This year, Ms. McLeod can commemorate her son’s birthday knowing her advocacy for changes that would protect children may be paying off. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) last week announced the formation of a new working group to study child custody proceedings when allegations of child abuse or domestic violence are in play. The group, which includes several state legislators, parents affected by family court practices and experts in domestic violence, child abuse and custody issues, aims to come up with recommendations on the use of evidence-based, trauma-informed practices in dealing with child custody cases in those most difficult situations.
Prince’s case was one of the major sparks for legislation passed by the General Assembly that called for creation of the working group. Anne Hoyer, who is director of a program in the secretary of state’s office that helps support domestic abuse victims and who was instrumental in establishing the group, said a common complaint from women is that their claims of abuse and possible danger are not believed or even seriously examined when the family is in the midst of contested, often bitter, custody proceedings. In many instances, women are advised by their attorneys not even to raise their concerns for fear of being seen as vengeful, “crying wolf” and alienating judges who are reluctant to deny a parent access to a child. Women who have been victims of domestic violence sometimes don’t make for good witnesses because of the trauma they have experienced.
Ms. McLeod argues that states across the nation need to take a hard look at how their laws and practices negatively impact the safety of children. She called the Maryland task force “a positive, early step . . . to develop a creative strategy that would add rigor and reduce the negative impact implicit bias plays in family court.” The first legislative report on policies and practices to help ensure the safety and well-being of children is due Dec. 1.