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Understanding Professionals' Responses to Domestic Abuse Survivors in Child Custody Cases

Our society's first responses to the widespread and serious problem of intimate partner  violence (IPV) were to build shelters for survivors and arrest perpetrators.  We have since learned that additional responses are needed, especially ways to prevent survivors from losing custody of children to an abusive ex-partner.  

With funding from the National Institute of Justice, Professors Daniel Saunders, Kathleen Faller and Richard Tolman examined professionals' decisions that can lead to dangerous outcomes in     IPV child custody cases. They also made implications for policies, practice and future research.

Saunders, Tolman and Faller surveyed nearly 1,200 professionals involved in child custody cases about common myths, such as the belief survivors often make false allegations in attempts to turn the children against the other parent.  They also investigated the link between these beliefs and recommendations for custody and visitation.

In the first article from the study (Saunders, Tolman, & Faller, 2013), the researchers report that judges and evaluators  showed a strong link between sexist beliefs and the belief that battered women tend to make false allegations of family violence and are trying to alienate their children from the other parent.  Of greatest concern, these beliefs were linked to recommendations that child custody be awarded to perpetrators of domestic abuse. The researchers recommend that all professionals, but judges and evaluators in particular, work diligently to mitigate forms of bias in their decision-making process.

In a more recent article (Saunders, Faller,  & Tolman, 2015), they report that judges, private attorneys, and child custody evaluators, compared with domestic abuse advocates and legal aid attorneys, were more likely to believe that mothers make false domestic abuse allegations and alienate their children from the other parent.

In response to a vignette case study of domestic abuse, evaluators and private attorneys were most likely to recommend joint custody and least likely to recommend sole custody to the survivor of abuse. Legal aid attorneys and domestic abuse workers were similar on many variables.  Differences among groups were less pronounced when gender and knowledge of domestic abuse were taken into account. The authors suggest that legal aid attorneys may be able to help private attorneys address their myths and information gaps. .  For example, private attorneys were less likely than most other groups to have knowledge about post-separation violence, domestic abuse screening, and assessment of danger.

Most recently, findings of the study, combined with other research, have been used to help guide attorneys and judges (Saunders & Faller, 2016; Saunders, 2017) and one follow-up analysis of the impact of state laws has clear policy implications (Saunders, 2017).

Saunders, D. G., Tolman, R. M., & Faller, K. C. (2013). Factors associated with child custody evaluators' recommendations in cases of intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 473-483.

Saunders, D. G., Faller, K. C., & Tolman, R. M. (2015). Beliefs and recommendations regarding child custody and visitation in cases Involving domestic violence: A comparison of professionals in different roles. Violence Against Women, 22, 722-744.

Saunders, D. G., & Faller, K. C. (2016). The need to carefully screen for family violence when parental alienation is claimed. Michigan Family Law Journal, 46, 7-11.

Saunders, D. G. (2017). Evaluating the evaluators: Research-based guidance for attorneys regarding custody evaluations in cases involving domestic abuse. Michigan Family Law Journal, 47, 8-14.

Saunders, D. G. (2017). State Laws Related to Family Judges' and Custody Evaluators' Recommendations in Cases of Intimate Partner Violence: Final Summary Overview for National Institute of Justice Award 2014-IJ-CX-0018.

The complete technical report to the National Institute of Justice can be found at:

Saunders, D., Faller, K., & Tolman, R. (2011). Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations: Their Relationship to Evaluator Demographics, Background, Domestic Violence Knowledge and Custody-Visitation Recommendations. Final Technical Report Submitted to the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.

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