Congress Voted to Prioritize Child Safety in Family Court
My heart knows. Some of the Congressional Representatives with whom I shared Lou’s story were deeply moved. Perhaps some shared my letter with their colleagues who were on the fence about House Concurrent Resolution 72, encouraging them to sign on as co-sponsors so that the legislation might move forward. How could anyone not support the notion that child safety should be the first priority in all child custody adjudications? That must be the subject of a separate blog post. The important thing and the good news is that House Resolution 72 did pass in September 2018. Lou’s life continues to matter. His story contributes to the needed change about which he sings in his song, Change: For Our Daughters, For Our Sons.
Here is my letter, written on Fathers Day 2018.
TO: Rep. Carolyn Maloney; Rep. Pete Sessions; House Committee on the Judiciary and Co-Sponsors of House Concurrent Resolution 72: Prioritizing Child Safety in Adjudication of Child Custody
FROM: Rhonda Case, Advisor, the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence; Survivor Representative, Management Team, Family Court Enhancement Project in Multnomah County, Oregon (DOJ/OVW Project); Member, Battered Mothers (Child) Custody Conference, Associate Professor, College of the Redwoods
DATE: June 17, 2018
First, allow me to offer my profound gratitude for your support of House Congressional Resolution 72. Special thanks to Ms. Maloney and Mr. Sessions, Sponsors.
The time is right to garner additional support among your colleagues for this important Concurrent Resolution. The one silver lining of our nation’s current crisis regarding immigrant families may be this: our attention is now focused on the importance of protecting children. The American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics implore us to acknowledge scientifically proven realities. The impacts of early childhood trauma are lifelong and devastating for both individuals and for society. Child abuse links directly and dramatically to suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and severe mental health issues in later life. In 2012, the C.D.C. estimated the costs of child abuse at $124 billion per year. Immigration reform is complex and problematic. In contrast, the passage of House Resolution 72 will mark a significant step toward safeguarding America’s youngest citizens, our future. It places no added strain on the federal budget and yet will lead to long overdue protections for thousands of American women and their children, victims of domestic violence in all 50 States.
On the Monday after Mothers Day 2013, I sat in Congressman Ted Poe’s office, part of a delegation of protective mothers and our advocates, participants in the tenth annual Battered Mothers (Child) Custody Conference. Mr. Ron Legrand, former Democratic Counsel, also welcomed us, as did many senators and congressional representatives. Mr. Legrand listened attentively as we voiced our concerns about the myriad ways current family court practices serve to exacerbate grave risks for victims of family violence. He spoke in glowing terms about his working relationship with the staff of Judge Ted Poe, whom he holds in the highest regard. No doubt their bipartisan collaboration provided the seed for this well-crafted Resolution. My sincere hope is that each of you will redouble your efforts now to garner the support it merits.
I write on Father’s Day, in memory of the hundreds of children slain each year after their mother’s separation from her abuser. The children listed below might still be alive today if court professionals had heeded evidentiary red flags, were informed about the lethal dynamics of domestic abuse and had listened to the pleas of protective mothers.
Prince McLeod (15 months) — suffocated and drowned by father Joaquin Rams, 2012. Mother, Hera McLeod, had begged the court for supervised visits for her son. Mr. Rams is now a suspect in the deaths of another former partner and his mother.
Piqui Estevez (5) — smothered to death by father, Aramazd Andressian during an unsupervised trip to Disneyland. Mother, Ana, an elementary school principal and veteran had been ordered by family court to pay spousal support to her abusive ex. whom she had supported financially until their divorce (2017)Mikayla Block (5) — shot to death by father John Tester. Mother, Leigh, had expressed fears that little Mikayla would become “just another statistic.” (2004)
Alycia Mesiti-Allen (14) — sexually assaulted, raped while unconscious and drugged to death; her body buried in backyard by rapist/murderer father, Mark Edward Mesiti; Father was granted full custody despite his criminal past (2007 murder; Alycia’s remains discovered in 2009; father sentenced 2018.)
Shane Davis Stephens (11) – asphyxiated by his father, Rockland Stevens, on an unsupervised parenting weekend; father put “Finding Nemo” on the DVD and ran a hose from the exhaust of his van, killing both father and son (2007)
Duncan ( 9 ) and Jack (7 ) Leichtenberg —- drugged and stabbed to death by father, Michael Connolly during unsupervised visitation (2009)
Caitlin (3) Lauren (5) and Ashley (9) Cornwall —- poisoned to death by physician father, Dr. David Cornwall in the wealthy suburb of Lake Oswego, Oregon; mother Karen left grieving three daughters of tender years (1997)
These preventable child fatalities are but a fraction of the number of children killed in the past twenty years, murdered even as their mothers pleaded for legal protections. Resolution 72 asks States to adopt guidelines that will save precious lives like these.
