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Published June 1, 2003 by Dianne Post J.D.

Arizona Battered Mothers Testimony Project

by Dianne Post J.D. and the Arizona Coalition Agaisnt Domestic Viol

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence implemented the Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project (BMTP) to explore the lived experiences of battered women in family court matters when child custody is an issue and domestic violence is present. Previous studies suggested that battered women do not face a level playing field in the family court. Discrimination abounds and myths pervade the judicial process. The rights of the children are not upheld and the victims of violence receive neither protection nor justice. We hope the report will lead to public discussion of the problems and issues, create impetus for change, and lay down a roadmap for positive resolution.

Drawing on a similar Massachusetts study, the BMTP surveyed a sample of women who had participated in a contested custody hearing in Arizona Superior Court where allegations of domestic violence or child abuse were present. Some participants were happy with the results of the court hearings and some were not. Even those who were pleased with the results were often displeased with the process. The study limited participants to women involved in cases since 1986, the first year that the courts were mandated by statute to consider domestic violence in custody disputes. The goal was not to do detailed case investigation but to ascertain trends and phenomena. The similarity of the 57 stories, a large number for a qualitative study, illustrates the presence of human rights violations. 

The study considered diverse quantitative data in relation to the parties, including the number of years married, ages of adults and children, genders of children, comparative races and ethnicities of the parties, educational levels, child support amounts, and income levels. The study also considered the behavior of the perpetrator and victim to determine systems of control pre-divorce and post-separation. Finally, the study considered the impact of having an Order of Protection, having an attorney, using a custody evaluator, appointing a guardian ad litem, or involving Child Protective Service. The following points summarize the study’s findings: 

  • In spite of evidence of violence against the women and/or their children (and with such violence documented in 63% of the cases) the courts consistently ordered sole or joint custody to perpetrators in 74% of the cases in Maricopa County and 56% of the cases in the other counties combined.
  • Income level, which was highly skewed towards fathers, seemed to have the most impact on the ultimate custody decision.
  • A mother represented by an attorney was more likely to win custody.
  • Having a custody evaluator more likely resulted in the mother losing custody.
  • By and large, the systems of control the perpetrator established pre-divorce, including physical and sexual violence and child abuse, were maintained post-separation with the added ability to use the court system to abuse the victims.
  • Having an order of protection had no impact on the final custody decision; contrary to Arizona law, the courts simply ignored the documented existence of domestic violence.
  • The courts ignored well-known research and federal standards as 100% of the victims were ordered to go to mediation or a face-to-face meeting with the abuser.
  • A large number of perpetrators had weapons or used alcohol or drugs when with children.
  • Child support orders were inconsistent.
  • A large number of judges thought that since the parties were separated, domestic violence was not a concern.
  • In a large number of cases, unsupervised visits were awarded or the supervisor was an untrained person such as a family member.

Once completed, the findings were analyzed in relation to state, constitutional and international human rights laws. For this group of battered mothers, state law was violated at virtually every turn. Constitutional issues such as due process, equal protection and the fundamental right of parenting were violated by arbitrary rules and actual practice. The fundamental precepts of international human rights law were violated. The children’s rights to a violence-free life and due process in the courts according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child were also violated.

The report concludes with an extensive call for action to policy makers, the legal community, state government and, most importantly, the public. Though the issues of domestic violence and child abuse have been debated for decades, the victims continue to suffer because the system cannot or will not reform itself. Only with pressure from an educated public that puts meaning to the words “best interest of the child” will these victims of violence be protected.

To read full report (pdf) click here .

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