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Can A Father Have Full Custody?
The court ruled in favor of Sawyer despite evidence presented by his ex-wife that alleged he had sexually abused their child. Three years earlier, Daniel returned from a visit with his father with suspicious bruises on his bottom. His mother, Karen Gill, immediately took the three-year-old boy to his pediatrician. Nevertheless, the family court judge granted primary custody to Sawyer, warning Gill that if she wanted unrestricted visiting rights with her son, she had better quit talking with the boy about the alleged abuse by his father. Why did the court give the boy to his father despite credible evidence of abuse? It turns out the family court relied heavily on the recommendations of William Bernet, a psychiatrist and court-appointed custody evaluator. He convinced the family court to ignore the medical report, stating that Sawyer was not a pedophile or child molester and should be awarded custody of Daniel. She feared Sawyer, in turn, would abuse his own children. None of this, the court said, could she prove. Bernet declined to comment on the case. In family courts throughout the country, evidence that one of the parents is sexually or physically abusing a child is routinely rejected. Our two-year investigation — which includes interviews with more than 30 parents and survivors in California, Ohio, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland and New Jersey — uncovered stories of children consigned to suffer years of abuse in fear and silence while the parents who sought to protect them were driven to the brink financially and psychologically. In scores of cases, the consequences have been lethal. News reports alone, while not comprehensive, paint a startling picture. From to , 58 children were killed by custodial parents after family courts around the country ignored abuse allegations by the protective parent, according to an analysis of news reports conducted by CJE. In all but six cases, protective parents were mothers who had warned family courts that their children were in danger from abusive fathers who later killed them. How do family courts get away with these kinds of decisions? In theory they are supposed to consider first the best interest of the child. No government agency tracks the number of children nationally that family courts turn over to their abusers, and existing academic research is largely regional. Advocates have tried to put a number on it by culling statistics from primary and academic sources. They estimate that at least 58, children a year end up in unsupervised visits with or in the custody of an abusive parent. A analysis in the Journal of Family Psychology cited studies that show that anywhere between 10 and 39 percent of abusers are awarded primary or shared custody of their children. However difficult it may be to quantify, high-level government officials recognize the breadth of systemic failure. Before going to the White House, Rosenthal personally saw the extent of the problem while working with many state coalitions on child welfare and domestic violence. How do abusers get custody? A big part of the answer lies in the very experts that courts turn to for help in evaluating the fitness and safety of parents. In sounding the alarm over her suspected abuse by her ex-husband, Gill ran squarely into an unexpected obstacle. Bernet and his colleague, James Walker, stated in a joint report that they used a battery of tests to evaluate Sawyer. But according to Anna Salter , PhD, who has conducted research with sex offenders for two decades, using such tests in family court is meaningless. Instead, she said, the tests were intended to evaluate people already convicted of child molesting to determine the likelihood of recidivism. The Abel exam, which tests for sexual interest in children, does not yield meaningful results, she said. This behavior is known as parental alienation syndrome PAS by those who embrace it and deemed questionable science by organizations such as the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Psychological Association. So far, he and other advocates of PAS have not prevailed. He ties this misconception to lack of training and understanding among jurists about violence in families. In analyzing published rulings in an electronic search for cases involving custody and alienation, she found that more often than not, accusations of abuse did not block access to children in family court settings. In the 32 such cases Meier identified, the father prevailed 81 percent of the time. She is now working on an expanded study examining the same issues — including intimate partner violence — in some 5, cases with a grant from the National Institute of Justice. They make themselves look good and they make her [the mother] look crazy. Hanaway did not respond to requests for interviews. Sometimes he would choke me until I passed out. He would snap my wrists. He would also twist her arms in different directions, she said. As she began puberty, he would sit on the toilet seat and watch her while she showered, she said. If she cried about missing her mother, she said, he punished her by withholding food. I was never alone. Later, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors sent Inman a letter advising her to comply with the statute that requires reporting of disclosures of abuse by a minor. Inman did not respond to emailed requests for an interview. The father was better able than the mother to control the child during their office visits with him. Zervopolous acknowledged that he might have upset the child by asking her about the sexual abuse allegations in a meeting alone with her immediately before the family meeting. Why such harsh terms? An affidavit to the court by her then court-appointed therapist, Donna Milburn, confirmed the disclosure. Each held a knife to their own neck. Doyle was a man already known within the court system to be violent, to download child pornography and to have served time in prison for obscenity. A sentencing memo by the U. In late September , not long before Doyle began serving time, his son called his mother, begging her to pick them up. According to court records, the boy said that his father had chased him over the lawn with his car. Frightened for their safety, Robin Doyle said that she picked up the children and took them to a domestic violence shelter, where they received counseling. A doctor who had diagnosed the son with a mild concussion in another incident in testified in the custody case that she believed the boy when he told her that his father had hit him in the head. She relied instead on testimony of the court-appointed supervisor for the visit, who said she had not seen Doyle strike his son and did not think the incident occurred. Several months later, the children ran away from home, escaping to the nearby woods with just snacks in their pockets. Picked up by police, the children were questioned and read their rights. In a statement to police, the daughter talked about the injuries to her brother, and wept that they were terrified of their father, and afraid to go home. Unbeknownst to her at the time, her ex-husband had filed a similar order against her. After two weeks, the children were back with their father. Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, Karen Gill and her son, Daniel, are hoping for justice. The boy is back with his mother, and their case against Darryl Sawyer is now pending in criminal court. Gill, a tall woman with a broad smile and dark circles under her eyes, remembers the years when she only saw Daniel on visits. He was different, more withdrawn than the happy little boy she had known. She was afraid to bring up her worries again for fear of losing contact with him entirely. But in — three years after Gill lost primary custody of her son — Daniel, by then eight years old, broke down on a visit with her and told her his father was sexually abusing him. Wary of returning to family court, Gill contacted the FBI. An investigation, including forensic interviews with Daniel, led to a grand jury indictment of Sawyer on four counts of child rape and one count of sexual assault. Each failed court date, said Gill, has intensified an already oppressive anxiety in her. As long as Sawyer is free and not held accountable, she said, she will always feel vulnerable. Art by Aishvarya Kavi. Design by Jessica Skorich. This story was produced in partnership with the G. Contact the author at laurie. Williams Center for Independent Journalism. Latest posts by Laurie Udesky see all.
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