A Safer Tomorrow for Pennsylvania Children via the Safe Child Act

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Family Court & Custody Crisis: We need family court reform now. 

  • When parents separate they settle into something that works for the children for the most part because they love their children. 
  • The majority of contested custody cases are domestic abuse cases - in which abusers have been allowed to use the courts to maintain control over their victims. Parents who abuse their partner are much more likely to abuse their children than parents who do not abuse their partners. 

Sounds simple, except that it isn't.

  • When domestic abuse shows up in custody court statistics show that up to 81% of these cases involving abuse claims, especially child sexual abuse claims, the children are ordered into the contact or custody of the abuser - while the protective parent is accused of alienating the children from the other parent for reporting abuse.
  • This subset of  cases represents 3.8%. These are thousands of Pennsylvania children yearly who "could" be protected, but they're not. 
  • According to various and respected empirical research entities, false claims of abuse and sexual abuse of children by the children are rare (less than 1%). And less than 2-4% of mothers make false claims. That research includes, but is not limited to;
  1. Saunder DG, Foller KC, Tolman RB (2012) Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations; the relationship to the evaluators’ demographic, background, and knowledge of domestic violence-custody and visitation recommendations.Washington D.C. National Institutes of Justice.   https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/238891.pdf
  2. Linda Neilson, Professor Emerita, University of New Brunswick, and Research Associate at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research has authored a report entitled Parental Alienation Empirical Analysis (2016): Child Best Interests or Parental Rights? The report is co-published by the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research (University of New Brunswick – Fredericton), and the FREDA Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children (Simon Fraser University – Vancouver).
  3. Joan S. Meier & Sean Dickson, Mapping Gender: Shedding Empirical Light on Family Courts’ Treatment of Cases Involving Abuse and Alienation, 35 Law & Ineq. 311 (2017). Available at: http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/lawineq
  • Additionally, the Center for Disease Control (Adverse Childhood Experience ACE) and the APA have confirmed and clarified that children a) who witness domestic violence and b) are separated from their early primary caregiver ( years from birth to 6) for even a short amount of time are lined up for a host of psychological disorders. In custody cases when no direct abuse of children has been reported, judges often believe that they shouldn't determine custody based on the presence of domestic abuse and this is harmful.  
  • The Center for Judicial Excellence has confirmed that 22 (now 23) Pennsylvania children have been murdered since 2008 because a family court judge ordered them into the contact or custody of their abuser. These were preventable deaths. The number could very well be much higher.
  • Not only are children suffering trauma, children are dying because of bad custody orders. In Aug of 2018, Kayden Mancuso was beaten to death by her father after a Bucks County judge ordered her into the unsupervised contact of her murderer. The family pleaded with the judge to consider Mancuso's violent history and record. Even the therapist recommended supervised visits only.
  • The murder of three-year-old Kelly Williams in York County, PA in 2017. After Kelly's mom told the judge that Frank Williams was dangerous, had threatened to kill her family, and she had concerns for Kelly's safety, the judge ordered shared custody. Williams shot Kelly to death, his mother, and then himself during his first custody time with Kelly. 
  • Two year old Michael Ayers was shot to death by his father during a custody exchange in 2013 in Huntington County, PA. He then wounded Michael's mother and killed himself. His mom had secured a protection from abuse order against Ayer's. She says, "The day before I left he (Michael's father) said, as he's punching a hole in the nursery wall, he said I would be the reason the marriage broke up or all three of us would be dead."

 In retrospect, it’s easy for any of us to say that these parents were dangerous; they had abused their partner, and they shouldn’t have had contact with their children. But legally, things that cause permanent harm to children, like domestic violence and direct abuse, are given the same weight as lesser issues such as claims of alienation and a parent's economical status. A factor in Kelly Williams case was that her mother didn't have insurance for Kelly. The death or abuse of any child is tragic, but preventable deaths and abuse even more so. The death of 23 children since 2009 was preventable, and the trauma that thousands of Pennsylvania children experience yearly is also preventable. 

Unless we prevent childhood trauma now, Pennsylvania does not have a healthy future. Pennsylvania is now poised to prevent the abuse, trauma, and deaths of this subset of children who find themselves in the family court system where decisions are made for them that are not "in the best interest of children." The larger picture of child abuse is immeasurable, and everyone can agree that greater protection is needed and these three children should be alive today.

Protect Children Not Predators!

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