In February 1999, Montgomery County Judge Michael D. Mason gave custody of a 3-year-old boy to a mother who had been convicted of murdering the boy’s older sister. In 2008, Mason allowed Mark Castillo to continue to have unsupervised visits with his children despite a diagnosis of mental illness, Castillo’s resistance to treatment of this illness and his repeated talk of suicide. Castillo drowned his three children in a Baltimore hotel room on one of the visits.
Maryland Family Law 9-101 states that if a judge has “reasonable grounds” to believe that a child has been abused or neglected by a parent, he or she must then determine whether abuse or neglect is likely to occur again if custody or visitation were granted to the abusive parent. Unless the judge finds that there isn’t any likelihood of further child abuse or neglect, which is a burden of proof that is much lower than what would be required in a criminal proceeding, that judge must deny custody and unsupervised visitation rights to the abuser. Though the law clearly spells out how judges should be protecting children, judges who continuously disregard the law aren’t being removed or sanctioned.
Family laws across the nation don’t go far enough to protect children because they allow some ill-trained judges, who face zero consequences for repeated bad decisions, to determine whether they believe that a child has been abused.
In some cases, when the nonabusive parent is awarded primary physical custody, any amount of unsupervised visitation can be deadly.
According to a study published this year by the Center for Judicial Excellence, at least 636 children have been murdered by a parent involved in a divorce, separation, custody, visitation or child support situation in the United States since 2008. The study also found that many of the homicides occurred after family courts granted dangerous parents access to children over objections from a protective parent.
These horrific examples of family court rulings aren’t specific to Maryland. In June 2017, 5-year-old Aramazd “Piqui” Andressian Jr. was murdered in California by his father during his first week of custody. The boy’s mother had alleged domestic violence in court and attempted to limit access. In May, Odin, Caydence and Drake Painter — ages 8, 6 and 4, respectively — were shot by their father in their Texas home. During family court proceedings, the mother told the judge that her ex-husband was mentally unstable and had attempted suicide. On Aug. 6, 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso was killed by her father during a court-ordered visitation in Philadelphia. Kayden’s father was granted unsupervised visitation despite a history of violence and a court-ordered mental-health evaluation that revealed he suffered from major depressive disorder with suicidal tendencies.
Opponents of family court reform might argue that holding states accountable financially, by either removing funds or disqualifying them for incentives, would be difficult because of a belief that parents lie about abuse to gain advantages in custody cases. In cases in which protective parents lose custody to abusers, judges often cite “parental alienation” by the protective parent as a reason to give custody or more liberal visitation to an abusive parent. The American Psychological Association has noted the lack of data to support so-called parental alienation syndrome and has raised concern about the term’s use; however, the myth that parents lie about child abuse continues to plague the legal community.
In response to this national crisis, a House bill is gaining steam. The bill asserts that child safety is the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications, and state courts should improve adjudications of custody where family violence is alleged. While this is a positive step toward national legislation, Congress should consider adding teeth to the resolution by financing an oversight committee to investigate jurisdictions across the nation that repeatedly fail to protect children. Should a state fail to enforce laws to protect children, that state would lose federal funding tied to the resolution. Unless there is financial incentive for states to hold themselves accountable, states are unlikely to hold errant judges liable for these fatal decisions.
When my son died, I made the promise that I would continue to fight our system until children stopped dying as a result of court-ordered contact with abusers. Feckless state laws have allowed poor judicial conduct, and the children who have died across the country as a result prove there is an urgent need for federal oversight and legislation.