September 29, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
Professor Joan Meier wants readers of her study to conclude from its findings that family courts are in the throes of a crisis of their own making. That crisis, according to her, is the widespread denial of custody to mothers, even when fathers are abusive and especially when fathers claim mothers to be alienating the children.
The core findings from this study provide strong support for the critiques of family courts’ handling of cases involving mothers’ claims of abuse by fathers. The data show that courts are excessively skeptical of child physical and sexual abuse reports, are likely overly skeptical of domestic violence claims, and sometimes award custody to known abusers. Overall, mothers reporting abuse – particularly child abuse - are losing custody at high rates.
But can we draw those conclusions? Since Meier nowhere attempts to define domestic violence, child abuse or child sexual abuse, what exactly are the cases she included in her study referring to? She calls men accused of DV and those who’ve been found to have committed DV “abusive,” but what does that mean? As I said last time, a person, male or female, who shoves an intimate partner has committed domestic violence, but how concerned about that should we be? Should a child lose that person as a parent simply because of that shove? The Administration for Children and Families reports every year that mothers commit more child abuse and neglect than do fathers. Should they all lose custody?
Plus, just because one person commits domestic violence or child abuse doesn’t mean the other parent didn’t as well, but Meier’s method of gathering data largely ignores the fact. So yes, Dad may have spanked the child, but what did Mom do? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps she’s equally or more abusive. Whatever the case, Meier’s data fail to let us know.
Finally, does the study reveal a crisis in family courts? Let’s look at Meier’s findings.
Recall that she used 4,338 cases drawn mostly from appellate court decisions. In about 954 of those, mothers claimed some sort of abuse by fathers and 41% (about 391) of those were “credited” by the courts. In other words, in 59% of those cases, mothers failed to produce sufficient evidence of their claims to warrant a finding of abuse. Is that the looming crisis Meier makes out or is it judges doing their job, i.e. not denying to children relationships with their fathers based on little or no evidence?
Custodial mothers lost custody about 28% of the time when they claimed the father was abusive, even if he didn’t claim parental alienation. Again, Meier finds this to be sinister, but is it? In how many of those cases did Dad say Mom was abusive? The study doesn’t say. In how many of those cases did the court find that Mom’s claims were unfounded and made to gain an advantage in the custody battle? The study doesn’t say. Those are of course issues that are entirely pertinent to the question of whether courts are erring in their treatment of abuse claims, but the study takes no interest in them.
Indeed, Meier makes no effort to find out why those mothers lost custody, an inquiry that many people would find germane to the issue. After all, if Mom is truly unfit to care for the child, maybe she should lose custody, irrespective of her claims against Dad.
The core of Meier’s claims is that fathers are using allegations of parental alienation against mothers to wrest custody from them. So it’s worth noting that claims of alienation – by all parents - were made in just 669 cases, or about 15% of the total.
In just 163 cases did mothers claim abuse by fathers who then countered with a claim of PA. Of those, 81 resulted in a change of custody from Mom to Dad. So what Meier’s alleges to be a major problem with family courts actually occurred in 1.8% of the cases she studied. And again, as she herself admitted, Meier has no evidence to suggest that judges are wrong in the calls they’re making. So is there a problem?
The closest Meier gets to a real issue is the fact that, in her sample, when fathers alleged parental alienation by mothers, there’s a change in custody from her to him 44% of the time, but when mothers allege the same, courts change custody from him to her only 28% of the time. But of course the devil is in the details. Not all alienating behavior is equal or equally bad. Without specific information on who did what, it’s again impossible to say whether judges are getting it right or not.
Then there’s the matter of gender parities. According to Meier’s own figures, when courts find that claims of alienation are founded, mothers and fathers are treated equally. Needless to say, that tends strongly to undercut Meier’s pique about the 44%/28% disparity I mentioned in the paragraph above.
Plus, there were more cases in which there was a claim of PA but not one of DV than vice versa. Meier, to her credit, notes that that fact, plus the obvious neutrality of the courts in dealing with PA claims, strongly support the conclusion that claims of PA aren’t a matter of the sex of the person making the claim.
I’ll have more to say about the Meier study next time.