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Showing posts with label TASK FORCE. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TASK FORCE. Show all posts

Friday, April 20, 2018



Testimony of Attorney Shirley Pripstein, Greater Hartford Legal Aid

The Legal Service family law attorneys in Connecticut oppose legislation that would create a presumption that shared parenting is in the best interest of minor children for the following reasons:

-There is no empirical evidence that shared parenting is, in fact, in the best interest of minor children.

-A shared parenting presumption is a cookie-cutter approach that puts the emphasis on the rights of the parents rather than on the best interest of children.

-A shared parenting arrangement may be in the best interest of children whose parents are committed to living in the same school district and making shared parenting work, but it is clearly not in the best interest of the majority of children whose custody is determined by the courts. These are children whose parents may never have cohabited or developed the communication and compromise skills necessary to making a shared parenting arrangement a comforting situation for the child.

-Shared parenting is particularly inappropriate when the parents live in different towns, making choice of school districts and sports teams an issue.

-Shared parenting is particularly inappropriate when there is a history of domestic violence between the parents, which is concrete evidence that at least one of the parents lacks communication and compromise skills necessary for co-parenting.

Connecticut has a well-thought out child custody statute, enacted ... in 2005, which sets forth sixteen factors for the court to consider when making orders of child custody and apportioning time between parents.

The factors appropriately recognize and attempt to balance the need of a child for stability against the need of a child for contact with both parents, and recognize that there are other factors that the court should consider in deciding what orders to make regarding child custody when the parents are unable to agree.  

A shared parenting presumption is a thinly disguised and ill-advised attempt to elevate the parental time considerations above the other factors set forth in our statutes, and should be rejected by this task force.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


Sometime in the Summer of 2013, Jennifer Verraneault, a family court reform activist, contacted me and asked to meet with me to discuss family court reform.  Her partner, Jerry Mastrangelo had been engaged in a lengthy court battle to see his three triplets towards whom he had inexplicably been denied access.  

A year prior, she had taken the free Guardian Ad Litem class for the State of Connecticut and had been able to obtain certification despite not being a lawyer or having any background as a mental health professional.  In fact, to my knowledge, I wasn't even clear that she had a College degree.  I had also tried to sign up for that class, but the CT Judicial Branch had refused me admission, perhaps because I did have a college degree.

Monday, January 25, 2016


10:00 AM in Room 2A of the LOB
The meeting was called to order at 10:00 by Garry Lapidus,
The following committee members were present:
Rachel Powlowski; Donald Frechette; Jennifer Celentano; Laura DeLeo; Mary Painter; Damion Grasso; Cynthia Mahon; Linda Mattigan; Christine Rapillo, Hon. Elizabeth Bozzuto; Linda Harris; Kayte Cwikla-Masas; Dr. Nina Livingston; Garry Lapidus and Karen Jarmoc

Garry noted that the first part of the meeting would be from DCF. Mary Painter would be giving an overview.

Mary Painter stated that they had a lot of information that they would try to get through and asked task force members to hold their comments until the end. She discussed the overall mission of the department and noted that there had been some significant practice shifts under the current administration. She would also discuss their work with families with regard to intimate partner violence. Cynthia Mahon would discuss how the department operates within its legal mandate and how DCF worked with the juvenile court. Damian Grasso would discuss data relevant to the charge of the task force. James Geissler would discuss his work as a provider and how his work helps families. The presentation would conclude with recommendations from the department on moving forward.

The department’s mission is to ensure the safety and well-being of children in Connecticut and there are a lot of legal mandates to get them through this work , which involves a complex process to get them through the juvenile courts.

Cynthia Mahon presented on legislative mandates. She noted that these focused on prevention; child protective services; children’s behavioral health; educational services; and juvenile justice. She would be discussing the involvement of DCF in the juvenile court process and would be discussing the perspective of how families dealing with family violence interact with this system. She noted that §17A-101 is the mandated reporting statute and that this is very relevant to DCF’s work because this is often how cases come into the department and they start their work with families through mandated reporters often. This statute requires that certain individuals report suspected child abuse and neglect.

The policy behind this statute is to provide children and families with the help that they need, whether this involves enhancing parental capacity for good childcare; providing a safe, nurturing environment for children; or protecting children from injury and neglect. There are 37 different categories of individuals that are considered required mandated reporters. Cynthia noted that just because someone reports something to DCF, this doesn’t always become a case or mean that the family will become involved in the juvenile court process, but this is a gateway of getting the family’s case brought to the attention of child protective services. Cynthia noted that in her capacity as assistant attorney general, the juvenile court is sometimes the “black hole” of the judicial branch because there’s a degree of ambiguity to what goes on in the juvenile courts. This is partially due to confidentiality statutes that govern DCF and the juvenile court itself.

She stated that §46B-124B is an important statute for the task force to consider because it allows for information sharing across the system but doesn’t provide any guidance on how to administer this or any regulations or procedures on how to share this information. There isn’t currently a system to share this kind of information. This information sharing system represented one of the recommendations for the task force to consider. There are currently 13 juvenile courts in the State of Connecticut with two child protection sessions, which are located in Willimantic and in Middletown and are specific courts designed to hear multi-day complex trials that can’t be handled expeditiously in the regional courts. Juvenile courts handle child protection and delinquency cases. The juvenile court’s goal is to secure the welfare, protection, proper care and suitable support of the child subject to its jurisdiction. The juvenile court assesses the conditions of the child, and this is very different from how the criminal court looks at family violence cases. In Connecticut juvenile court, finding that a child is neglected is different from finding who is responsible for the neglect. The adjudication is not a rendition against an individual or individuals in these cases, but rather a finding that a child is neglected. The juvenile court system is not punitive and they are not looking to assign guilty or not guilty but that they look simply at a child and what’s in the best interest of the child. DCF files a petition when families become involved in the juvenile court system. Cynthia referred to documents that she provided regarding child neglect. These petitions can also be filed by Guardians ad Litem. There are a range of situations that these petitions can apply to, and some cases don’t involve any petitions whereas other cases have petitions filed right away. DCF has been working to collect more data on these petitions.

There are various reasons that DCF will file these petitions, ranging from a long duration of activity with DCF to a lack of engagement on the part of the family with regard to their case. DCF files a petition if the children are struggling or suffering and the department feels that they’re being neglected. Cynthia provided an example for the task force of a case that came in on a neglect petition where a mother had five children and there were two different fathers and the case came in on the DCF Careline with a concern of substance abuse. In the course of the referral to the Careline, there was a disclosure of domestic violence by one of the fathers. The case was opened by DCF for ongoing treatment; services were provided to the family and within one month of the case, one of the fathers was arrested and incarcerated for violating the full protective order. The mother was the subject of this protective order. The case continued with DCF and it turned out that the respondent mother was not compliant with the services that were being recommended and offered for her and her children. After about 7 months of having an open case, the department decided to file a neglect petition. When this case was disposed of in the juvenile court, the court’s disposition was 6 months of protective supervision where the department stayed involved in oversight of the family to ensure compliance with DCF services and to make sure that the children were safe and well taken care of. After 6 months, the mother did finally accept services and after this, things went smoothly for the family and the case closed. Cynthia pointed out that there is often a perception that families going into the court have a bad experience and in this particular case, the mother and social worker walked out of the courtroom together and hugged and the mother thanked her for her help and said on the record that this was a positive experience.

The neglect allegations that come on petitions can encompass a wide variety of scenarios ranging from substance abuse to mental health to inappropriate housing; ongoing criminal involvement;
intimate partner violence or family violence in the home, and one of the allegations is being permitted to live under conditions injurious to a child’s well-being. This allegation typically comes under the classification of domestic violence in the home.

