Members of the child custody work group
**FILE** Members of the child custody work group

A Maryland work group assembled to examine child custody court proceedings involving child abuse and domestic violence reviewed Tuesday a myriad of proposed recommendations.

The proposals include judicial training for judges, collection of data and protocols for a child’s safety during abuse investigations.

The group chaired by State Secretary John C. Wobensmith hasn’t met since Jan. 28 due to the abruptly shortened legislative session in Annapolis and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“There is, from what I’ve been told, a lot more domestic violence cases. There’s a lot more child endangerment cases that we’ve been dealing with,” he said. “This [work] really becomes more important as we’ve been experienced in the COVID-19 times.”

The group of state lawmakers, attorneys and child and domestic violence advocates received presentations from nationally known researchers and academics to highlight how courts harm children based on decisions with limited knowledge.

One of the 20 draft recommendations discussed on whether to cap fees imposed by custody evaluators. Some are provided through the courts, but others run a private practice.

A member of the group, Jennifer Shaw, a psychologist and co-founder of the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education in Fairfax, Virginia, said it could cost $35,000 in that state for a person to retain a custody evaluator from a private company.

In Maryland, the cost could range between $20,000 to $40,000 for a person to investigate and assess parents and a child involved in a court proceeding.

Laure Ruth, legal director of the Women’s Law Center in Towson, said she understands about the expensive costs for parties to hire an evaluator, but “there’s a piece of me that is uncomfortable telling therapists, or whoever does these private custody evaluations that they can’t get paid for what they are supposed to be paid.”

A few members said a cap should be placed on charging exorbitant fees.

“If all of the evidence brought in by the forensic evaluator and the child’s therapist lessens the influence of a custody evaluator because they drop out and can’t make $40,000 on these cases anymore, [then] I’m all for it,” said Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy for the D.C.-based Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). “They’re not a positive influence on the process.”

Another recommendation for the Maryland courts involves judges to receive at least 20 hours of training before presiding over a child custody case that involves domestic violence, child abuse, or child sexual abuse.

The judiciary would create a training program focused on topics such as child development, the impact of trauma on a child, effects of child abuse and domestic violence and understanding the importance of play and art therapies of a child.

State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, a Republican who represents three counties on the Eastern Shore, said using the word “shall” should be replaced with a word more subtle in order to work with court officials.

“Any of our recommendations … is to show a recognition the judges do depend on these recommendations,” she said. “We want our recommendations to be a helpful tool in this process.”

Other draft recommendations are highlighted on the General Assembly’s website.

The group plans to meet again July 28. Once recommendations are finalized, the next step would be crafting proposed legislation for the upcoming General Assembly scheduled to convene in January.

It’s unclear whether lawmakers would meet, especially amid the coronavirus crisis.

Hope M. Wylie, who uses a false name to protect her identity after being in an abusive relationship, appreciated what she heard Tuesday.

“I have to say that they covered some important concerns like custody evaluation, judicial training, distinguishing the primary physically abusing parent, etc.,” Wylie said in an email. “I am encouraged by where they have gotten to and I eagerly anticipate reading their recommendations when they have been finalized.”

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