Jacquelynne Bowman, J.D.: The focus of this workshop is to begin to look at what happens if it's the victim who is the visiting parent. One thing that makes supervised visitation centers work effectively is when we can collaborate with one another across different disciplines. As an attorney representing primarily victims of domestic violence, there are certain things that I don't know about how supervised visitation systems work. And, the only way that I know that is to work closely with people who run supervised visitation centers and also to work with people who supervise visits, because sometimes when we go to court, as attorneys, we are asking the judge to order someone to go to a supervised visitation center, and if I don't know how those centers work and operate and the best way to support my client, then my client could be at risk. So, you need a partnership in order to support the adult victim of domestic violence.
Lonna Davis: We built these programs and some of, you built your programs based on who had custody and who didn't.
Jacquelynne Bowman: I just want to spend a few minutes going very quickly over the court system and how you can end up in a situation where a women who was clearly the primary caretaker parent, say in this particular instance she was a stay at home mom, could end up in a situation where she loses custody. Some of you talked about it before, inadequate legal counsel or lack of legal counsel, inability to tell the story in a way in which other people who are decision makers can hear it, unwillingness to disclose that she has been abused or is a victim of abuse, or circumstances spiraling out of control.
In this particular demonstration, you had a woman who ended up being arrested, and one of the reasons that she was arrested is because the police officer came in and discovered that he was the one that was injured, and advised him to go to the court to get the restraining order. Sometimes it's a race to the court, who gets there first, who gets the restraining order first, who gets the vacate order first. You can't really make any subjective decisions based on the fact that the woman has lost custody.
The sort of normal situations in which custody comes up, restraining order granting the person who is asking for the restraining order custody, a paternity action, legal separation, or divorce action, and sometimes it all depends on who is the first one to get to court. One of the things about courts, I mean you know judges tend to do things following what they call "legal precedent," whatever happened before will happen again, and again, and again, and that also plays out in family court, juvenile courts. If you are the first one to go to court, and you've got custody, and the other person has been vacated from the home, or is homeless, or you don't know where they are, and you get custody, then you've kind of set status quo for the court.
Custody standards tend to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but almost everywhere in the United States custody determinations turn on what's in the child's best interests. If some information is given to the court that indicates that a child might be at risk with a particular parent, then the court wants to figure out what that is before they make a custody determination. We know from working with the parents who should have gotten custody, but sometimes it doesn't work that way. Sometimes you have two parents in front of the court who are equally bad or equally good, and you can't figure out as a judge who the right parent is, so you keep status quo. If the other person got to the courthouse before you did, then you end up losing custody because the status quo was he came in, he had the child. There might not be anything wrong with either of you in terms of your parenting capacity.
It's only been within the last 10 years or so that courts have looked at domestic violence as a factor in making custody determinations. Throughout the 50 states, how they look at domestic violence is very different. In some states, if there was abuse between the parents then that is sort of the "kiss of death" in terms of the other party getting custody, in some other states, it is only one factor, and some states literally have 30 or more factors in their statute. So, it's one factor on par with "he is the psychological parent," and so it makes it really difficult to say that because he engaged in the use of violence against the other parent he shouldn't have custody if it is only one of 31 factors and 25 factors weigh in his favor and the only factor in her favor is the domestic violence. So, I think it is really hard for courts, based on some of the statutes, to even make those kinds of determinations and make those decisions in looking at various factors.
Now, one of the things that happens a lot to is you get fathers who say, "Well, I'm going to fight for custody because I know it's a way I can get control over her" or what-have-you and then you've got a mother who you know on a day-to-day basis is an okay mother, but then the question is whether or not she is good enough. In some instances, you have judges who say, "Well gee, she's got all these black marks against her, missing the bus, late for the doctor, or what-have-you, she doesn't go to the kids games, or whatever" and the judge may say, "Well, he's fighting really hard for custody, so he must be an involved father. I really think that he's going to be a good father for these kids. It's a boy, he needs his dad." Or, "This is her second abusive relationship; she is not a good judge of character, we're going to give custody to him."
In contested custody cases, where guys are fighting for custody, they tend to win more times than not. Now, part of it is that they have access to counsel and counsel will advise them, "you don't have a custody prayer in the world," and so they don't fight for custody, they might mediate it out and she ends up getting custody. But, in the cases where there are some issues, she misses the bus, she's late for the doctor, she's not a good enough mother, or what-have-you, in those kinds of cases according to the American Judges Foundation, 70 percent of those cases have resulted in the abuser ending up with custody. That is not a statistic that you can sort of run to the bank with, because we don't know how many cases get mediated out, we don't know how many cases where the abuser has been advised by counsel, "you're not going to get custody because you are not the psychological parent, you are not the primary caretaker parent," or what-have-you. It's just a number to keep in mind and keep in context. Studies have shown, particularly in the child support arena, that when you've got both parents involved there is more of a willingness to pay child support and the children actually do better than when you've got a sole parent involved.
