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Bill Seeks to Protect Children Against Abusive Parents in Family Court Proceedings

Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) presented a bill before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday seeking to train judges who preside over family law and domestic violence cases to protect minors against violence perpetrated by their parents.

Paraphrasing author Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Talking to Strangers,” Lee said that “we are more likely to believe the less horrendous story, all things being equal.”

“It’s so much easier to imagine someone is lying to game the system than someone who seems normal in court and in public who could possibly be a monster,” she explained. “Well, this miscalculation occurs in the criminal context but perhaps more variously in family law, where we want to assume parents would never harm their children.”

Under Lee’s bill, family law judges and lawyers representing children would be required to undergo a minimum of 60 hours of training on:

  • Child brain development;
  • Child abuse investigations;
  • The impacts of domestic violence, physical and mental abuse and child sexual abuse;
  • The effect of domestic violence on children and how it should be considered in visitation and custody rulings;
  • Implicit and explicit bias in custody decisions;
  • Parental alienation; and
  • Qualifications for child abuse evaluators and treatment providers, as well as the ethical and legal implications of assigning an under-qualified evaluator.

The program is to be updated every two years. Judges and attorneys who received the initial training and continue to preside over these cases would be required to undergo 10-hour sessions every five years.

Should the bill be enacted, judges would begin to be trained in 2021. Attorneys representing children would start their training sessions in 2023.

The bill also has a provision that would mandate courts to order danger and lethality assessments if the judge has “reasonable grounds” to believe that a case involves domestic violence or child abuse.

“This is not a community service,” Lee said. “This bill just aims to fortify our judiciary with experts ― with experts ― on the bench, for specific judges assigned to these very difficult family law dockets.”

The bill takes on the task of attempting to put some of the final recommendations of the Workgroup to Study Child Custody Proceedings Involving Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Allegations into practice.

Camille Cooper, the vice president of public policy for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), sat on the workgroup.

Testifying as a representative of RAINN, Cooper said that more than half of the calls to her organization’s National Sexual Assault Hotline are made by children ― 69% of whom are being abused by a family member.

About 80% of those minors say their abuser lives in their home.

“What we can see from 30,000 feet at RAINN is that child sexual abuse is an epidemic in this country, and that our systems that are set up to protect children in these types of intrafamilial child sexual abuse cases are not being protected,” she said.

Lee told the committee that her bill “merely highlights some of the horrors depicted in [the] ‘Allen v. Farrow’” docuseries that premiered Sunday on HBO Max.

The show delves into child sexual abuse allegations levied against filmmaker Woody Allen by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s former girlfriend.

Lee said it’s about “parental alienation claims used to hide child sexual abuse.”

“In ‘Allen v. Farrow,’ the alleged abuser said the allegations were bizarre concoctions of a woman scorned,” she said. “The dynamic is familiar for protective parents in Maryland.”

Domestic violence survivor Annie Kenny testified in favor of the bill, detailing her own troubling journey through the courts.

Several years ago, Kenny learned that her ex-husband was sexually abusing one of her daughters. And, despite his conviction and placement on the sex offender registry, her case has dragged on for four years.

“It wasn’t until my third court hearing that the judge even used the word ‘abuse,’” she said. “The first two hearings, he referred to the abuse as ‘demeaning [and] humiliating.’ He never actually referenced it as abuse at all in the first two hearings, and to this day he still never said the words ‘sexual abuse.’”

The Maryland State Police identified Kenny’s ex-husband to be a danger to her safety and gave her an unrestricted permit to carry a firearm, and a lethality assessment delivered by a child advocacy group indicated a high level of danger.

“So the Maryland State Police and domestic violence experts deemed me to be in danger when it came to my ex-husband, and family court was telling me to co-parent with him,” she said.

Jeff Aichenbaum testified in opposition to Lee’s bill. He called himself the “father of three alienated children.”

“My children are among an estimated 66,000 moderately to severely alienated children in Maryland,” he explained. “This bill proposes to train judges that parental alienation is junk and that my children’s alienation was fabricated to deflect domestic violence accusations, which it was not.”

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Bill Seeks to Protect Children Against Abusive Parents in Family Court Proceedings