Workgroup Seeks Changes to Domestic Violence, Custody and Abuse Proceedings

    The House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committees heard recommendations from the Workgroup to Study Child Custody Proceedings Involving Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Allegations at a joint hearing Monday afternoon. Screenshot by Hannah Gaskill.

    Ji’Aire Donnell Lee, three years old.

    Maddie Davis, three years old.

    Ayden Spoon, one year old.

    Jaylin Wright, one year old.

    Jayson Holland, three years old.

    Laila Miller, three years old.

    Chloe DavisGreen, two years old.

    Kayla Thompson, three years old.

    Daniel Dana, five years old.

    Athena Castillo, two years old.

    Austin Castillo, four years old.

    Anthony Castillo, six years old.

    Prince McLeod, one year old.

    Chandler Wood, five years old.

    Fiona Wood, two years old.

    Gavin Wood, four years old.

    Mya Carr, five years old.

    Turner Jordan Nelson, three years old.

    These are the names of Maryland children murdered by a parent involved in a divorce or custody case in Maryland since 2008. 

    According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, they only represent 2% of these cases that occurred across the country during the same time period.

    But child abuse takes on many forms and can have a devastating impact in incalculable ways — sometimes after they’ve been adjudicated in court.

    “Most cases do not end in murder,” Maryland Secretary of State John C. Wobnensmith told the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary committees Monday. “Instead, innumerable children are sentenced to a lifetime of abuse by the courts allowing access, and sometimes awarding sole custody, to an abusive parent.”

    Wobensmith and other members of the Workgroup to Study Child Custody Proceedings Involving Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Allegations presented its final report to the House and Senate committees at a joint hearing Monday afternoon. 

    The 24 recommendations for legislative action seek to reevaluate the role of judges, child counsel and custody evaluators in child abuse and domestic violence cases, and ensure that more caution is taken when considering what is in the best interest of the minors involved.

    “Maryland has not re-examined our family court system in over 20 years,” Wobensmith said. “We have not implemented new science on trauma or adverse childhood experiences, or how domestic violence impacts custody cases.” 

    “It is known that courts all too often re-victimize our children.”

    Instances of child abuse and domestic violence have skyrocketed since COVID-19 hit the state. 

    Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy for RAINN — the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network — said that when the pandemic began in March, 50% of the group’s online hotline calls were from children.

    “Sixty-seven percent identified their perpetrator as a family member; 79% said they were living with that perpetrator,” she told the committee.

    According to Cooper, one in five of those calls were diverted to 911.

    “I can’t stress enough how dire the situation is,” she said.

    Wobensmith said that the General Assembly’s move to form the workgroup in 2019 put Maryland at the forefront of mitigating the trauma that children and protective parents undergo during the course of family court proceedings.

    “Attorneys, advocates and protected parents across the United States have, in fact, been following the workgroup activity and are looking forward to these recommendations and our next steps towards solutions,” he said.

    The Workgroup to Study Child Custody Proceedings Involving Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Allegations’ recommendations include the following:

    • Codifying factors that judges consider when determining the best interest of children in custody cases into Title 9 of the state’s Family Law Article, and creating clear definitions of domestic violence and mental, physical and sexual abuse and neglect against minors that fit within that standard;
    • Requiring judges to explain the reasoning behind rulings that determine parental custody and visitation rights on the record;
    • Amending Family Law Article 9-105 to bar judges from considering reports of child abuse or neglect by one parent as an attempt to interfere with the other parent’s visitation rights;
    • Establishing a “rebuttable presumption” that giving custody of a child to a parent who has engaged in domestic violence is not in their best interest;
    • Requiring judges to consider if the temporary suspension or limitation of custody or visitation is in the child’s best interest when domestic violence or abuse is reported;
    • Implementing special training sessions for child counsel, custody evaluators and judges who oversee child custody, abuse and domestic violence cases;
    • Requiring courts to assign domestic violence and child abuse cases only to judges who have received specialized training;
    • Mandating courts to provide parties information about the role, cost and availability of custody evaluators in cases involving child support or custody, as well as increasing the amount of time they can participate in depositions and putting an income-based cap on their hourly fees;
    • Requesting that courts make child counsel, custody evaluations, supervised visitation programs and attorneys financially accessible to parents in child custody suits.

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    Hannah Gaskill
    Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.