The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found that childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, death of a parent, etc., incurred lasting and deleterious effects not only on mental health but also on medical status. Furthermore, there was a cumulative effect: each additional type of adverse childhood experience led to a dramatically greater lifetime risk of those problems. Such adverse childhood experiences are rampant and lead to enormous societal costs in terms of quality of life for the affected children (who become adults), and those they affect in turn – not to mention the economic costs associated with mental illness, addiction, behavior problems (including aggression and crime), medical problems, and impaired functioning. Child traumatization is among the greatest public health issues of our time.
Yet we systematically place and keep children in abusive situations. The child protective services, family courts, and associated agencies/professionals (e.g., custody evaluators) are biased against believing actually-abused children, or their nonoffending parents, about the abuse (Saunders, Faller, & Tolman, 2011). Then mothers who try to protect their children in court actually lose custody on that account, or are forced to share custody, leading to an estimated 58,000 children per year being court-ordered to custody or other unsupervised time with their known abusers. And the cases that make it to family court are only the tip of the domestic abuse iceberg.
Most of us care about children, right? And we’d all love to save money while improving public health, right? So what can we do on a community level to reduce child traumatization? Or is that unrealistic – perhaps adverse childhood experiences are just part of life?
It turns out that such experiences can be substantially reduced. How do I know? Because it’s already been done in several communities: Quincy, MA; Nashville, TN; San Diego, CA. Barry Goldstein, a leading advocate for abused children, has proposed updates to “The Quincy Solution” to take into account the research and practices that have developed since the original project was carried out in Quincy. “The heart of the Quincy Model was strict enforcement of criminal laws, orders of protection and probation conditions together with practices that made it easier for victims to leave their abusers and a coordinated community response.” Goldstein’s suggested updates include:
• improved recognition of domestic violence
• better use of technology (cameras, ankle bracelets, etc.) to implement and enforce restraining orders
• inclusion of custody courts so that they are no longer misused to advantage the offenders
In a few locations, elements of this strategy are already being used to good effect. Goldstein suggests that if we implement these best practices nationwide, we will dramatically reduce domestic violence and child abuse, while saving an estimated $500 billion per year in direct health costs alone. Taking into account further savings in trauma-related costs for crime, special education, etc., the annual savings would have a dramatic impact on our government budgets and on the economy as a whole. And the economic benefit is just a side effect. The main point is to reduce traumatization so that children and adults can feel better, do better, and live better lives.
So if we know how to do this, why aren’t we doing a lot more of it? Perhaps because some people actually don’t care about children, and those people are organized and influential. For example, the so-called “father’s rights” movement has been advocating for a presumption of shared custody in precisely those cases in which shared custody would harm children. About 85% of custody arrangements are resolved among the parties, so only the minority of cases that go to court would be directly affected by such a law. Shared custody in so-called “high conflict” divorces would expose children to incessant parental conflict, which is harmful to children. And since most contested custody cases involve domestic violence and/or child abuse, the forced shared custody and shared decision-making would force victims of domestic abuse into perpetual victimization even post-divorce. The BoycottDivorceCorp web site provides a good summary of how this anti-woman anti-child movement is promoting shared-custody legislation that sounds legit but actually is designed to help domestic abusers to maintain control of, and access to, their victims.
The other reason we’re not doing it? Because many who do care about children don’t know the issues and/or don’t know what to do about it. Domestic violence and child abuse are, inexplicably, rarely the focus of election campaigns. These issues have to become more prominent so that public interest is mobilized and positive changes can be made.
Want to be part of the solution? Here are a few things that people can do:
— Raise domestic violence, rape, child abuse, and family court-sanctioned abuse in conversations about politics. Ask your political representatives to address these issues.
— When you see a story on child abuse, rape, or domestic violence – especially if the story is honest about the nature of the problem – contact the source and express your appreciation for their coverage. Bear in mind that the offenders will have sent an onslaught of communications attacking the story. It’s important that supporters show up as well, to keep the stories coming.
— If such a story has an online comment board, it is important to counter the abuse-supporting lies with the facts. So if you happen to know the facts, please speak up! In civil tone so that you don’t spoil the impact of the point you’re making. It’s seriously annoying to have to do this, but otherwise the lies are allowed to prevail.
— Institute a Quincy Solution in your city or town. This is obviously a big project, and requires activism and persistence. You might wish to wait for an opportune moment when community interest is high, for example following a domestic-violence-related murder. Goldstein’s new book provides guidance on how to do this (not the murder — the solution). Hopefully enough municipalities will do this that it will become the new standard.
Saunders, D. G., Faller, K. C., & Tolman, R. M. (2011). Child custody evaluators’ beliefs about domestic abuse allegations: Their relationship to evaluator demographics, background, domestic violence knowledge and custody-visitation recommendations. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.