Maryland Working Group Recommends Training for Judges Handling Custody Cases Involving Child Sexual Abuse

For many parents, going to court to fight for custody of their children is unimaginably difficult, and for those who are seeking custody because of child abuse or domestic violence, it can also be the deciding factor for the health and safety of them and their child.

In recognition of the difficulty of these cases, in 2019 the Maryland Legislature directed the Secretary of State John Wobensmith to form a working group dedicated to the study and improvement of how the state handles child custody cases involving child sexual abuse or domestic violence.

RAINN’s vice president of public policy, Camille Cooper, was chosen to serve due to her expertise in child protection and child sexual abuse policy. The panel also included four legislators, 11 other experts on domestic violence, child sexual abuse, or child custody, and a parent with personal experience in family court.

“Children in Maryland were repeatedly ending up in the custody of parents that had abused them, especially when a protective parent petitioned the court for protection. The working group was directed to focus specifically on addressing how the system currently responds to victims dealing with domestic violence and child sexual abuse issues in the context of a divorce, custody case, or coparenting arrangement,” said Cooper.

After hearing from dozens of experts, advocates, legal advisors, and lawmakers, in September the working group released a report of its findings, including 24 recommendations for improvement.

Among several systemic issues, the group identified a lack of expertise regarding child sexual abuse and domestic violence with judges, guardians ad litem, custody evaluators, and mental health experts.

“Most professionals working on custody cases don’t have specialized training in these issues, and are likely to misinterpret what’s going on,” said Cooper. “There are a lot of behaviors that traumatized children exhibit that are counterintuitive to judges, and if a judge isn’t trained in how to recognize the impact of trauma on a child, they are likely to think a parent who acts to protect that child from abuse is vindictive. According to a study by Joan Meier from The George Washington University Law School, in family courts across the U.S. “child sexual abuse allegations increased fathers’ likelihood of winning [custody] to 81%” when the father counter-alleged alienation. This is a national problem, and reflects gender bias against mothers in these rulings.”

The group recommends that judges and other professionals working on custody cases be required to develop a strong expertise in all the dynamics specific to child sexual abuse, including how children may behave and respond when abused by a parent.

“The way children disclose or react when around an abuser just looks different than what an adult might do,” said Cooper. “If judges and others aren’t trained in looking out for these signs, they could be condemning a child to full, unsupervised custody with a parent who is physically and sexually abusing them.”

The workgroup also recommends that the Maryland judiciary be required to collaborate with domestic violence and child sexual abuse experts to develop a training program for judges and professionals working on child custody cases involving child sexual abuse or domestic violence.

“We’re raising the level of required expertise for people who provide protection, assessment, and care for children in these cases,” said Cooper. “It’s going to take a couple years to implement these changes, but we’re proud to say that Maryland is the first state in the nation to form a working group of this kind.”

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