Rep. Tina Davis (D-Bucks County) has proposed legislation that would address this by updating court procedures for child-custody cases in which there are allegations of domestic violence or child-sexual abuse.
“It’s very complicated when there’s abuse,” says Davis. “I’ve talked to a lot of women that have had this problem. Child molesters and criminals know how to get around the system and work it. In the courts, judges don’t want a child to be alienated from one parent, so [the abusers] say, ‘She bad-mouthed me to the child, that’s parental alienation.’”
The bill would require more training for court personnel handling custody cases and establish an evidentiary hearing to thoroughly vet allegations of abuse.
“I’m not putting judges down, but a lot of them have been there for years. They go about it the old way, and they feel that a man should still be a part of a child’s life,” Davis says. “There’s got to be a better way of looking at cases like this. A lot of women are getting discriminated against, because they don’t have the money or resources to fight in court.”
A national study by Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University and the founder of DV LEAP, looked at 240 child-custody cases. In those cases, alleged child-abusers won custody or unsupervised visitation with a child victim 81 percent of the time.
“What the data show is that alienation does a lot of damage when a father claims it against a mother who is claiming abuse, that it is not gender equitable, that it doesn’t work the same way in reverse,” says Meier. “Parental alienation is very gender biased. It does a lot more damage when a father wields it than when a mother wields it. And it does more damage when she claims abuse.
“We were not entirely expecting this, but we found very compelling data showing allegations of child-sexual abuse or child abuse rebound drastically against the mother alleging them. Your risk of losing a case and losing custody go way up, if you report child abuse and particularly child-sexual abuse.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, nearly 80 percent of all child deaths involve an abusive parent. Its most recent report, released in February, found more than 4,000 cases of child abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania. This represents an 18 percent increase from 2014. In these cases, 38 percent of children were physically abused, and 50 percent were sexually abused.
“What’s going on out there is so disastrous and so widespread, and that’s because fairly few people understand what’s going on in these custody cases and what an incredible battle they are,” Meier says. “We get flooded with these desperate calls for help.”
Meier has been working on a larger study looking at data from more than 4,000 custody cases that she plans to release this year. And without giving too much away, she says the study is confirming much of what she has found previously.
“There’s a widespread belief that men are falsely accused all the time,” Meier says. “That’s the impact of parental alienation, but it’s also the impact of the fathers’-rights movement, and the very persistent and effective advocacy from those kinds of ideologues who are trying to convince the world that fathers are being screwed in court.”
According to Meier, this has never been true. And she says it’s important to get the facts out there, so that inequities in the court system don’t persist.
“Our society thinks the courts are biased toward women. So, there are a lot of judges that bend over backward for fathers thinking they’re moving toward equity,” says Meier. “So, just getting the facts out there is really important to help judges see they’re not equalizing when they prefer fathers, [but that] they’re actually exacerbating inequities.
“It needs to become clear that when family courts don’t take abuse claims seriously they’re doing exactly what the #metoo movement is decrying: They’re disbelieving true abuse, they’re protecting abusers, and they’re doing it in the family courts at the expense of children.”