The intersection of domestic violence and child maltreatment has been the subject of research and reform efforts focused on the need to integrate a better understanding of domestic violence into child welfare system practice. But a similar effort at integration of domestic violence and child maltreatment concerns has never been directed at family courts adjudicating private custody litigation. And while such courts’ responses to domestic violence have been analyzed and discussed extensively in the literature, legal discussions of custody courts’ responses to child maltreatment are few and far between. At the same time, there has been an explosion of traumatic narratives on social media and in the literature describing family courts’ refusals to keep children safe from a parent alleged to be dangerous.
This article examines the legal system’s siloed responses to domestic violence and child maltreatment, with a focus on family courts in custody cases. Newly published data have affirmed the growing outcry about family courts frequently rejecting child maltreatment allegations and removing custody from mothers who make such allegations. Custody court judges’ resistance to adjudicating child maltreatment is widespread and helps explain these patterns. Yet child welfare agencies, as well as reformers seeking to reduce reliance on foster care, trust family courts to protect children that come before them. We argue that systemic changes are needed to break down the silos between family courts and child welfare agencies to better protect children. We propose three practicable, concrete reforms to achieve this. We hope that this article will awaken those who care about children’s safety to the real dangers in family court adjudications, and encourage specialists in domestic violence, family court, and child maltreatment to collaborate in effectuating these much-needed changes.
GW Paper Series
Joan S. Meier & Vivek Sankaran, Breaking Down the Silos that Harm Children: A Call to Child Welfare, Domestic Violence and Family Court Professionals, 28 VA. J. SOC. POL'Y & L. 275 (2021).