Regarding orders of temporary custody, Ms. Mahopn noted that in the example she provided, the children were never removed from their mother’s care. There are times, however, when it is necessary to remove a child because of the high level of danger present in the home and in these cases, an order of temporary custody is presented to the court. The court assesses whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is suffering from serious physical illness or serious physical injury or is in immediate physical danger from the child’s surroundings. Additionally, the court considers whether immediate removal from the surroundings is necessary to ensure the child’s safety.

The department tries to avoid removing children from their parents or their surroundings and removal is a last resort, as this can be a traumatic experience. The department works with families to reduce family violence and find resources for the child such as placing them with a relative or someone the child knows rather than going into foster care with a stranger. When a child is removed from their family, an order of temporary custody is filed with the juvenile court. Attached to this is an affidavit typically filed by the Department of Children and Families or by a Guardian ad Litem, which includes information that is provided to the judge ex parte explaining why it is believed that the child is in immediate physical danger and needs to be removed immediately from their guardians or custodians.

Occasionally a judge of the superior court may, on their own, issue an order of temporary custody if during the course of the court proceeding there is information presented indicating that the child is in physical danger. If the judge grants this order of temporary custody, by statute the family is required to have a preliminary hearing within 10 days where families come in and meet with the court service officer, who sits down with the families to mediate the cases and discuss with the parents whether they will sustain the order of temporary custody and allow the child to remain in DCF care or send the child back to the family. At these hearings, the parents are entitled to court-appointed counsel where they fill out a financial affidavit for the judge to review and counsel can be assigned. The child in the juvenile court is automatically provided an attorney. The child is not provided a Guardian ad Litem unless the appointed attorney deems that this is appropriate. Guardians ad Litem are appointed in cases where the child’s position is different from what’s in the child’s best interests. After this preliminary hearing, if the parties decide whether they want a full trial, by statute they can have another trial within 10 days. This process in juvenile court happens very quickly because in cases where a child is removed from their parents’ care, the parents have a right to have that resolved as quickly as possible. At the trial, the standard is a fair preponderance of the evidence to prove that more likely than not a child is in immediate physical danger if returned to their parents or guardians.

Neglect petitions still have to be resolved after the court proceedings to adjudicate the child as neglected. This is where the court is looking at the condition of the child; age of the child; whether the child has been abandoned and denied proper care or being permitted to live under conditions injurious to the child’s well-being, and once the court makes the determination they can move on to the disposition of the case.

Ms. Mahon listed three different dispositions in her presentation. Protective supervision is where the child remains in the home with the parents and services are provided by the department and court oversight is provided as well. Court oversight can have different interpretations ranging from the court bringing the family back on a monthly or weekly basis to check in with the family and to verify that they’re complying with the services being offered. The juvenile court does have significant control over the case and can be as little or as much involved as necessary. Ms. Mahon defined “commitment to the department” as when the child is in foster care and “transfer of guardianship” is when the court recommends that another third party assume guardianship of the child.

Ms. Mahon noted that the juvenile court has authority to issue orders over the parties, which is important to note because families have involvement in many different definitions of the judicial branch at the same time. These judges are issuing orders that affect the children and can affect the families as well as the other divisions. Ms. Mahon referred to another form that she brought and
noted that there was language on the form about cooperating with domestic violence programs. She noted that the juvenile court is ordering families to be involved in domestic violence programs and to cooperate with restraining orders and protective orders. The steps on the form are ordered at different times throughout the case and can be ordered at the temporary custody order phase if this happens at the beginning of the case or can be ordered at the disposition of and neglect petition. These steps can be modified throughout the course of the case by families coming in before the judge and they will typically remain in place until the case is over.
Ms. Mahon noted that the steps that the court issues are issued to the parties, so in cases where, for example, there is a mother and children and the boyfriend is a perpetrator of domestic violence, the juvenile court does not have authority to issue orders on the boyfriend because he’s not a party to the case. The specific steps also include orders that are directed toward the Department of Children and Families because they are also considered a party in the case. If the juvenile court determines that DCF needs to provide services, that can be included in the orders as well.

Mary Painter presented on the Department of Children and Familes’s work with families. She stated that the department is trying to approach their work with families in the most beneficial way. She went over some of the broader strategies that the department has employed under the current administration. Ms. Painter noted that the department works to strengthen families as the main framework of its mission. The driving belief behind their practice is that children do best within families and that all families have strengths that can be built upon. DCF wants children to be at home with families or with kin whenever possible. She listed two examples of how this plays out in practice. DCF does announced visits, which wasn’t the case years ago, and they’re also trying to look at everything through a racial justice lens, which is a significant priority for the department, which allows them to analyze who accesses services and who uses services. The Fatherhood Matters Initiative was employed in 2010 and the purpose of this was to increase the involvement of fathers and their family members in the families they work with to combat both internal and external myths about fathers and change the culture around fatherhood to emphasize that fathers are important and are capable of nurturing young children. To do this, DCF has increased services for fathers and worked on engaging them more in all of these processes. Each area office has a FELT team, or a Fatherhood Engagement Leadership Team, which is built of internal and external stakeholders to move the work forward.

DCF has the Considered Removal Child and Family team, which is the department’s effort to always have a team meeting with DCF in partnership with families and whoever the family wants to bring to the table when there’s consideration of removal of a child from the family. This does not always occur in imminent risk situations, but the department strives to do this whenever possible. The purpose of this is to avoid removal and mitigate safety factors. Should a removal decision be made to mitigate the safety factors, the team works to find solutions so that the child can return home quickly. 75% of the time, there is a meeting with the family before the decision is made and when that meeting happens, only about 25% of the time is the child removed from the home. In 2015, 68% of the children removed from their families stayed with kin and within the larger family framework. Ms. Painter discussed the department’s efforts on trauma-informed practice, They had a large federal grant to move this forward and they trained their entire workforce to be able to respond to trauma and also to not create more trauma in the lives of the families they work with. The department also more routinely screens for trauma symptoms and has expanded evidence-based practice services for children and keeps data on trauma response.

With regard to DCF-specific practice regarding intimate partner violence within the department, it is the goal of DCF to meet the needs of all families that are impacted by IPV and do this in a way that preserves the culturally responsive coordination across systems, individualized, and based on best practices and what the data is informing them on. This work started about 9 years ago and is grounded in the Green Book Initiative, which lays out the framework for how to work with domestic violence and child welfare. The primary principles include: ensure the well-being and stability; better accountability; and keeping the child at home with the non-offending parent whenever possible. There are also a lot of recommendations related to workforce capacity and building the ability to cross-collaborate across all of the entities that are part of this council. Presently, DCF is working to enhance this foundation and move forward so that there is a stronger internal capacity to respond to all of the families and different typologies that present related to IPV; evaluate how they are doing and then adapt accordingly.

DCF first elevated intimate partner violence to an office in its central office to work on the policy areas that are significant in the department such as early childhood; substance abuse; mental health; transition-aged youth—all of these have offices within the central office of DCF. Domestic violence did not, however, so they elevated it to one of these offices. They also created a program lead position that didn’t exist previously, and they also switched from an external consultation model for social workers to an internal model so that social workers have access to expert consultation on areas like education; physical health; and mental health. The department used to pay for external consultation for this for IPV but they shifted this to an internal model, which is in line with the rest of their practices. This allowed them to repurpose these dollars back into service delivery. The department also conducted a request for information where they got a very robust response from stakeholders in Connecticut that told them to remain grounded in the Green Book Initiative but to close the gaps of the services that are not available to meet the needs of families. One of these gaps was meeting the needs of fathers, who didn’t have a lot of options for treatment if they were not meeting the threshold to be court-mandated to a batter intervention program. Last year they began to partner with the injury prevention center, which is a three-year evaluation of their internal practice and the service array they are trying to build, and DCF also launched some new services.

