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Published on January 04, 2007 by The Ithaca Journal

Family Court Trend Doesn´t Favor Mothers
by Suzanne Sheaffer Van Orman

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New York state seems to have set a new trend in its family courts. This movement echoes past trends toward equal rights such as a woman's right to choose and affirmative action. The political pendulum (axe) is swinging again. The past five decades or so have seen child custody primarily as the reward to and responsibility of mothers. The unspoken rule has been that unless the mother was qualified as unfit, she would be allowed primary guardianship of the children to whom she gave birth. Current trends are beginning to mimic a time when women and children were considered marital property. Though not as openly sexist as our historical legacy, judges and law guardians hide inside a Trojan horse of sexual equality. Many law guardians arbitrarily recommend that the fathers who want custody get it. Rather than concern for the best interest of the child, these law guardians appear to strive to raise the statistics in favor of fathers.

It is probably safe to say that mothers who are not awarded custody are generally perceived as unfit. A mother may be deemed unstable if she exhibits strong emotion when faced with separation from her children. The same is not usually assumed of fathers. I do not refer to the many wonderful, selfless fathers who agree that the welfare of children should always supersede their personal needs, nor the mothers who do not put their children first. Having made this distinction, I find it interesting that a large percent of domestic offenders who want full custody of their children pursue this objective only when another woman is available to care for them. Often, the father simply wants to maintain control over the family and/or avoid paying child support. The majority of the mothers on the receiving end of domestic offenses are at an economic disadvantage when the father leaves the home and takes his income with him. This disadvantage makes it nearly impossible for her to retain competent legal representation.

Unfortunately, even a very proficient lawyer may not be able to help her. In fact, according to a 2004 study conducted by Jay Silverman at Harvard University, over 54 percent of custody cases involving documented and proven domestic abuse perpetrated by the father (against the mother) results in the father being awarded custody of the children. This rate has since risen. Judges generally follow the recommendations of law guardians and court appointed psychologists.

A court psychologist in Ithaca isn't required to undergo any domestic violence training in order to be hired by the court as an “expert witness.” Isn't the nature of a custody case domestic? Since domestic violence is so common, shouldn't we expect that those who evaluate our circumstances be well-educated in domestic violence issues?

As a result of such low standards, hundreds of women in Tompkins and many other counties have unjustly lost their rights and privileges to raise their children. These rights have been awarded to abusive and/or substance dependent fathers, many of whom have criminal records and have committed violent crimes against women. Judges have the discretionary power to dismiss evidence which may prove contrary to the law guardian and psychologist advice. This may happen when law guardians object to the submission of evidence that conflicts with their own recommendations. Further, the law guardians work closely with court appointed psychologists and are highly unlikely to dispute each other.

Want to file a complaint against a law guardian? Good luck. When a law guardian is also his/her own supervisor, it may be impossible to obtain an impartial result. The limited number of law guardians are likely to maintain personal relationships with each other and have been shown to support each others' attitudes. There is evidently no oversight committee to monitor this group. How can they be held accountable for their behaviors? The same can be said about the liability of the court psychologist.

It is no mystery why women remain in sub-quality relationships with abusive partners when those we have elected and hired to support her have failed to serve and protect. Those interested in bringing our family court back into this century and forcing it to do the job expected of it will meet at the battered women's custody conference Jan. 13-15 in Albany. Information is available at

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