I think that people having the best interest of children in mind are sort of geared towards getting both parents to be actively involved in their children's lives. Children do well when they've got both parents involved. Children tend not to be in the criminal justice system or in the juvenile delinquency system when both parents are actively engaged in their development, and because of that we've got this sort of creep across the country in favor of joint custody. I think in the abstract it is not a bad idea. The problem is when you've got two parents who cannot cooperate either because of domestic violence or because of some high conflict or something of that sort, substance abuse or what-have-you, that prevents the two people from being on the same equal plane and sharing jointly in the role of parenting the child, and that's when you've got a problem.
The end result is that victims can lose custody; that you can end up in a situation where the victim of domestic violence loses custody. Just think about where the victims are, sometimes they are depressed, sometimes they are self-medicating, sometimes they are homeless, and sometimes they are not the best parent to take care of the child at a particular point in time. When the courts get involved in a family situation, they're looking at a snapshot, what's going on right now, and who is acting in the child's best interests, and sometimes it's not the victim.
Lonna Davis: How do you build trust, establish good communication, be clear, and still play a role that doesn't go too far afield from the boundaries of what you can do. I think that is why we have our collaborative partners, and we make sure that women are getting to see whoever else they need to see besides visitation center staff. This is where some of the things that we've heard from the women would be helpful for them, and what they basically said to me is, "go forth and tell. Tell everyone, write it down, publish it, give it to all the people that you can, to tell them this is what we want. We want you to help us trust you, because we're not going to walk in, you've heard this now many times, we're not going to walk in and trust you, so help us do that. Please make sure we get an attorney and an advocate. Give us the details about what this is and don't tell us just once because we forget when you tell us everything at the same time. Help me think about my emotional preparation for the visit as well as the physical part of the orientation. Help me reconnect with my children."
When I think about the policies that we set up in 1991 and, I have no idea what your policies are, but boy we didn't do any of them, for sure.
Jacquelynne Bowman, J.D.: See I think it's important for you who operate supervised visitation centers to understand what your goal and purpose in operating those centers are, so that when the families, when you are talking to the judges, why are people being sent to your visitation center. Being clear about what it is you can do and what it is you are not going to do. Make certain that your judges and your courts, or whoever is referring the families to you, are aware of what you can do and what you can't do. Also, make that clear to the people who are coming to visit with their children and people who are dropping their children off. What is it that you can do, what is it that you are not going to do. Be very clear about that. Sometimes that sort of helps in this kind of a situation. If parties are being referred to your center because there is a safety concern for an adult victim and their children, you've got to have policies in place that are going to protect the adult victim and their children.
When we first came into this sort of sense of doing supervised visitation, we were really looking at the safety of the children. It is a new thing to begin to look at the safety of the adult victim, and that's what we are asking people to think about. The policies that you have, do they work for the adult victim who's visiting, if they are not, what are the things that you need to do to change them. If you cannot change them, then you need to communicate with your core so that they don't send people to your center who could be in further danger.
It becomes important that you have these collaborative relationships with community partners. I think that it's important to have the court system involved. It's important to have domestic violence advocates involved. It's important to have legal advocates involved, so that when you come into a situation where you've got someone who needs to have resources that you as a supervised visitation center can't provide, then you've got some referral sources, and you've got a clear understanding, along with your collaborative partners, about what it is that you as a visitation center can do, what it is that you as a domestic violence advocacy organization can do, what it is that you as the court can do and any other collaborative partners. For example, there are other places to provide social services, are they part of your network, do they understand what it is that you can do and what the limitations are upon your supervised visitation center. It's very important to have this conversation because if people are being referred to your center because they are in an unsafe situation and you're not thinking about their safety, then you might be putting them in further danger. So, no matter what your principle is around how you interpret neutrality, or what-have-you, you've got to think about the people coming to your center. Why are they coming? What is it that you are standing for in having them come to your center? It becomes very critical that you do that.
And, finally, one size doesn't fit all. You cannot presume that the person who is coming to your center is the abuser or the victim. You've got to have some flexibility. However, it is that you do your policy, whether you wait for the judge to order whether-or-not guests can come, or whether-or-not you make that determination as a center, whether you decide that food can come in, or food can't come in, you've got to have some flexibility. For some people, it may be a cultural thing. People travel in groups, families all come together because it is cultural. Grandma, mom, and aunts and uncles all come together and that just may be the way that they do things. You need to have a way where you can assess families independent of these very, very rigid rules and regulations. If you do that, then I think it doesn't really matter whether-or-not the visiting parent is the victim or not because you've got an individualized program where you can sort of meet the needs of the particular people coming in and understand why it is that they are coming into your center.