Ms. Painter also noted that the department has been studying the link between animal cruelty, domestic violence and child abuse more thoroughly. There is a link between these areas and Connecticut now has cross-reporting requirements of animal cruelty and child abuse. DCF was recently tasked with putting together the protocol and training for animal-assisted treatment for children exposed to trauma. In 2016, they will be working with injury prevention center and CCADC to design and roll this out.

Specifically, DCF is trying to build a comprehensive and complete service array and they need to meet the needs of all of the families that they come in contact with so they need to be able to meet the needs of those impacted by IPV. DCF has increased access and utilization of the protective order registry by department staff so that it becomes a more common practice that it is used regularly to make determinations that are needed for the families.

DCF has worked with CCADV on a few different initiatives, one of these is aligning their safe sleep initiative with the department along with the shelter so that they have federally-approved cribs and they have information to provide to families. The department also supports efforts to train staff on the safe dates and adolescent violence prevention curriculum to disseminate this out to the workforce as much as possible. There are also a variety of interventions for children who are exposed to trauma. The department is making a big push at disseminating practice and making these services available throughout Connecticut. Ms. Painter referred to her slide and the four interventions identified by the injury prevention center with regard to families impacted by IPV. The slide depicts what each of these services address in terms of prevention or low, moderate and high-risk family situations.

This year, DCF launched a family assessment intervention response. This is available statewide to DCF-involved families and serves as an avenue for families to get services that they otherwise cannot get. This is an intensive, community-based intervention, which means that a family has access to the service when needed for about 4-6 months and the service is delivered where the family needs it. All family members receive an individualized treatment planning based on their needs and DCF conducts safety planning where they use the VIGOR safety plan, which includes assessing the needs of the children; pets; finances; social issues and all of the issues related to the families that they work with. Based on this, the family receives a combination of services which could include, if needed, trauma-focused CBT; there is a family navigator who will help the child connect to engage in this service. If the family needs some support related to financial or housing issues, there is a case management component to this service. Fathers for Change is embedded in this model, which was put into place to address a significant gap in Connecticut. This is an intervention program for fathers with low to moderate IPV and substance abuse problems, which uses motivation to enter into cognitive behavioral therapy intervention for things like taking accountability for behavior; parenting skills; teaching co-parenting; and parent-child sessions as appropriate.

Damien Grasso discussed his collaboration with DCF. His goal is to do research and provide recommendations for ways to improve identification of children exposed to domestic violence in the system and find ways to help improve intervention for these children and families with regard to their safety and well-being. This is being done in two ways, one being a comprehensive chart review where the department looks at children and families served by DCF with identified IPV. The second is evaluation of the feasibility and effectiveness of Fathers for Change and other programs focused on eradicating IPV.

The data was compiled from 100 different randomly-chosen reports within a 12-month period, and focused on extracting data on family violence. Within these families, there was past involvement with DCF, demographic risk and so forth. Their first goal is to examine the prevalence and characteristics of children’s exposure to IPV in this process. DCF has a means of indicating whether a family has identified IPV and this number has hovered at 20-21%. The majority of children in these situations are between 0 and 5, followed by 6-12 year olds, and 18% are 13-18 year olds. Damian acknowledged that this ratio is probably much higher and in a study he conducted with colleagues some years ago where they did a comprehensive chart review and followed this with questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with families, they found that 70% of those children have witnessed domestic violence. This study focused on children removed from their homes, so they were probably exposed to more severe maltreatment, but they would expect this rate to be higher. Mr. Grasso stated that they were careful in their chart review to detect chases where there is evidence of IPV that hasn’t been flagged and where DCF can do a better job with this. He noted that one possible reason that DCF is not identifying as many potential cases for domestic violence, has to do with screening and assessing. In the study he conducted, the best identification for children exposed to domestic violence had to do with putting together multiple sources to get better information. Damian referred to his charts to illustrate that by incorporating multiple sources of information, it was easier to determine if domestic violence was an issue in various cases. DCF is also interested in understanding what the violence looks like in homes. The research indicates that violence predicts in a linear fashion a host of adverse outcomes for children. They are going to be extracting this data and using a coding scheme used in past research to quantify the severity and then look at the relationship between severity of IPV and other forms of maltreatment and outcomes for children and families.

The second goal is to examine the co-occurring maltreatment and contextual risk in children in DCF involved families with IPV. 30-60% of cases involving domestic violence involve some other form of child abuse with 45-70% of children exposed to DV also being victims of physical abuse, often from both parents. One study found that 65% of men who abuse their partner also abuse their children and another study found that mothers who were victims of IPV were four times more likely to endorse behaviors indicative of physical abuse and emotional abuse. There is also increased risk for sexual abuse among children exposed to domestic violence. Damian stated that with this new knowledge, he hopes that the department can examine the overlap of IPV with other maltreatment and how this relates to the severity of different forms of maltreatment.

The third goal is to examine decision-making for DCF families and looking at rates of acceptance based on IPV identification and looking at differences between substantiated versus unsubstantiated reports among families where IPV is identified versus not, and how many of these families go into different programs. Ultimately, the department would like to determine how identifying IPV guides decision-making from the first time it is identified until the case closes.

Damian noted that the research is quantitative but also involves a significant amount of interviews. There are several anthropologists on staff that are meeting with stakeholders in DCF, so they will be compiling this information.

The fourth aim of the study was to examine the recidivism in DCF families with IPV over the course of the year. DCF is going to extract data for 12 months after the date of the report to look at new substantiated and unsubstantiated reports and see if the severity of IPV and other forms of maltreatment and the overlap are predictive of outcomes over time. Damian went over the IPV FAIR evaluation slide in his presentation. Damian discussed the families that have come into the program and noted that these families have a good deal of risk and needs and there is definitely an indication of domestic violence within these families. Police have visited the homes of these families and arrests have been made, oftentimes with children present. There have been other legal problems identified with these families as well as mental health needs.

Trauma exposure for mothers and fathers was quite high among these families, with families being exposed to an average of 5-6 different types of trauma. Using the department’s questionnaire for evaluating PTSD symptoms, it was found that 42.9% of mothers and 52% of fathers were meeting criteria for full or partial PTSD and 23% of mothers and 24% of fathers are meeting full criteria based on this questionnaire.

James Geissler discussed his work with the intake process and how the assessment plays out with regards to families. James is very passionate about the program and has seen it working every day. He went over the administrative process of how families get to him: forms get filed with a gatekeeper who is an IPV specialist, then this is faxed over to him and he goes over the information with a family navigator who does the majority of the case management with the family. After this, an intake is set up with a DCF social worker and James’s team meets with everyone in the family to talk about different programs and answer any questions the family may have to start to build a relationship with the family before going into the assessment process. During the assessment process, James and his team gain an understanding of what the family’s needs are and different components of the case. The assessment also helps determine whether the father is going to be engaged and whether he qualifies for the Fathers for Change program, as well as the needs of the mother and the needs of the child or children. Oftentimes, the mothers are traumatized from multiple situations, so James works to connect them to services in the community. The program also works to connect children to mental health services with clinicians trained in TF CBT after witnessing trauma in the home.

James always has a family navigator accompany him to determine the best clinical treatment plan for helping the family. He noted that there are many needs that go beyond the mental health treatment aspect of assistance, so he helps with connecting these families to heating assistance, insurance and other programs. Through the assessments he conducts, James looks for indications of substance abuse and issues with parenting and domestic violence. Fathers for Change addresses many of these issues, which is a 4-6 month program requiring the whole family to get involved with treatment. This can be difficult, but James is able to convince families that it works and will help families. The program operates in three different phases, where fathers are engaged in two months of individual counseling with James before they try to transition into co-parenting sessions if appropriate. The third phase of this program is one-on-one counseling with the father and child where the father will talk about domestic violence with the child in a constructive way. At this stage in the program, there is typically a change in the home and families acknowledge that the fathers are working hard to change. James noted that safety planning is very important in these situations, which he does following the assessment. This looks at goals, options and risks for the family and the family navigator does this with the mother and father first because this looks at the whole environment. This assessment process is very important because it is comprehensive and takes into account current and historical abuse and looks at the co-parenting situation that gives social workers and therapists the ability to see how they can best help the family.