Many of your colleagues will be understandably surprised to learn that child safety is not already the highest priority in our courts where child custody is adjudicated. Some may believe erroneously that courts operate with a maternal bias. They will be appalled to learn that an abusive man’s “rights” to custody and control of his biological children trump the safety of children in the majority of cases. His chances of being granted custody actually increase if mother raises allegations of sexual abuse, even when those concerns are echoed by medical or forensic professionals. The 2017 National Institute of Justice pilot study by Dr. Joan Meier (Law Professor, George Washington University, Founder of DV LEAP in Washington D.C.), “Mapping Gender: Shedding Empirical Light on Family Courts’ Treatment of Cases Involving Abuse and Alienation”, makes this clear. The data will surely trouble those unfamiliar with this hidden crisis.
The child custody case of Connie Jones v. Dwight Jones in Scottsdale, Arizona received national attention this month. Little about Jones v. Jones, however, surprised the attorneys, psychologists, social workers, researchers and others who study family violence and child custody or who work with battered women like Connie Jones. Even its tragic finale was a predictable outcome. Only the fact that those killed were not mother or child but four professionals related to the case (including celebrity forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Pitt) and the dramatic manhunt lasting several days brought the story into the national spotlight. Family massacres committed by an abusive ex in his quest for absolute control are commonplace. Resolution 72 elucidates many of the predictable patterns in these cases and offers simple, effective means of prevention.
In 2013, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, in cooperation with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, funded “Family Court Enhancement Projects” in four different States. In 2015, I was invited to serve as Survivor Representative on the Management Team of the F.C.E.P. in Oregon. My son had died in 2014, victim of a “harmful outcome” case in family court. For several years, I had been engaged in advocacy and outreach on this issue. Oregon’s former Attorney General, the late Hardy Myers, participated in one of our community sessions.
A single survivor’s story, if revealed to be part of a vast pattern of systemic injustice, can serve as a catalyst for change. One need only consider Rachael Hollander’s testimony about the “care” she received from Larry Nassar, the story of Victim #11 v. Penn State or the first brave survivors of priest abuse whose dark stories were finally brought to light. In this spirit, I offer my son’s story. In 2005, Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Steven L. Maurer abruptly removed the safeguard of supervised parenting for my child. Protection put in place by his own court was the result of six court hearings between 2002 and 2004. Father, retired from the U.S. Department of Defense, holds dual citizenship and Ph.D. in engineering. Among the facts admitted as evidence by the Court prior to Maurer’s decision: (1) My son’s biological father had multiple past convictions for international child abduction of other children, snatched from their mother in violation of custody orders, not once but twice. (2) Hiding with two young boys for three years in the U.S., father had avoided detection by law enforcement and Interpol. (3) There were credible allegations of family violence from two ex-wives. (4) A custody evaluation replete with red flags recommended no unsupervised contact until at least age 14. (5) Three of this man’s sons from previous relationships were dead from drug overdoses. The mother of one gave powerful telephone testimony in court.
And yet, two weeks after my son’s eighth birthday, Maurer inexplicably removed Judge Gregory Milnes from our case and granted father yet another hearing. Milnes had asked to retain jurisdiction. He had invested countless hours in the case, heard a dozen witnesses, poured over documents, presided over seven full days of court trials. Milnes, now deceased, was Oregon’s longest serving judge. His wife was a social worker, serving the community in child protection services. An exemplar, Milnes welcomed child custody cases and saw ours as opportunity to keep a child safe. By his court orders, father currently owes me $130,000.00 in attorneys’ fees, a legal debt toward which he has never made a single payment.
Mine is but one of thousands of bizarre and terrible stories. Our stories are bizarre first because sociopaths have bizarre social histories and secondly because the “system” of family court defies all standards of fairness or reason. Though my legal representation was stellar, winning any measure of safety for my son was unspeakably difficult. I expended $200,000, spent terrifying hours in court-ordered sessions with our abuser, spent sleepless nights followed by exhausting days responding to a constant onslaught of petitions and threats, all while parenting as a single mother. I continued to work full-time teaching high school, remained involved in my community and church. I kept my eyes on the prize, my child’s safety, my legal and sacred duty to protect him.
And then, with one stroke of a pen, a Judge unfamiliar with our case handed my child to a violent predator. Judge Maurer adopted the view of his colleague, father’s fourth attorney. Mother was the problem. Mother regularly saw a counselor while father rejected the idea of therapy, therefore mother must be emotionally unbalanced. Mother was overprotective, angry, waging a campaign to “alienate” the child. Father’s constitutional rights must not be abridged. Having sired another child at age 68, he deserved “another chance.” Maurer removed the stipulation of supervision, ordering frequent father-son contact. Louis was subsequently victim of incest and all manner of abuse from which he never recovered. According to international human rights definitions, he endured torture. I gave up my teaching career, sacrificing my pension to pay for the residential trauma treatment and recovery therapy Louis required. Even excellent health insurance does not cover such costs. If Maurer honestly believed he was ruling “in the best interest of the child” by granting this man unfettered access to his ninth and youngest child, he was tragically misguided. Louis ended his life in 2014. He left behind a wide circle of grieving friends. He had completed 20 credits at community college. He was a gifted musician. He hoped to become a therapist. He was only 17.
On behalf of all loving, protective mothers — those alive but grieving, those separated unjustly from their children, those still seeking protection and justice, and in memory of those slain on the hidden battlefields of “the custody wars” —- my deepest thanks.