“It’s a statistic so unbelievable that it’s difficult to wrap your head around: A research review by lawyer and domestic violence expert Joan Zorza found that in about half of the 100,000 contested child custody cases each year in the United States, custody goes to the father – even though at least one-third of these fathers reportedly committed domestic violence against the mother or the child. In fact, women are actually more likely to win custody if they do not allege abuse.
The force behind these rulings are the innocuous-sounding “friendly parent” statutes on the books in at least 32 states, which mandate that courts, in deciding custody, consider how willing each parent is to facilitate a “close and continuing” relationship between the child and the other parent. This is one factor in determining what custody arrangements are “in the best interests of the child.”
“Friendly parent” statutes are a dressed-down form of a theory called Parental Alienation Syndrome. PAS theorizes that most accusations of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) made during a custody battle are actually fraudulent. Not only are the charges false, says the theory, but they are deliberately undertaken by one parent (in most cases, the mother) to “alienate” the child from the other parent (generally, the father).
Never mind that the American Psychological Association has said PAS has no valid merit, nor that PAS inventor Richard Gardner has also said that society “overreacts” to sexual abuse and that pedophilia is an honorable lifestyle choice. PAS lives on in “friendly parent” statutes and in the testimony of many court-appointed evaluators and mental-health professionals. Those who diagnose PAS often recommend that full custody go to the “alienated parent” (usually the biological father) and that unsupervised visitation with the “alienating parent” (usually the mother) be cut off.
Ultimately, these outmoded ideas maintain their grip because of a long-standing tradition of discrediting women’s concerns and believability in comparison to men’s, wrote Zorza in Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody (Civic Research Institute, 2010). Their effect is to lend powerful leverage to abusers.
“Severely abusive fathers may deliberately escalate their abuse to force the woman to complain, flee, or bargain away valuable marital assets, alimony or child support. They then retaliate by filing for custody, knowing they will likely be able to deprive the mothers of the children,” writes Zorza. “Other abusive fathers use the “friendly parent” concept to force the mother to pay them child support and to deprive her of any visitation.”
The consequences can be dire. According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a court advocacy organization, an estimated 75 children nationwide were murdered between June 2009 and April 2010 by abusive fathers who won custody battles.
Currently, about half of the states in the U.S. have laws requiring courts to consider domestic violence on an equal basis with factors such as “friendly parent” statutes when making custody determinations. But family courts have wide discretion in how heavily to weigh domestic violence. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Bar Association recommend that abuse be given more consideration than other factors in custody cases – and that courts withhold sole or joint custody from anyone with a history of domestic violence….”