James shared an example of one of the fathers he was working with. When James finished this father’s assessments and they talked about different options and the father qualified for the fathers for change program. James saw this father’s potential but he lacked the emotional regulation skills and had poor communication skills that were causing domestic violence, but the father wanted to be a better parent to his three young boys. The father was initially resistant to doing a 4-6 month program. While they were having this conversation, one of the father’s sons had a panic attack—he was experiencing a lot of anxiety as a result of his father being incarcerated and the father was able to respond immediately and calm his son down. James noted in the assessment process, though, that the father wanted the best for his children. The father communicated that he was concerned for his children and wanted to make better choices. James was able to connect this with the Fathers for Change program and get the father to sign up. The father is now going into his tenth session, and since starting the program, there has been no domestic violence in the home. James stated that he has seen significant transformations in these families through this program, and that the program will have a long-term impact of stopping the cycle of domestic violence in these families and communities. Because the program steps into place quickly and is able to provide an intake and referral to these families at a critical time, it is able to transform these families quickly and effectively. James reiterated that the program aims to develop the foundations for long-term positive changes for these families that will help the children grow up in healthy homes.

Karen introduced Betsy McAllister. Betsy is a founding director of the Children Witness to Violence Project out of Boston Medical Center and is currently serving as a lecturer on human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Betsy has come to Connecticut on several occasions to offer training to child advocates and victim advocates within the statewide network of domestic violence providers. The task force appreciates Betsy’s presence and her insight on keeping children safe in homes where family violence is occurring. Karen noted that the next meeting would be on November 19th, and that the task force would be receiving draft recommendations pared out subject matter to discuss at upcoming meetings, followed by discussion to capture task force members’ feedback. The final report is due in January, and Garry and Karen have been discussing the best way to prepare the final report. Upcoming meetings will go over 2-3 different subject matters and won’t go outside of what has been presented, but task force members will be able to weigh in with their thoughts and recommendations. At the last meeting in January, there will be a full draft of the recommendations and a subject matter public hearing so that the task force can make sure to get public input. Karen and Garry will also present this draft to the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission at their meeting in December.

Betsy McAllister began her presentation stating that she had done work with several groups related to domestic violence, including CCADV and that she has a lot of respect for the work that Connecticut does on behalf of women and children affected by domestic violence. She stated that she was impressed with the work of the task force and was looking forward to the task force’s recommendations. Massachusetts is conducting a similar initiative that focuses on the courts. The legislature approved a mandated training last year for all of the courts in Massachusetts on the Fender risk assessment. As a component of this, the courts are weaving in a look at risk assessment for children.

Betsy McAlister Groves drew on her experience as the former director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center, which is a counseling program for young children as domestic violence where they serve children aged 8 and under. About 85% of these children have been referred because of their experiences with domestic violence. She learned many things from this experience. The project worked collaboratively with DCF around providing reporting of children affected by domestic violence and providing services for them. The project is located in Boston Medical Center and is part of the Department of Pediatrics. Referrals come from medical providers; from neighborhood health clinics and other hospitals in the city. They also get reports from the police department; from the courts; domestic violence agencies; and from DCF. About 25% of their referrals are self-referrals. The heart of this program is the provision of counseling and advocacy services. They use an evidence-based therapy intervention called Child-Parent psychotherapy that was used widely in Connecticut as well. This is a therapy that focuses on the non-offending parent and the child doing therapy together and is particularly appropriate in interventions for children affected by domestic violence, and especially for young children because so much of what needs to happen for these children also needs to happen for the non-offending parent and the family. The program also takes appointments for Guardians ad Litem and they have done expert witness testimony and worked extensively with DCF not only in case collaboration but with the domestic violence unit around policy and thinking about appropriate ways for mandated reporters and DCF to work together. Betsy noted that because they are a voluntary agency, 80% of the families that they see are not involved with DCF. When looking at the entire population of families exposed to domestic violence, there is a continuum of families and they tend to see the families where the domestic violence may have been less lethal or dangerous, but is just as toxic to children.

Betsy discussed some lessons she’s learned in her work. The first lesson is the notion that being a bystander to violence may be just as traumatizing for a child as being the victim, so there is a population of children who are not direct victims but who are truly a witness to violence or are exposed to violence. The second lesson is about the fact that domestic violence is a particularly toxic form of trauma for young children. The third lesson is that helping a non-abusing parent in these situations is essential to helping children affected by domestic violence.

Betsy discussed the bystander effect. She used a study from the mid-90’s that was done to understand how very young children were affected by trauma. There was a debate as to whether very young children could be diagnosed with PTSD, and as more research emerged about the effects of stress on the young brain, this question was put to rest and now there is a diagnosis in the DSM 5, the mental health diagnostic manual for pre-school PTSD, so it has now been codified in this manual. This study was on children who were in DCF custody in the state of Louisiana who were about age 4 and younger. This study was a way to look at their symptoms and behaviors and compare that constellation of behaviors to what is known about symptoms and behaviors consistent with PTSD in older children. The study found a great deal of overlap and made a strong case for the fact that very young children can be affected by violence or trauma and the symptoms are similar to those found in older children. The unanticipated finding was about the variables that predicted PTSD symptoms in these children and what they found was that witnessing violence or threats against the caregivers was a stronger predictor of PTSD than direct physical abuse, which is probably unique to young children. This says a lot about the caregiving environment and the fact that very young children depend on their caregivers for physical and psychological survival. Seeing or witnessing a threat is very potent for children and connects directly to symptoms. Ms. McAlister Groves reiterated that most of the children exposed to domestic violence are under age 8 and several other studies show this. At Boston Medical Center, they survey children in the waiting room who have parents who have reported violence, and the average age of those children is 2.7 years.

Ms. McAlister Groves noted that stressful events can be harmful, tolerable or beneficial to a child, depending on several variables. These events can be moderated by a safe and dependable relationship that a child has access to. Whether an event is stressful or not can depend on whether the child has access to a safe and dependable relationship.

With regard to the impact of trauma on the caregiver-child relationship, Ms. McAlister Groves stated that what they have learned from the children in their program is about the way the child experiences the violence. She used an example of a drawing from one of the children in her program and noted how the child depicted a violent incident that hadn’t happened but the child felt threatened that it might happen. In the moment, the child did not feel a refuge from either parent—one parent was the perpetrator of violence and the other parent is a victim and in the moment, the child has no protection. She noted that young children are often confused about who is safe and who is dangerous because they lack the cognitive ability to make sense out of these situations. The role of trauma in non-abusing parents is significant in the way that children can or cannot be buffered from the impacts of trauma. Oftentimes, mothers have a hard time addressing the psychological needs of their children because of the situation that they’re in. The work that Ms. McAlister Groves does focuses on helping the non-abusing parent as the best way to help the child, and this means addressing the non-abusing parent’s mental health needs; helping the child understand what has happened with the violence; giving the parent information about how the child has been impacted and specific support around parenting what may be difficult behaviors with the child. To the extent that this program can support the parent, that child is able to heal, and this connection is important to helping the parent and child heal together. The program does not deal with critical safety issues in the home, but in many cases there aren’t critical safety issues.

Ms. McAlister Groves discussed the work that her program has done with DCF and how they work on the nexus of care to address the challenges that families face where there are significant concerns about the caregiver and a lot of violence. She left with some take-away messages:

1. The reminder that young children are disproportionately represented in the populations that domestic violence programs work with.

