Grace worked as a stay-at-home mom to care for her children while her husband’s high-wage career provided financial stability for the family.
Once the couple divorced amid their son’s allegations of abuse against the husband, Grace, who asked her real name be withheld due to the ongoing legal proceedings in Maryland that have lasted for five years, got 50% custody of the children. However, her ex-husband maintains legal standing with the children, which means “he can choose to change their doctors. Can choose to change their schools,” she said.
“The court system is absolutely, completely failing kids. It is punishing moms for doing the right thing,” she said. “If you are a mom and your child’s abused and you report it, you lose custody. If your child is abused [and the child] tells someone else about it, you also lose custody for failure to protect. We desperately need legislation to fix this problem to actually act in the best interest of the kid.”
That’s why a work group researched and outlined several recommendations to improve Maryland’s court system as it pertains to child custody proceedings that involve child abuse and domestic violence.
A full report with the recommendations is scheduled to be sent to the governor and General Assembly by September.
One suggestion outlines specific training for judges, child custody evaluators and “best interest attorneys,” who are appointed by the courts to analyze and conduct independent investigations to come up with a solution best-suited for a child.
The proposed instruction includes weighing the impact on children who are exposed to domestic violence, reducing traumatization of a child without repeating testimony in court, and considering the child’s safety before any other factors.
Another major component in child custody cases is money. In Grace’s situation, she was charged half of $360,000 (exactly $180,000) in legal fees assessed by a best interest attorney.
Grace said she earns between $50,000 to $65,000 at her job with her wages garnished to pay the legal debt, but her ex-husband receives a seven-figure salary and can afford high-priced attorneys.
“Litigation abuse…really allows one party to completely obliterate the other one,” she said. “There’s no way I can come up with the resources to even present my case fairly, even when I have the facts and truth on my side. I can’t afford to sit in front of a judge with the evidence to present it because I can’t call all these experts. I can’t subpoena all these people.”
Anne Hoyer, one of the most passionate child advocates in the state, summarized the price tags parents, often single mothers, are subjected to pay as “criminal.”
“Some of these people who want to protect their children just financially can’t because it’s the dollar that speaks,” said Hoyer, a member of the work group and director of a state Safe at Home address confidentiality program. “This is some of the most important pieces of work that we can do. It can change how people will react to one another. It can change communities.”
One idea to limit the high legal fees assessed in court would be placing a cap on the amount charged.
Del. Jazz Lewis (D-District 24) of Glenarden, also a member of the work group, said that will be a topic for the legislature to discuss.
“Now the level of cost is outrageous, but it’s hard to place a consistent cost until you have consistent accreditation across the board,” he said. “Once we get that, then we can have that conversation on how much people should be charged to make sure they’re not being gauged and kind of preyed upon.”