September 30, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
In Professor Meier’s study of 4,338 family law cases, courts credited mothers’ claims of abuse against fathers 36% of the time, i.e. in 795 out of 2,189 cases.
Meier went on to examine the rate of corroboration of those claims of abuse. Unfortunately, she did so in a way that was essentially guaranteed to overstate the rate at which claims of abuse were corroborated. That’s because she considered every case to be “corroborated” in which a protective order was issued, a man was arrested or was prosecuted.
As close followers of domestic violence law, policy and practice know well, none of that means that DV actually occurred. The mere allegation of domestic violence is usually sufficient to have a man arrested and a protective order issued against him. “No drop” policies by prosecutors ensure prosecution, even when the complainant seeks to withdraw the charge or refuses to cooperate with the state. In short, Meier’s definition of corroboration in no way means that DV occurred, only that she concluded that it did.
So how many corroborated cases were there out of the 4,338 total cases analyzed? Just 599, or about 13.7% of all cases. Given Meier’s expansive definition of “corroboration,” we’d think there’d have been more, but over 86% of cases didn’t even have that. This again brings up the question I’ve asked in previous pieces on Meier’s study: what is the nature of the abuse referred to in the cases reviewed? Surely serious cases of DV involving overt injury would have been corroborated by at least one of the required criteria - protective orders, arrest or prosecution. The remarkably low number of cases with corroborated allegations strongly suggests what the rest of Meier’s data do – that the overwhelming majority of abuse claims allege relatively minor and/or non-injurious incidents.
Interestingly, the study shows that the presence of a guardian ad litem (GAL) or a custody evaluator in a case significantly decreases the chances that a court will credit a claim of abuse. That comes as no surprise. GALs and evaluators have the time and access to families that judges don’t. They’re more able to discern the reality of a family’s dynamics, the likelihood that claimed abuse actually occurred and its impact, if any, on the child who’s the subject of the case. It’s fair then to conclude that, the more actual information a court has about a family, the less likely it is to credit a claim of abuse. That says a lot about those claims.
The core of Meier’s study, and the only thing that warrants further inquiry is the disparity between courts’ responses to mothers and fathers who level charges of abuse against their spouse. When mothers do, they lose custody 28% of the time. When fathers do, they lose custody 12% of the time. That’s a significant difference and suggests a need further study.
There are of course many possible explanations for the disparity other than Meier’s assumption that courts are biased against mothers and in favor of fathers. It may be for example, that mothers tend to too readily allege abuse by fathers and end up complaining of less important incidents. It may be that fathers tend to be more afraid of family courts due to well-known and long-reported bias against them. In that case, they may only bring to the attention of the courts clear incidents of violence by mothers, i.e. those they know they can prove and that have a high probability of gaining them an advantage.
If pressed, I’d say the latter reason explains the disparity in the treatment by courts of allegations of abuse by mothers and fathers, but I’d welcome further analysis to clear the matter up.
As recently as August 15, I wrote a review of Mark Winkler’s book, My Daughter’s Keeper. Interestingly, it is, from start to finish, exactly the type of case Meier bemoans as indicating court bias against mothers. Readers will recall that Winkler’s ex claimed physical and sexual abuse of their daughter by him and a court issued a restraining order keeping him from seeing the girl for two months. Mom got sole, then primary, custody of the child. A GAL and a custody evaluator got involved in the case and, in the end, the court found Mom’s claims to be invalid and made solely to gain an advantage in the custody case. It then transferred custody to Winkler.
So, according to Meier’s categories, a “protective” mother made claims of abuse that were corroborated (by the existence of the restraining order), parental alienation by Mom became an issue, and a court gave custody to an “abusive” father. Remarkably, had Meier included Winkler’s case in her database, her conclusions about the dangers of family courts to mothers and children would be completely wrong. In fact, the claims by the mother were false. In fact, her increasing efforts to alienate the child were abusive. In fact, exactly those conclusions were drawn by the GAL, the evaluator, caseworkers at child protective services and ultimately the judge. Custody of the child was rightly transferred to Winkler. As I said in my review, the system did the right thing, albeit at a glacial pace.
And that highlights the many deficiencies in Meier’s study that all add up to one thing – the devil is in the details. When we ignore those details, when we assume allegations of abuse to be truthful, that all abuse is serious enough to warrant denying children their relationship with a parent, pretend that parental alienation is merely a scheme by abusive fathers to thwart “protective” mothers, we inevitably draw wrong conclusions. The only way to determine if a court erred is to look at those details. But Meier doesn’t. She revealed one area that’s ripe for further study, but beyond that, her study tells us little of value about what courts do or why.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 3 here.
Read Part 4 here.