2. Young children are more vulnerable and less able to communicate verbally about the impact of violence or what is going on in the home.  

3.   Young children recover from traumatic experiences ideally in the context of caregiving relationships.

4.  The best way to help a child ideally is to help the non-abusing parent for access to safety and support. 

Ms. McAlister Groves discussed the role of DCF, voluntary agencies and the court system.

With regard to DCF, she noted that years ago DCF went through a two-year process to look at the question as to whether their requirement was going to continue to be that all cases where children witnessing domestic violence would require automatic reporting by a mandated reporter. DCF developed a task force; community meetings, and held lengthy discussions with various groups and voluntary service providers and this concluded in a policy called “promising approaches”, which dictates that mandated reporters are encouraged to review each family situation and to consider whether or on to file with the Department of Children and Families. Mandated reporters should also give due consideration the family environment and to the negative impact of violence on a child. They are encouraged to assess the caretakers’ and child’s conditions when considering whether or not to file a report of concern with regard to several factors including potential danger; access to weapons; escalating threats; mental illness; suicide threats; substance abuse; a history of protective orders; prior arrest; and stalking. There is also a focus on the non-abusing parent and assessing efforts or willingness to seek help; connections to the community; ability to evaluate and recognize the impact on the child; the presence of mental illness or substance abuse. There are criteria that apply to the child, including the age of the child; the fact that the child voices constant worry or fear about danger; a lack of safety presence or symptoms related to traumatic stress sleep disorder; withdrawal from friends; separation anxiety; worried about the safety of loved ones, etc. From the perspective of a voluntary service provider, and in her program they struggled with the notion of being mandated reporters and worrying that for many families that they saw, women were hesitant to seek services, restraining orders, and other kinds of help because of the fear that the children will be removed from the home. Realistically, there is only a small percentage of children that are removed from the home to protective services, yet there is the myth or the fear in many communities that if they tell someone about the violence in the home, the children are going to be removed. The policy that DCF adopted gives her program a little bit more leeway around reporting. The program has filed many reports, but the fact that reports don’t always have to be filed allows them to help more families and make these women feel more comfortable coming forward. If her program is working with a family where the mother has sought services and is connected to her community and is very concerned about her children, she’s taking the appropriate steps to protect her children and the children have some symptoms of concerns but are basically doing okay, the program can help the family in ways that don’t involve mandated reporting. Ms. McAlister Groves noted that this is an important piece of practice that she has in her state that has been very helpful. When her program does file a report, they inform the family and invite the parent to sit with them when they call in the report or have the family call in the report themselves, and work with them through the process. If it is a situation where the organization thinks the child should be removed, they make this known to the family. In the majority of the cases that her program has worked with, after a report has been filed, typically the therapeutic relationship remains intact and they are able to continue to work with the family in a collaborative effort with DCF.

Ms. McAlister Groves then discussed the role of voluntary agencies in determining risk assessment. They look at the history of violence and acknowledge that chronic exposure to trauma is much more impactful and takes a great toll on children in a single episode of violence, so they’re looking for chronicity. In a chart review of the organization, they found that 62% of the children seen in their programs had a lifetime exposure to violence, presenting a serious threat to their mental health. The programs also look at the natures of threats or abuse; at the presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons as reported by the non-abusing parent; history of mental illness; the opinion of risk of safety or danger; the non-abusing parent’s efforts or willingness to seek help or safety; connections to family and friends and social institutions; and the age of the child.

Regarding the court system, Massachusetts has a statewide order to train all courts that work with children and offenders in the state. The judge leading this has asked a small group of people who work with children affected by domestic violence to think about ways that in the context of doing offender risk assessment, there are opportunities for the court to have their eyes on the children. In some cases, the courts don’t see children at all, so the offender risk assessment is a way to make a judge think about children. There has been only one training done so far and as they look at offender assessments, they are dictating to judges that chronicity matters and if there is a history of domestic violence and that there are prior restraining orders that could be a red flag to think about children more seriously. They ask that the court ask about the children and about their ages; whether they’re in childcare or if they’re being seen by a provider. If the judges think about children in these cases, the courts can have some reassurance that someone is thinking about and considering the children. The age of the child is another important consideration, and if the children are very young, courts should be more concerned and ask more questions.

Massachusetts is also thinking about increased use of the guardian ad litem evaluations to understand and think about what’s best for children when parents have been separated and there are custody or visitation orders.

Karen Jarmoc asked if other task force members had questions.

Dr. Nina Livingston asked about the wiggle room that Massachusetts is giving around reporting, and noted that across disciplines this is a primary question she’s asked when giving guidance on this issue—how do providers know which kids to report, etc.? She noted that Connecticut’s guidance is pretty vague and asked Ms. McAlister Groves if she could elaborate on this and whether she used forms or risk assessment tools because pediatricians don’t necessarily have these tools at their disposal. She asked how the guidance translates into practice.

Betsy McAlister Groves responded that when mandated reporters are in doubt in a situation, their guidance is to file. The policy they follow leans toward filing a report, and the important point with the
guideline is the leeway to report or not report. DCF provided extensive training when this rolled out, and they provide a long list of questions/ guidelines on their website to help make determinations in risk assessment, but this hasn’t been evaluated or tested. She noted that her program is in the Department of Pediatrics, and she doesn’t often have time to do these risk assessments. The guidance from DCF to caregivers is that if they have concerns, they should file a report. If there are domestic violence programs in the hospital, pediatricians can call an advocate to have a meeting with the pediatrician or social worker and the family and perhaps do an assessment together and make a decision. DCF recognizes that not every mandated reporter can do this.

Sarah Eagan asked about the focus on a need for parent-child psychotherapy as a critical intervention to respond to the trauma that is created within the family system and to improve outcomes for children. She noted that in Connecticut, practitioners are aware of the breadth and scope of family trauma and that not all services are equal or interchangeable and there aren’t very many models of service intervention that are dyadic and trauma informed and capable of effective work with families along the continuum that Ms. McAlister Groves discussed. She noted that there is some of this type of service in Connecticut, and asked what kind of strategies Massachusetts uses to meet this need and bring these types of interventions to scale. She asked how Massachusetts is funding this kind of initiative and for guidance on how to match capacity to need.

Betsy McAlister-Groves stated that the focus on evidence-based treatment in mental health has been a huge move forward for the field because they have been able to more accurately understand what works and how to train clinicians to use effective tools. She noted that the challenge for the field is that training and getting credentials in these models is costly in terms of time and dollars, and the whole trauma field is struggling with this. Her program has been funded through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and in this network things are changing because now people are asking questions like how they can take the core components of evidence-based treatments and adapt them for uses in other settings. She noted that one specific component she has been involved with is taking the principles of child-parent psychotherapy, which is a model that involves a lot of training, but it would be a good idea to take the principles of this kind of training and adapt it to influence the way that advocates work with families. Her program is partnering with Futures without Violence, a large national domestic violence advocacy resource information website organization. Together, they have completed a curriculum that’s a 3-day training for advocates called “Building competence in parents and children affected by domestic violence”, which takes a dynamic relational model and applies this in shelter programs. She noted that mental health systems cannot serve all children and families that need it, and that programs need to figure out other places for service delivery and other ways of using the theories that work and adapting those for other systems.

Karen asked about the development of the guidance that the Massachusetts DCF gave and how this was created as a result of community meetings, etc. She also asked Mary Painter to discuss the kinds of guidance that Connecticut’s DCF currently offers. She noted that while everyone isn’t always on the same page, when there is policy development, this is an inclusive process, which can be really meaningful. Karen also asked the presenters from Connecticut’s DCF about their work with the non-offending parents and the model that DCF is using to work with these parents, and whether separation is completely voluntary for both parents or if there are circumstances where they’re not both in the home but DCF is still working with the offending parent.

