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Young Pawns in Domestic Abuse Cases

June 29, 2007 Marsha Papanek, Suzanne Groisser and Jane M. Hanson

 

PERSPECTIVE/OP-ED

Young pawns in domestic abuse cases

Friday, June 29, 2007

BY MARSHA PAPANEK, SUZANNE GROISSER AND JANE M. HANSON

 

Unfortunately, it's too familiar a story these days: A restraining order is granted to a mother against her batterer, but then something else occurs -- repeated threats, stalking or another violent attack by the batterer. And sometimes, in what seems to be the ultimate attempt to control the course of a relationship, innocents are slaughtered.

The exceptionally horrifying deaths of two young girls in Montclair are only the latest tragedy. In too many cases, children are used as the ultimate weapon of domestic abuse -- threats to them being the easiest way, after all, to intimidate, hurt and control a victimized parent.

The Montclair case garnered national media coverage because of the tragic outcome. But on a daily basis in the cities and the suburbs, episodes short of murder occur involving real pain, terrorized spouses and children brandished as disposable pawns.

In one case, a corporate manager "punished" his estranged wife and severely damaged their child by refusing to see the boy for months on end, not even on his birthday. The wife had obtained a restraining order after years of physical and mental abuse. The man told the boy it was his mother's fault, that she had gotten the restraining order that kept him away -- even though the order provided for liberal visitation. The boy tried to commit suicide and spent much time in a hospital, yet his father refused to give in and see him unless the order was dismissed.

Another father repeatedly vowed to slay his three young children if his wife ever again called the police about his conduct. Once, he locked her and two of the children in the trunk of a car, drove them to a landfill and threatened to make them part of it. After she and her children had been battered for years, she finally got a restraining order. Yet when he threatened even more serious harm to the family, she felt she had no choice but to drop the order.

So is there a way to protect our children?

New Jersey's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act anticipates the potential of harm to children in domestic violence situations. Indeed, in adopting the law in 1991 the Legislature found and declared that "there is a positive correlation between spousal abuse and child abuse; and that children, even when they are not themselves physically assaulted, suffer deep and lasting emotional effects from exposure to domestic violence." The Legislature charged the courts with protecting such victims of family violence.

What then can the courts do to reduce the chances of harm to a child unlucky enough to live with the threat of domestic violence? And how should the courts address the concomitant interests of that child in having a relationship with the batterer and being safe? And what about the batterer's interest in a relationship with the child?

The Domestic Violence Act focuses not on the parents' rights but on the best interests of the child, which is always the touchstone of any determination of custody and visitation. The act establishes a presumption that the best interests of a child are served by awarding custody to the nonabusive parent.

But there is another tool at the court's disposal, one currently underutilized. The law allows for a custodial parent to request "an investigation or evaluation by the appropriate agency to assess the risk of harm to the child prior to the entry of a parenting time order."

Parents may not know they have this right, and, surprisingly, risk assessments are not commonly ordered in restraining-order hearings. If they are ordered, they are normally not conducted by mental heath professionals with expertise in domestic violence.

We recommend that judges assume there is potential risk to children in every domestic violence case unless they establish on the record that there is none.

We recommend that judges take the initiative in every case to inquire as to the safety of the children if left alone with the battering parent. If there is any doubt, judges should err on the side of ordering a risk assessment. Until a qualified professional finds that a batterer poses no risk to the children, visitation -- if warranted at all -- should be supervised by a responsible person.

To do this, the courts must be given the necessary resources to hire professionals to conduct the assessments when parents can't afford them. In addition, more-effective intervention programs, including monitoring and enforcement components, must be implemented. Otherwise children will continue to be caught in the maelstrom of domestic abuse. Even at peril of their lives.

Jane M. Hanson is executive director and Marsha Papanek is director of legal programs, of Partners for Women and Justice, a nonprofit organization in Montclair that provides free legal assistance to low-income and abused women. Suzanne Groisser is an attorney for Rachel Coalition, a domestic-abuse agency of Jewish Family Services of MetroWest. They may be reached at info@pfwj.org.