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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

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August 30, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Gabe Batstone pleaded with the court to transfer custody of his eight-year-old daughter Teagan to him.  His ex-wife, Lisa, had been acting erratically and had been involuntarily hospitalized as an acute risk for suicide.  That all came within the context of Gabe’s concern about Teagan’s safety with her mother.  His efforts to gain custody seemed to exacerbate Lisa’s emotional problems, making her behavior even more problematical.  But the judge refused Gabe’s request and maintained Lisa’s primary custody.

That was true despite the fact that neighbors had long feared for Teagan’s safety in her mother’s custody.  Church members too were concerned.  Apparently due to Lisa’s behavior toward Teagan, there was a breach in the relationship between the congregation and Lisa.

Not long after the judge’s refusal of a modification of custody, Lisa and Teagan had a “camp out” in their living room.  As Teagan slept, Lisa first considered stabbing her to death, but instead put a plastic bag over the little girl’s head and smothered her. 

She then loaded Teagan’s body into the trunk of her car and got stuck in ditch.  Police discovered the body and arrested her.

A mental health professional who interviewed Lisa immediately after her arrest recounted that Lisa had told her that she’d killed their daughter “to spite Gabe.”

This past March, Lisa Batstone was convicted of second-degree murder in Teagan’s death.  Sentencing will take place in September.

I write this to demonstrate a few things.  First, I did so because a similar incident leads off this article (Washington Post, 7/29/19).  One difference between the two crimes is that the sexes are reversed.  In the Batstone case, a mother is the murderer, in the WaPo article, the father is.   The point being that, whatever the Post wants readers to believe, neither sex has a monopoly on injuring children.

The main difference though is how the Post article treats the tragic killing of a child and how I do.  The Post piece leads with a horrifying crime in order to encourage its readers to accept what’s to come, i.e. the notion that family courts routinely ignore mothers’ truthful claims of abuse in order to give custody to violent fathers who then harm the kids.  That idea is dubious on its face, but is more easily swallowed when there’s a heart-rending incident to ease down the pill.

By contrast, I in no way want readers to believe that family courts commonly ignore claims of abuse.  Indeed, they’re fairly often confronted with those claims and have to make a call one way or another.  Do they sometimes err in making those calls?  Of course they do.  Judges are human and don’t always get matters right.  Clearly they didn’t in the Batstone case or the one cited by the Post.  But the idea that they cavalierly ignore mothers’ claims of abuse is absurd.

But there’s another difference between my piece and the article in the Post.  The latter swallows hook, line and sinker claims made by law professor Joan Meier and a study she’s conducted of outcomes in family court cases.  Post writer Samantha Schmidt quotes just one person, law professor Nicholas Bala, who criticizes Meier’s work and he does so only mildly.

Bala said the study, while important and credible, does not distinguish between different severities of physical abuse, such as the difference between a shove and a brutal beating. He added that the most severe cases of child abuse don’t even make it to family court — they are handled by the police or child protective services. So the cases in Meier’s study are “already in a gray area” and are a “very skewed kind of sample.”

Hmm.  It’s hard to say how the study can be both “credible” and one that relies on a “very skewed kind of sample.”  After all, the latter tends strongly to belie the former.  But I won’t quibble with Bala when it’s Meier’s work that’s questionable.

I’ll have more to say about that later, but for now, it’s worth remembering that Meier’s work is at least in part an attack on the very concept of parental alienation.  As such, it and the Post article come to us in the context of other work that try and fail to cast doubt on a fact that’s all too well known in family courts.  I refer of course to the phenomenon of one parent’s trying to turn the child against the other parent.

Meier’s work and the Post piece are also contradicted by a welter of known facts about family courts.  To the extent they urge us to believe that fathers are favored over mothers in custody cases, too much data refute the claim to list.  Certainly the fact that over 81% of custodial parents are mothers is important as is the fact that researchers like Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen have found that mothers tend to file divorce matters far more than do fathers because they know they won’t lose their kids.  Dataset after dataset show mothers getting custody far more readily than fathers.  And that’s not because dads don’t ask courts for custody.  They do, but, as Maccoby and Mnookin showed long ago, courts are much more likely to grant mothers’ requests than they are fathers’.  And then of course there are the surveys of family court judges and lawyers who say quite candidly that there’s a heavy pro-mother bias in family courts.

Against all that and more, the assertion that family courts routinely dismiss mothers’ concerns in order to deprive them of child custody can only be doubted.  I do, for reasons I’ll detail next time.

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