Betsy McAlister Groves responded that she would ask Sue Hubert, the head of the domestic violence unite in Massachusetts DCF to give details about the collaborative work to come up with their guidance principles. She noted that there was a series of community meetings that brought together people from within the domestic violence advocacy community; batterers’ treatment programs, police forces, the court system, DCF; and other groups in a process that took two years to develop these recommendations.

Mary Painter responded that Connecticut’s DCF is looking conceptually at the approach that Massachusetts took and figuring out how to put this into practice. She noted that in Ms. McAlister Groves’ practices, advocates will make calls with families, which is an excellent practice and its important to figure out a way to make their workforce stronger in this capacity. She noted that programs aren’t always able to pair therapists and social workers with families who need services in the provider’s best area of expertise, and that there is a need to elevate the entire workforce to have these skills. She also stated that Connecticut has a broad definition for mandated reporting deliberately, which gives people the opportunity to look at the whole situation and make determinations based on the individual situation. There is a need to train people to look at these cases in a complete way. There are mandated reporting requirements that mandated reporters get trained annually, but these trainings don’t go into the detail that Massachusetts’ DCF does with a guide, which may help Connecticut’s DCF move forward.

Karen noted that there are many people who are mandated reporters and noted that there is a consistent curriculum that is utilized across the spectrum of mandated reporters.
Mary Painter noted that the training for this is either administered by DCF staff or online and is modified periodically over time. This stays within the broad definitions of mandated reporting and ensures that all mandated reporters have a knowledge base of the issues.

Betsy McAlister Groves stated that in Massachusetts, DCF tells mandated reporters that when they’re not sure whether or not to call in a referral, to do so any way and protect a family’s anonymity unless it is necessary.

Sarah Eagan stated that we can do this here in Connecticut, where careline workers will talk to people without taking information and try to provide some guidance.

Mary Painter interjected that sometimes the call is taken but not accepted because there isn’t a full amount of information, so making a call doesn’t always mean that DCF is going to be involved in a situation. She then addressed Karen’s question about DCF’s work with the non-offending parent and stated that DCF used the green book as their foundation for working with these parents. The primary focus of the department is to work with the non-offending parent and the child and connecting people to the trauma interventions for children that are growing in Connecticut, especially for DCF-involved families. They also connect people to an existing service system, which is stronger for the non- offending parent where they use different services in the community. The FAIR model had an important piece of having a family navigator to connect non-offending parents to services because these exist as a much more complete system than exists for men who need services for the same policy area.

James addressed the question as to whether both parties want to stay together or not, and in most cases they plan to, but the goal of the treatment program is not to talk to couples about whether or not to stay together but the fact that they have to be co-parents to their children. There are families where there is a protective order in place and they have time apart and they take time to learn skills and come back to the table when things are modified or when they’re lifted and then they're prepared to continue on with the relationship with these skills and try to get things another try. The co-parenting piece has been very effective.

Mary Painter stated that often there is no co-parent to be working in the situation and with considered removal teaming, they hold separate meetings as needed; separate case planning. In Fathers for Change, the non-offending parent needs to be agreeable to the co-parenting sessions. These families receive completely separate services in FAIR that are not connected and there are teams so that each parent will have a different therapist.

James agreed that they give these options in his program because they understand whether it’s appropriate or not to set two parents up in these co-parent sessions, as families may not feel comfortable addressing the issue together. There are times when women will say that they don’t want to continue with a relationship and during the therapy sessions, they’re careful not to impose a set agenda on each individual family’s makeup.

Garr Lapidus asked about the information systems in DCF to support this kind of work. He noted that it is difficult to get information from providers and parents and the community and asked whether the system is currently operating sufficiently to support this work.

Mary Painter responded that currently, they have two data systems that they work with, one being their provider information system that providers put information into and a Saquis data system which is due to be updated and currently the Injury prevention center is manually going through all of the records to get the detailed information about families, and this takes significant time so the system needs to be updated. They are also using a system through the injury prevention center called Qualitrex, which gives a lot of detail about the comprehensive assessment, which is going to provide lots of helpful information but this needs to be built and expanded upon in the department and across agencies.

Cynthia agreed that in the judiciary department, they have advocated for sharing information across systems so that juvenile, family, criminal and probate courts can communicate. She suggested it would be very helpful to have a universal system so that individuals in each divisions have access to a universal model where they can all access the same information. She voiced that there is a significant need to have a more streamlined approach to dealing with this cases, whether this was funneling all cases through one judge, or by having a liaison across departments. This would make the system more efficient and would serve parties and families better so that efforts are not duplicated and information doesn’t get lost because it isn’t being shared.

Karen Jarmoc asked whether there were statutory prohibitions to this.

Judge Bozzuto answered that there are statutory prohibitions and probate and juvenile courts have completely confidential cases. There are hurdles to this, but there is a significant need to be able to share some information, and it is counter-productive for judges to be operating in a vacuum.

Christine Raipllo noted that 46b-124 allows for quite a bit of agency sharing, and it was suggested that the systems are not operational to the point where people have access to the information because there are different data systems. The statutes do allow people to share information, but current practitioners aren’t educated on what information is and isn’t appropriate to share.

Cynthia Mahon noted that 46b-124 does allow this information to be shared, but there needs to be a better, more effective mechanism in place to allow people to share information so there need to be some guidelines and policies in place as to how this is to transpire. She also stated that it would be helpful for court officers to have access to protective registries in the courthouse.

Judge Bozzuto responded that judges don’t always know that another case exists and it would be helpful to have notifications that another case exists.

Linda Harris asked about the three-day training and how this would manifest itself so that workers could go into homes and work with families.

Betsy McAlister Groves responded that this would be a great program for home visitors and could be easily adapted to them.

Sarah Eagan noted that trauma-informed therapy services for young children and parents is still a major service dirth. She also asked about the developmental impact for a child exposed to trauma and noted that there is a need to have a strong connections between screening service provision and early intervention services that is also a capacity builder for the non-offending parent. The state is still working on how to connect with very young children exposed to maltreatment and connecting those children to programs and services.

Karen Jarmoc adjourned the meeting at 12:13

A motion was duly made and seconded to adjourn the meeting. The meeting was adjourned at 12:00..

Sara LeMaster Task Force Staff 

Monday, January 11, 2016


Making Health and Safety of Children First Priority

My name is Barry Goldstein and I have worked in the DV movement since 1983 as a board member, lawyer, writer, batterer program instructor and supervisor, speaker, advocate, expert witness and Research Director for the Stop Abuse Campaign.  I have written some of the leading books about DV and custody that are based on current scientific research.  I appreciate the work the task force is doing and especially like your repeated mention of important terms like multi-disciplinary approach, evidence based and trauma informed.  A full integration of these important concepts would dramatically improve the lives of Connecticut's children.  At the same time multi-disciplinary cannot mean limiting input to professionals with expertise in law and mental health; evidence based is not reality when critical current research like ACE and Saunders have not been integrated into standard custody court practices and trauma-informed must mean that the focus is on protecting children from adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and helping them heal when they have been exposed to ACEs.  Trauma-informed also means that society responds to the tragedies like the murder of Aaden Moreno by creating reforms that can prevent such tragedies.
The courts in Connecticut developed responses to domestic violence that were not evidence based for a very good reason-there was no research at the time.  They developed responses based on popular assumptions that DV was caused by mental illness or substance abuse.  This led courts to turn to mental health professionals as if they were the experts in DV.  They developed practices based on the assumption that only physical abuse was harmful and the risk ended when the relationship was over.  All of these assumptions proved wrong, but the practices based on these 1970s assumptions continue to undermine the courts' ability to protect children.
Critical Current Scientific Research
There is a lot of valuable research that can improve our response to DV, but I want to focus on ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the Saunders' Study.  

