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Most scams, such as sub-prime mortgages and email scams, victimize adults. But custody scams victimize children. When government fails to protect children it throws open the doors to private contractors—lawyers and clinicians—who enrich themselves at the expense of children. (More about this child and the mother who tried to protect her appears below.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Extracting intelligence from children

This op-ed by Anne Grant originally appeared in the Providence Journal on Monday, June 21, 2004.

MANY AMERICANS have been shocked to discover how torture is used to extract information when conducting a war. This has unsettling parallels to what happens when children are abused to extract intelligence in contested custody and visitation cases.

For more than a decade I've been following these cases in the Rhode Island Family Court, trying to understand how the problem ever got so bad and what can be done about it.

I have focused on those cases where one parent had a history of domestic violence, and the other parent was trying to keep children safe. Abusers with enough money, power, and obsession have learned to use Family Court to their advantage by treating children like prisoners of war.

Children tell of an abusive parent requiring them to gather intelligence for court. They are rewarded or punished according to the usefulness of the information they deliver on the other parent. Some learn to fabricate evidence: Lying becomes a way of life that torments them for years to come.

Well-intentioned judges try to get children to tell them the truth in chambers. It rarely works. Children who have been sexually humiliated are too ashamed to talk about it. If children speak candidly to the judge in front of warring attorneys, they are punished severely afterward. So-called "expert witnesses" favor the parent who pays.

Children distrust some judges' air of self-importance. In one Rhode Island transcript, a judge tells a 13-year-old: "Maybe if your dad and mother had come in here in the first place we might have helped them stay together."

The judge never knew that, eight years earlier, the boy had watched his step-father shoot his mother in the head with a 38-caliber pistol. After four misfires, one shot struck home. She recovered and eventually won a divorce. But her volunteer lawyer told her not to complicate matters with the history of domestic violence.

The boy's court-ordered visits with his stepfather grew increasingly disruptive until he finally suffered a breakdown and told his mother that he had seen her shot. By then it was too late. Within months, he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head.

We must remove cases of contested custody and visitation from the routine terror that accompanies domestic violence. Children in intractable cases should be represented by an advocate who is independent of the courts and works solely in the child's interest, dedicated to discerning the truth as quickly as possible.

Child protection agencies cannot do this. Under federal guidelines to preserve families, their social workers and attorneys have buckled under parental threats, abandoning these children.

We need dedicated teams, trained to recognize patterns of abuse, who can closely follow intractable cases and assure that children’s physical, emotional, and financial needs are met. The team could be called guardian ad litem if only that term were not so badly tainted by those who colluded in the past with whichever parent paid them. The team would monitor child support. They would provide supervised visitation that would show them what is really happening. They would deliver independent psychiatric assessments to a small number of select judges who specialize in these cases. They would break the grip of malicious game-playing that delights an aggressive litigant.

One woman recalled her husband's threats when she left him. A deputy sheriff in Family Court with a history of abuse, he had shouted at her, "What do you love most in life?"

She said, "My children!"

"Watch what I do to them!" he screamed.

Too many children suffer long-term damage in intolerable, court-ordered circumstances, because the details of their lives cannot be adequately presented in litigation. Too often judges and magistrates have conflicts of interest or stereotypes about one parent or the other. These cases assure callous lawyers a perpetual income if they let them linger.

Leaders in the legislature and the courts must end the sanctioned abuse of children in contested custody and visitation cases.

About the mother and child pictured at the top

On February 21, 1992, Rhode Island Family Court's Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah gave this two-year-old to the sole custody and possession of her father despite his history of domestic violence and failure to pay child support. The father, a police officer, brought false charges against his ex-wife, first saying she was a drug addict. (Twenty-two random tests proved she was not.) Then he had her arrested for bank fraud, then for filing a false report, then for sexual abuse, then for kidnapping. None of his charges stuck.

The child remained with her father and stepmother until 2003, when, at 14, she finally realized that her mother had not been a drug addict. The teenager persuaded Judge Stephen Capineri to let her return to her mother. There she began working on the painful issues of lifelong coercion and deception--a tangled knot of guilt and rage. Most painful has been her father’s continuing refusal to let her visit two dearly loved half-sisters, whom she has not seen since 2003.

She is one of countless children in Rhode Island subjected to severe emotional and physical trauma by Family Court when it helps abusive parents to maintain control over their families after divorce. When she turned 18 in 2007, she gave the Parenting Project permission to publish her picture on behalf of all children who have been held hostage by Rhode Island custody scams.

We are using this blog to provide links to stories that will help concerned people, including government officials, become aware of this form of child abuse and legal abuse. We must work together to improve the courts' ability to recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in victims of domestic abuse who are trying to protect their children.

PLEASE NOTE: If you are looking for the story of the removal of "Molly and Sara," please visit

About the Author and the Cause

Parenting Project is a volunteer community service begun in 1996 at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, RI, to focus on the needs of children at risk in Family Court custody cases. Our goal is to make Rhode Island's child protective system more effective, transparent, and accountable.

The Parenting Project coordinator, Anne Grant, a retired minister and former executive director of Rhode Island's largest shelter for battered women and their children, researches and writes about official actions that endanger children and the parents who try to protect them. She wrote a chapter on Rhode Island in Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues, ed. Mo Therese Hannah, PhD, and Barry Goldstein, JD (Civic Research Institute, 2010).

Comments and corrections on anything written here may be sent in an email with no attachments to

Find out more about the crisis in custody courts here: provides forensic resources to end violence against women

about domestic violence in hague custody cases:

more about domestic violence in law enforcement: