(February 6, 2018) Pennsylvania lawmakers are determined to make child safety not just a priority but a policy, meaning sweeping changes could be coming soon, including new laws passed to improve practices in family court when handling cases involving domestic abuse and child abuse.
State Representative Mark Rozzi, 126th Legislative District, led a press conference at the State capitol calling on the governor, lawmakers to make child protection and safety “a top priority” in the following year.
The conference included fellow state Reps. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, Tina Davis, D-Bucks, and Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, and also:
- Prof. Marci Hamilton, CHILD USA, nonprofit think tank, University of Pennsylvania
- Peggy Hoffman, Director of the PA Stop Abuse Campaign
- Danielle Pollack, Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition
- Jill Deitrick, child advocate
The conference addressed failures in family court that place children’s lives at risk – specifically that children are being court ordered into visitation, and placed into the custody of parents who are abusive.
Danielle Pollack, a parent/child advocate, testified about current laws allow perpetrators of domestic violence (and child abuse) to have unsupervised visits, and even gain custody of children, who are the victim’s of their violence, putting them in harm’s way.
Pollack said child sexual abusers win custody of children at a much higher rate than safe parents asking for court protection for their child, citing a study which shows that alleged child abusers win custody or unsupervised visitation with a child victim 81% of the time.
Pollock says,“Attorneys regularly advise parents to not speak of abuse in family courts because it increases the likelihood that they will lose their children to the abuser.
Would any adult rape victim or victim of violent assault be ordered by court to live with or visit over and over again the very person who raped or assaulted them? We would not dream of doing this. It’s unthinkable.
Consider the terror of the victim having to see his or her abuser over and over, or worse, live with him full time. And yet, with children, somehow this is permissible by law, and in fact, it’s regularly ordered in our family courts. In this way, we endanger and further traumatize vulnerable children.”
Peggy Hoffman, Director of the PA Stop Abuse Campaign, also testified about her concerns for the safety and well-being of at-risk children in family court. Hoffman says that mothers who raise concerns of abuse, and attempt to utilize the legal system for help face obstacles and are often called “liars” and punished for their efforts to protect children.
Hoffman says,”“No one wants to deal with it. When the mother reports, or her children disclose abuse, it opens up a new arena of control and maltreatment as the abuser uses custody ploys and family court itself. It happens by reconstructing the mother, who seeks to protect their children, into a pathological or vengeful liar, and she is now considered an ‘alienator.’ This label diverts the court’s attention away from claims that the father is abusive, and replaces it with a focus on a supposedly lying or deluded mother or child.”
Representative Tina Davis, 141st District, offered a bill to improve the family court’s response to allegations of child abuse. Under the bill, a professional who provides advice, a recommendation or evaluations to the court must have credible qualifications related to domestic abuse or child abuse. The bill also requires that judges and attorneys receive more training, and education, on issues related to abuse. Additionally, the bill would utilize an evidentiary hearing to hear and consider allegations of abuse. If the court makes a finding of abuse, the party identified as a risk would have their contact with the child either limited or supervised until it is proven that a safety concern no longer exists.
Rep. Rozzi encouraged lawmakers to act quickly, and not let bills languish in committee.
Efforts towards family court reform have been spoken about for years, and hotly debated. Change has been slow, or not come at all, for many who continue to struggle with court rulings that unfairly punish parents for raising concerns of abuse or safety, and for the children ordered into visitation or custody with abusive parents. It is our hope that these efforts in Pennsylvania motivate other lawmakers to similarly tackle family court reform in their own states, and to work alongside parents, professionals and advocates to implement needed changes so that court procedures make the safety and well-being of children a number one priority, and do not unfairly punish parents, or deprive them of custody for raising safety concerns.