Daniel Saunders (right) addresses a Maryland work group commissioned to provide recommendations for improving child custody court proceedings on Oct. 1. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
Daniel Saunders (right) addresses a Maryland work group commissioned to provide recommendations for improving child custody court proceedings on Oct. 1. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

ANNAPOLIS — When a group in Annapolis first met this summer to study child custody proceedings intertwined with domestic violence in Maryland, advocates already knew some children remained in dire situations that could lead to troubled futures or, worse, death.

But one of the most disheartening aspects members learned so far is that judges, child custody evaluators and court personnel have limited experience in these particular cases.

A preliminary idea would be to assess whether to create a dedicated court with specialized judges and stronger evaluators focused specifically on child custody incidents.

Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), said another assessment would be to review what’s in a bench book, which judges use to review information on complex matters that come before the court.

“Right now, we’re still in the research and learning phase and we are requesting a lot of documents from the courts and from the state to figure out what type of training the judges have,” said Cooper, one of the 17 members of the child proceedings work group. “We want to see whether that training is required, or whether it is elective. My sense is that they get very little training in these types of cases and it impedes their ability to be able to proceed without some biases.”

Another proposal under review would require all professionals involved in child proceedings, including judges, should receive training in gender and implicit bias, child advocacy and other situations that involve domestic violence.

“The judges have their mind made up before we even start talking,” said Paul Griffin, a member of the group legal director of Child Justice Inc. in Silver Spring. “The case of domestic violence of husband and wife, [judges] believe as long as they are separated that’s all that matters. That’s not true.”

The group, chaired by Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith, was established through a bill passed in this year’s General Assembly to assess how state courts process allegations of child abuse and domestic violence and analyze scientific research of children in traumatic situations.

It’s also the first group of its kind in the nation where a secretary of state convened it on behalf of a governor. The group consists of state senators, delegates, child advocates, lawyers and a “protective parent.”

Because of the intricate and emotional material and testimony the group will hear and read, an interim report won’t be due until Dec. 1 and a final summation to the governor by June 1, 2020.

One of the most passionate members, Anne Hoyer, directs the Safe At Home Address Confidentiality Program in the secretary of state’s office that supports 1,100 parents involved or left abusive relationships.

“I think what we are talking about in this group is kind of the seed that spawns into all these different things: depression, mental illness, human tracking, sex trafficking, sex abuse,” said Hoyer, daughter of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). “If we don’t get these children early on from out of these situations and we send them to an abuser to live, what are we expecting to see in our future?”

At least two college professors testified before the group to explain various research on the topic and how there’s a nationwide problem with child custody proceedings.

Joan Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School in Northwest, came to Annapolis on June 25 to discuss a nationwide she led that analyzed 2,000 court cases between 2005-15. It showed courts either granted split or full custody to an abusive father when a mother claimed or, in some cases, proved domestic violence abuse against her.

Meier, who’s also the legal director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment & Appeals Project, showed mothers lost about 43 percent of child custody cases against fathers, even when abuse was proven in some cases from parental alienation, a claim fathers make in court when a mother allegedly tries to isolate or separate a child from a parent through words and actions.

Daniel Saunders, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, visited Annapolis last week and said the last hope to produce change in child custody court proceedings would require some judges to step down.

“We are going to wait for them to retire,” he said. “You just sigh and hope retirement is the answer.”

Saunders, who established one of the first intervention programs for abusive men and advocacy programs for battered women in the 1970s, presented 11 problems and solutions to improve child proceedings.

In a 2011 National Institute of Justice study led by Saunders, about 47 percent of evaluators recommend unsupervised visitation even with evidence of violence in the family. Additionally, only 23 percent of evaluators paid attention to coercive behavior.

His solution: expand definitions of abuse in policies and training and provide a guidebook on materials to include coercive behavior.

“This is the most meaningful part of the work that I’ve done because there is such an injustice,” he told the group. “There’s no doubt the recommendations you make will make a difference.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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