When the Maryland General Assembly convenes for its legislative session on Jan. 13, lawmakers will consider proposed recommendations on child custody proceedings that could be some of the most comprehensive in the nation.
Some of the suggestions include identifying the role, responsibility and cost of a custody evaluator, implementing an “income-based fee structure” toward custody evaluations and other legal fees and incorporating specific definitions of child abuse and child neglect.
A work group that held 14 meetings between June 2019 and July of this year summarized two dozen recommendations for lawmakers to assess during a joint briefing Monday, Dec. 7 before members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary committees.
The group, chaired by Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith, was created in a bill passed last year to assess how state courts process allegations of child abuse and domestic violence and analyze scientific research of children in traumatic situations.
“You have placed Maryland on the forefront in dealing with this issue, which is a horrific problem across the nation,” Wobensmith said. “Attorneys, advocates and protected parents across the United States have been following the work group activity and are looking forward to our next steps.”
One major focus in the work group’s <a href=”https://bit.ly/2VR8Zqw” target=”blank”>report</a> underscores the need for judges to receive more rigorous training when it comes to domestic violence and child abuse cases.
A judge currently receives about 20 hours of training. The report suggests tripling that number to at least 60 hours and complete another 10 hours every two years for a judge who continues to be assigned on child custody cases dealing with domestic violence and child abuse.
Some of the training would include familiarization with the dynamics and effects of physical and emotional child abuse; provision of protection for families and sealing records; and setting standards for the knowledge, experience and qualifications of child sexual abuse evaluators and treatment providers.
“The entire nation is watching what Maryland is doing,” said Joan Meier, a clinical-law professor at George Washington University. “Maryland is the only state that’s ahead on these issues right now.”
Family Relations Training Needed
The work group’s report cited a nationwide study by Meier which highlights how parental alienation became “regularly” used to discount mothers’ allegations of adult or child abuse.
Among domestic violence abuse claims, the court “credited” mothers’ allegations of abuse against a spouse about 45 percent of the time. The figures decrease when it dealt with child physical abuse at 29 percent and child sexual abuse at 15 percent. These cases didn’t deal with parental alienation claims, which deal with fathers who state in court how mothers allegedly try to isolate or separate a child from a parent through words and actions.
When an alienation claim gets presented, the figures are lower among all three offenses at 37 percent for domestic violence, 18 percent for child physical abuse and two percent for child sexual abuse.
About 13 of the more than 4,300 cases highlighted those from Maryland, according to the report.
The study didn’t determine whether women told the truth in those cases, but shows “they are the norm.”
“There is no support, empirically, for the idea that women are lying or wrong about partner violence or child abuse to the extent that courts are saying they are,” said Meier, who also works as director at the university’s National Family Violence Law Center. “What it means is that these children were not protected.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic impacted Maryland this year, advocates and state’s attorneys said there’s been an increase in domestic violence and child abuse calls.
Joyce Lombardi, an attorney with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, said the leading phone call she receives comes from parents who report allegations of abuse when they’re home.
“They’re having to go into these proceedings and don’t have a lawyer,” she said. “Unfortunately, what you find is the judges and court personnel don’t understand enough. We a lot of training with court personnel [and] lawyers involved in these cases. The demand is huge.”
Lawmakers with the committees had several questions such as Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles County) asked whether some of the recommendations looked through a social, cultural and racial “lens.”
Paul Griffin, a member of the work group and legal director of Child Justice Inc. in Silver Spring, said anecdotal evidence shows Black mothers “are the worst treated I observed” in child custody proceedings.
Without name the judge, he said one woman “was a doctor. He referred to other people as doctor. She was [addressed as] ‘Miss.’”
Del. Frank Conaway Jr. (D-Baltimore City) asked about cultural and environmental differences dealing with child discipline such as spanking.
“Sometimes young boys have to get punched out by their dads. You might disagree with that, but that is something that happens,” he said. “If you’re seasoned, I’m sure you’re aware of that.”
“I’m aware it happens, I don’t know that I agree that is has to happen,” Griffin said. “I don’t think the science supports it as an effective way [of discipline]. If [judges] found that there was punching, they would agree that it would be child abuse.”