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.)
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Legislators must address dangers to children
The original version of this op-ed by Anne Grant and Phil West appeared in the Providence Journal on Tuesday, April 28, 2009.
IMAGINE CHILDREN being court-ordered to visit a parent who delights in taunting them. We have known many in Rhode Island.
After a moment of silence for the victims, the Illinois House this month erupted in anger when one member suggested they should investigate why a judge forced Duncan and Jack Connolly, ages 9 and 7, to visit their father, who then shot the boys and hanged himself. Struggling to comprehend the tragedy, the Illinois State University’s dailyvidette.com published an editorial calling it “a unique case.”
Far from being rare, custody-related killings are increasingly common. Last year, Maryland pediatrician Amy Castillo admitted hiding her children from their father when she saw alarming signs in his behavior. She warned a judge that her estranged husband, Mark Castillo, had threatened to punish her by killing their children. She pleaded for a permanent restraining order. But a psychologist reported that the father spoke of his love and commitment to his children, evaluating him at low risk if he took his meds.
The judge ordered the mother to hand over the children, ages 2, 4, and 6, for unsupervised visits. On March 29, they went with their father on a trip to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Instead of bringing them home, Mark Castillo drowned them in a hotel bathtub.
The Castillo deaths brought to seven the number of Maryland children killed by their fathers in custody-related murders in just over four months. Maryland legislators and judges, like those in Illinois, must wrestle with the risks they impose on children who are subjected to threats, humiliation and terror during court-ordered visits.
Rhode Island lawmakers find such cases equally baffling. In response to current legislation aimed at preventing similar tragedies here, one representative wondered if these are unfathomable “he-said/she-said” cases. Another doubted kids’ honesty, saying that “children lie all the time.”
Since 2004, when Rhode Island added separation of powers to its state constitution, we have gained fresh appreciation for how this ancient keystone of democracy keeps the three branches of government in proper balance.
Separation of powers requires our legislative branch to pass laws, oversee their implementation, and revise them as needed. When the General Assembly (legislative branch) established Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (executive branch), and also established Family Court (judicial branch), legislators’ work to protect children was barely beginning.
Many members of our part-time legislature work hard to address countless concerns of their constituents. Difficult child-custody cases require more investigation than our state can afford.
As retired professionals, we have volunteered through the Parenting Project to research custody cases and develop legislation that addresses these problems. We found that rules of confidentiality let an unregulated industry flourish. Private contractors — lawyers, psychologists, and guardians ad litem — have brazenly exploited this captive market under cynical pretexts like “parental alienation” and “friendly parent” provisions. National associations of psychologists and judges have denounced these ploys as inconsistent with their own professional standards.
Many states, including Rhode Island, have decided that it is in children’s “best interest” to have both parents share custody. This plan works in cooperative relationships but fails miserably when there is a history of coercive control, domestic violence or sexual abuse that puts children in heart-stopping danger. When a parent sexually abuses children, threatens to harm them, teaches them to lie, cheat, steal, sell drugs or prostitute themselves, the court should not require the other parent to accommodate such behavior by forcing children to comply with court-ordered visits.
No-fault divorces make custody dangerous in many cases by disregarding evidence of abuse. Judges assume that no one is at fault, even when neighbors know otherwise. Children suffer the consequences.
If the legislative branch fails to oversee and regulate the lucrative industry that thrives in this hidden world, children suffer. In such a menacing landscape, legislators who neglect their oversight responsibilities are like parents who neglect their kids.
Good legislators, like good parents, know their task is not easy, but they work diligently at it, gaining new insights, and growing ever more responsible in their protective role.
One bill now before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees would make DCYF more transparent and accountable in protecting children (S 0363, H 5667). Another would let judges heed the concerns of protective parents (S 0690, H 5484) before court-ordered visits traumatize children or end in tragedy.
Anne Grant and H. Philip West Jr., who are married to each other, are retired United Methodist clergy and former executive directors of, respectively, the Women’s Center of Rhode Island and Common Cause Rhode Island (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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About the mother and child pictured at the top
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.
About the Author and the Cause