Judges still are not pro­tect­ing chil­dren

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY HERA MCLEOD The writer’s 15-month-old son, Prince, was killed by his fa­ther while on a cour­tordered, un­su­per­vised vis­i­ta­tion in 2012.

In July 2012, a Mary­land judge es­sen­tially sen­tenced my son Prince to death by grant­ing his fa­ther un­su­per­vised vis­i­ta­tion. Many are quick to dis­miss my case as ex­treme be­cause my son’s fa­ther was a sus­pected se­rial killer at the time of the rul­ing. In the years since Prince’s mur­der, I’ve seen nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples that show my sit­u­a­tion is one among many dis­turb­ing cases of hor­rific abuse by a non­cus­to­dial par­ent. In re­sponse to this na­tional cri­sis, Congress should en­act leg­is­la­tion that would hold states ac­count­able for con­tin­ued ju­di­cial abuses against chil­dren.

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Prince McLeod Rams in an un­dated fam­ily photo.

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