WAMU is not using Jane's full name because she is still dealing with the fallout of taking legal action against her ex-husband.
"I think what they're trying to do goes a really long way to fix some of the problems," Jane told DCist/WAMU
She proposed one of the recommendations that would increase training and qualifications for custody evaluators. The recommendations would also prevent evaluators from deciding which parent a child should stay with and if the alleged abuse occurred. Jane says the pandemic intensifies the need for the recommendations.
"You have a situation where it's even harder for people to leave abusive situations," Jane said.
Paul Griffin, the legal director at Child Justice, a legal aid society dedicated to protecting victims of child abuse and domestic violence, agrees. But he doesn't expect the recommendations to be a top priority for lawmakers who are also considering other issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
"But I certainly do think that our elected officials can do this at the same time," Griffin said.
While many of the recommendations would change the state's judicial laws, Griffin says there are some that would come at a cost.
"We're going to have to find qualified trainers to do this training of judges, attorneys, and child evaluators," Griffin said. "Money is tight, but this certainly won't be free."