ACE comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its findings have been confirmed and expanded in five later studies.  Saunders comes from the National Institute of Justice (US Justice Department) so I am speaking about research with very strong credibility.
The ACE Research found that children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse will live shorter lives and suffer more illness and injuries throughout their lives.  Aside from the immediate risk of bodily harm, there is nothing that goes more to the essence of the best interests of children.  Significantly physical assault is not needed to create these catastrophic consequences. The essence of DV is that abusers use a variety of tactics to coerce and intimidate their partners to do what the abuser wants.  This inevitably creates fear in the direct victim and the children.  The children are afraid for themselves and for their mother.  Living with this fear causes the worst type of stress because they have no control over when the abuser engages in these scary tactics. Courts that tend to focus on physical abuse and individual incidents are only looking at what acts a parent committed.  In doing so they miss the pattern and most important for the well-being of children they fail to focus on who is afraid.  A victim might lash out at the abuser in frustration or self-defense and the abuser may embellish or make up assault claims so that courts mistakenly treat his abuse as if it were mutual.  In the Ray Rice case both parties were initially arrested.  Only one parent is afraid and the children are afraid for that parent.  And usually the victim is the primary attachment figure that the children most rely on to meet their needs.
Just as the Surgeon General's report linking cancer and smoking demonstrated the enormous health consequences for our tolerance of smoking, the ACE Research demonstrates the enormous consequences of tolerating and minimizing DV and child abuse.  Our present level of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, substance abuse, crime, school drop-out, suicide and other health and social problems is based on our long tolerance of these ACEs.  When custody courts fail to recognize or minimize abuse issues and focus on less important issues they are maintaining the present level of illness and social problems with unspeakable human consequences.  The courts in Connecticut are not using trauma-informed practices and we know this because ACE has not yet become central to the discussion of DV and child abuse issues.
The Saunders' study looked at the knowledge of evaluators, judges and lawyers regarding DV.  They found that DV advocates have far more of the specific knowledge courts need to respond to DV cases than evaluators, judges or lawyers.  This is one of the reasons a multi-disciplinary approach is so important and must include genuine DV experts when there are reports or information about possible DV.  It is useful for other court professionals to receive training regarding DV but that does not provide them with the level of expertise needed to respond effectively to potential DV cases. One of the problems we have seen is that DV training means different things to different professionals.  The Saunders' study found that the courts need knowledge in four very specific areas that include screening for DV, risk assessment, post-separation violence and the impact of DV on children.
We have seen many professionals discredit true reports of abuse based on information that is not probative such as a victim returning to her abuser, failing to follow through on a petition for a protective order and the lack of police or medical records.  All of these are common responses from victims for safety and other good reasons.  At the same time many court professionals fail to look for the pattern of coercive and controlling tactics.  

Professionals without knowledge of post-separation violence tend to assume the danger ends when the parties separate or after a few years without further physical abuse.  These mistaken assumptions routinely lead courts to disbelieve or minimize true abuse reports.  This is especially problematical for judges because they may be unaware the professionals they are relying on based their recommendations on information that is not probative.
The Saunders' study found that evaluators, judges and lawyers who do not have the specific knowledge and training tend to focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false reports, unscientific alienation theories and the assumptions that mother's attempts to protect their children actually harm the children. These mistaken beliefs lead to recommendations that harm children.
The Saunders' study also has an important section about the extreme cases in which a court disbelieves mothers' reports of abuse and then limits mothers who are the primary attachment figures and always took good care of the children to supervised or no visitation.  Dr. Saunders' refers to these as "harmful outcome" cases.  These decisions are always wrong because the harm of denying a child a normal relationship with their primary attachment figure, a harm that includes increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide when older is greater than any benefit the court thought it was providing.  The Saunders' study found these extreme outcomes are caused by the use of very flawed practices so that often the opposite result would have benefited the children.
Research on Child Murders: 
Erring on the Side of Risk

The tragic, but preventable murder of Aaden Moreno illustrates the need to look at research about child murders.  In a recent two-year period we found news stories about 175 children murdered by fathers in contested custody cases.  Dr. Dianne Bartlow interviewed judges and court administrators in the communities where these tragedies were committed.  The judges who participated tended to be those with the best training and most interest in DV which is why they took the time to be interviewed.  
Dr. Bartlow asked the question that should be the focus of court officials in response to these murders.  What reforms did the courts in these communities implement in response to the tragedies?  The surprising answer was nothing because they all assumed the tragedy in their community was an exception.One of the systemic problems with custody courts is that they tend to look at each case and each issue separately and thus miss thepatterns that can help officials recognize problems.
Unfortunately the response to Aaden Moreno was similar. Instead of focusing on what reforms could be implemented to better protect children, the court system sought to justify the actions of Judge Barry Pinkus.  I have no doubt that Judge Pinkus was sincerely horrified at the outcome and was simply following common practices, but the murder could have been prevented. The defensive response claimed the evidence did not support the requirement for a continuous threat of physical pain or injury.  This mistaken assumption is based on the lack of an evidence based approach and failure to use a multi-disciplinary response.  If Judge Pinkus had received necessary training from DV advocates or could have consulted with an advocate, he would have learned that abusers often use physical violence only once or a few times, but that is enough to make the victim aware of what he is capable of.  The other non-physical tactics serve as a reminder of the continuous risk of physical pain or injury.
One of the tragedies considered in the Bartlow research was a case involving Katie Tagle.  Ms. Tagle sought a protective order based on threats by the father to kill Baby Wyatt.  Judge Lemkau repeatedly said he believed the mother was lying and gave the father the access he needed to kill Wyatt.  Judge Lemkau apologized to the mother, expressed how sorry he was about the murder but said there was nothing he could have done based on the circumstances.  In a sense, he and Judge Pinkus are correct, as long as we continue the outdated and discredited practices that are commonly used in custody courts, we cannot protect the children.  
One of the points some of the good judges who participated in the Bartlow research made was the importance of erring on the side of safety.  I recently wrote a series of articles about this concept, because so many of the standard practices tend to err on the side of risk.  Most custody cases are settled more or less amicably. Even cases involving abusive fathers often settle because the fathers still love their children and are not willing to hurt them by denying them a relationship with the mother.  These cases are often settled with the abuser gaining an unfair financial settlement in return for the children living with their primary attachment figure.  The problem is the 3.8% of cases that go to trial and often far beyond.  Court professionals are taught to treat these as "high conflict" cases by which they mean the parents are angry with each other and act out in ways that hurt the children.
High Conflict Custody Case = Domestic Violence
An evidence-based approach would recognize that between 75-90% of contested custody are really DV cases involving the worst abusers-abusers who believe she has no right to leave, so they are entitled to use any tactics necessary to regain what they believe is their right to control her.  "Fathers' Rights" groups which are really controlled by the worst abusers encourage members to seek custody as a way to regain control and punish victims for leaving. A cottage industry of psychologists and lawyers has developed to help abusive fathers win custody.  We are dealing with DV cases and economic abuse is an important part of DV.  The cottage industry understands that abusers control the family resources so the best way to make large incomes is to support practices that help abusers.  

