May 10, 2013

THE BATTLES over child custody that unfold in courtrooms across the United States don’t get much attention. If a celebrity is involved, there might be headlines, but publicity is generally shunned out of the not-unreasonable urge to protect the privacy of children. Unfortunately, though, that has tended to shroud problems in how these critical decisions are made. That’s why a conference focusing attention this week on systemic issues in family court is so important.

The Battered Mothers Custody Conference started Friday at George Washington University Law School and concludes Sunday with a vigil at the White House. It brings together victims of domestic abuse, advocates and experts in an effort to reform a system they say doesn’t do enough to protect children. Too often, said organizers of the event, which is now in its 10th year, custody or access in contested cases where domestic violence has been alleged is given to abusive fathers because of a misguided emphasis on parental rights that discounts or disbelieves the concerns of women who have been battered. Victimized parents, often suffering from trauma caused by the abuse, are bankrupted and punished for fighting for their children.

“Cascading disasters and shattered lives are predictable and inevitable,” said Eileen King, executive director of Child Justice in the District and a speaker at the conference. She pointed to the case of 15-month-old Prince McLeod Rams, allegedly drowned by his father after his mother unsuccessfully tried to block unsupervised visits, and the infamous deaths in 2008 of Amy Castillo’s young children by a father she warned was dangerous.

Mo Hannah, a psychologist at Siena College near Albany, N.Y., who helped start the conference because of her own divorce experience, said the broad-based coalition of people who attend the event collects data on the extent of the problems, provides support and, most important, advocates for better practices in how decisions are made and monitored.