Daniel Saunders (right) speaks in Annapolis on Oct. 1 before a Maryland work group asked to provide recommendations on improving child custody court proceedings. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
Daniel Saunders (right) speaks in Annapolis on Oct. 1 before a Maryland work group asked to provide recommendations on improving child custody court proceedings. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

ANNAPOLIS — Daniel Saunders said the last hope for producing change in child-custody court proceedings is for some judges to step down.

“We are going to wait for them to retire,” said the sociology professor at the University of Michigan. “You just sigh and hope retirement is the answer.”

Saunders testified for more than an hour Tuesday in Annapolis before a committee convened to improve Maryland’s court proceedings that involve allegations of child abuse and domestic violence.

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 for improving child proceedings.

Co-parenting, he said, isn’t always the solution. 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. In addition, 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.

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 child proceedings group and 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.”

In terms of trauma to children, Saunders showed the group a black and white picture drawn by a 5-year-old boy name Jonathan underneath a bed white a quote above it: “I hide under my bed when daddy hits mommy. I am scared.”

The emotional and behavioral problems in children exposed to such situations include nightmares, aggressive behavior, academic complications and teen substance abuse.

Child advocates have argued “reunification” programs in the courts, which permits children to establish a relationship with both parents in custody battles, hurt children.

“Any exposure to someone who has raped you and being forced to be put in a situation under any circumstance is retraumatizing and harmful,” said Camille Cooper, a member of the work group and vice president of public policy for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) in northwest D.C. “It’s almost like we push children into a system to protect them and that system itself kind of cannibalizes them.”

The group’s next meeting is tentatively scheduled Oct. 15.

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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