Parental Alienation Theory = Domestic Violence
The unscientific alienation theories referenced by the Saunders' study were concocted to give the cottage industry a way to support its clients.  It is based on the myth that most abuse reports are false and the remedy is to create "harmful outcome" cases- again, referenced by the Saunders' research.  Too often courts use these biased professionals as if they were neutral, and their misinformation poisons other cases.  Treating these bogus professionals as if they were credible contributes to widespread concerns about corruption.
The mistaken "high conflict" analysis contributes to approaches that err on the side of risking children.  Instead of pressuring abusers to change their behavior if they want a relationship with the children, courts routinely pressure victims and their children to accommodate the abuser.  When victims object to interacting with their abuser, they are treated as uncooperative and often punished.  In reality punishing the victims is also punishing the children.
I appreciate that court officials are proud of the difficult work they do and want to believe they are doing a good job.  It is normal to be defensive in response to criticism, but one of the first things I learned in the batterer program I teach in is that defensive responses always lose.  The task force spoke of the training judicial officers receive, but clearly there is a disconnect between whatever training is provided and the actual results.  I respect that court officials in Connecticut believe they are doing a good job under difficult circumstances, but this is not supported by any evidence based analysis.
Like the good judges in the Bartlow research, the Connecticut Judiciary responded to the Aaden Moreno tragedy by defensively seeking to avoid responsibility rather than an inquiry about what can be done differently.  More often, the same mistakes that lead to child murders result in children living with abusers and suffering longer-term but still harmful consequences.  In other words reforms that would immediately save the lives of children like Aaden will also benefit thousands of children whose names we will never know.
Nationally, the statistics show that every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers. Although mothers make deliberate false reports of abuse less than 2% of the time, in cases involving reports of child sexual abuse, the alleged abusers win custody 85% of the time.  The ACE research found that at least 22% of our children are sexually abused by the time they reach eighteen.  Similar statistics are not new, but by eliminating any possibility of false reports the ACE research is compelling on this issue.  Clearly society must improve the response to child sexual abuse.
Lest defenders try to suggest the national statistics don't apply to Connecticut, the standard practices are incompatible with any assumption that children are safe in Connecticut's courts.
Connecticut is not using a multi-disciplinary approach:  The task force wisely encouraged court professionals to learn about DV from DV advocates.  But right now most training of judges is done by other judges, lawyers train lawyers and psychologists train psychologists.  Expert reports and testimony come mostly from mental health professionals.  Children will be better protected when judges consider what specific expertise is needed instead of just turning to mental health professionals.
A recent tragedy in Westchester County, New York illustrates the problem of limiting an inquiry to mental health approaches.  A decorated, recently retired police officer killed his two teenage daughters while they were sleeping before committing suicide.  All the reports were that he was a wonderful man and father so much of the focus of the reporting concerned how he could have committed such a horrendous act.  The local Gannett Newspaper assigned a reporter to try to answer this question.
The reporter spoke to law enforcement professionals, some of whom knew the officer and they couldn't fathom why he would do this.  The problem was that most abusers act very differently with the rest of the world than they do with their immediate family.  The reporter interviewed various mental health professionals.  They tried to concoct some unlikely psychological explanation but even they admitted their speculation was unlikely.  Then the reporter interviewed me.  I was able to draw from the Bartlow research about the pattern of child murders in contested custody cases.  The most dangerous abusers are those who believe their partner has no right to leave.  It turned out his wife had recently requested a separation and made a report to the police.  
We desperately want to be able to prevent the kind of tragedy that occurred in Harrison, NY, but we must be able to understand the cause in order to prevent future tragedies.  The mental health professionals could not understand the cause because they were limited to psychological explanations, and DV is not caused by mental illness.  Courts must have access to DV expertise if they are going to recognize and respond effectively to possible DV cases.
The Connecticut courts have been slow to integrate important research like ACE and Saunders into their response to custody cases.  This means they are not using evidence -based practices.  The inevitable result is courts failing to recognize and believe true reports of abuse; minimizing the significance of a pattern of DV; and focusing on far less important issues.  
The courts are willing to consider unscientific alienation theories that were concocted not based on any research but rather the beliefs, biases and experiences of the founder of the cottage industry.  These beliefs include many statements to the effect that sex between adults and children can be acceptable.  I suspect few judges would want to be associated with such beliefs if they knew the origin of these bogus theories.  While bogus theories are allowed to poison the system, important, peer reviewed scientific research from the most credible sources is not used.
The Saunders' findings about harmful outcome cases are critical to understanding the problems with the court response to abuse cases.  Harmful outcome cases are all too common in Connecticut.  The existence of these cases continues only because flawed practices are permitted to continue, but the harm is even greater.
I have heard all too many stories from battered mothers and children about the impact of these harmful outcome cases.  The pain and the suffering are unspeakable.  The children are forced to endure horrific abuse and denied a relationship with their loving mothers.  Abusers use the power provided by the courts to undermine the mothers' relationships.  I don't know if the worst thing in the world for mothers is being denied any meaningful relationship with their children or knowing their children are being tortured.  
It is these horrifically mishandled cases that lead to the widespread belief that the custody courts are corrupt.  It is hard to imagine any other explanation when courts seem to ignore overwhelming evidence of abuse and repeatedly retaliate and punish victims for trying to protect their children.  As an expert I can recognize the many unintentional mistakes that lead courts to impose these tragedies, but it has to stop.
Courts cannot protect children when they are not trauma informed.  The ACE research demonstrates that exposure to DV and child abuse is more consequential than any of the other factors the courts are asked to consider.  And physical abuse is not required to create the catastrophic consequences.  But when court professionals are largely unaware of the consequences and don't know best practices to recognize DV, they can't protect the children.
The precious children of Connecticut will never be safe in its courts until they integrate and prioritize evidence based practices, multi-disciplinary approaches and trauma informed responses.  Fortunately there is a direct way to make sure the children are protected.
The Solution
The Safe Child Act is a modern, evidence-based solution to the problems custody courts face in responding to domestic violence and child abuse cases.  It requires what should be obvious; that the health and safety of children must be the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions.  This is accomplished by integrating important scientific research like ACE and Saunders, relying on a more multi-disciplinary approach when specific expertise is needed, and barring unscientific theories that only poison the process.
The Task Force has emphasized the need for training of judges and other professionals, but the research demonstrates present training approaches have not been effective.  Professionals need to unlearn misinformation based on earlier mistaken assumptions and deliberately promoted by the cottage industry that makes its money helping abusers.  
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges recently invited me as one of the experts to discuss child custody evaluations.  I asked a judge from Colorado how a new law that had some aspects of the Safe Child Act was working.  He said  judges who previously sought to avoid training were begging to attend trainings about how to implement the new law.  In other words passing the Safe Child Act will cause judges to want the information needed to protect Connecticut's children.
I have noticed that there has been a lot of anger and controversy in recent discussions in the legislature about custody court reforms.  Victims have angrily complained about widespread corruption and court professionals have responded with defensiveness and anger.  While there is corruption within the cottage industry, I have seen no proof that judges are being paid off.  Instead, the appearance stems from outrageous decisions that seem to have no basis in the evidence or the well-being of children and so create the appearance of corruption.  The Safe Child Act will eliminate the outdated and discredited practices that sully the reputation of the court system and undermine the public's faith in the judiciary.
Lawyers on both sides of a case and the judges often phrase their arguments in terms of the best interests of children, but the Safe Child Act will actually make a wonderful difference in children's lives.  The lead author of the original ACE Study said that prevention is the best use for his research.  The Safe Child Act creates objective standards supported by evidence based research to determine the well-being of children.  Connecticut's children will live longer, healthier and more satisfying lives when the Safe Child Act is passed. I have been in tears too many times hearing the horrific stories that could have been prevented. It is up to the legislature to make sure the custody court system is not just about the judges, lawyers, evaluators or abusers.  We must protect our children.

Barry Goldstein is a leading expert and the author of books on domestic violence and custody including: Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody, 

"Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody will be instructive for policymakers, those working in the family justice system, and members of the media-which the authors say has by-and-large failed to expose custody court scandals. But it is a must-read for any mother involved in a child custody battle, and especially for mothers trying get free from an abusive relationship."

-R. Dianne Bartlow, Ms. Magazine Blog