Discrimination in Family Courts - Women and Children Beware
by Helen Grieco, Executive Director
and Rachel Allen, Public Relations Director
Of all the calls for help CA NOW receives, women going through the family court system top the list. We hear heart-wrenching stories daily from women who cannot believe what happens when they take their cases to family court.
We hear from mothers who have lost all contact with their children due to a judge's decision that a child's allegation of abuse is actually a mother's attempt to alienate the father. We hear from women who fear for their children's safety and well-being when they are ordered visitation with an abusive father regardless of their attempts to bring this to the attention of the court. We hear from women who have their cases heard by judges who refuse to hear evidence, who make decisions on ex parte orders without input from the mother, who belittle and berate them in open court, who rely on half-cocked "evaluations" to decide custody or visitation and who favor the father despite the fact that the mother has been the primary caregiver and protective parent.
Some fathers waltz back in after being completely absent from their child's life for years, and suddenly seek custody...and get it. Some are avoiding paying child support, while others are simply trying to manipulate their ex through the children. Some cases don't involve children at all, but women who are denied the spousal support they are due because judges ignore evidence and side with the manipulative ex. Unfair divorce settlements contribute to the feminization of poverty and the increasing numbers of older women living in poverty.
In response to this epidemic of injustice in the family law courts, CA NOW formed the Family Law Task Force to study the
problem and, in 2002, published the findings from 300 cases where women reported that they had suffered some form of bias or injustice in their family law cases. The findings, published in the CA NOW Family Court Report 2002 showed gender bias, denial of due process, incompetence and corruption.
Tragically, the family law courts are increasingly hostile to women. The bias against women often manifests by marking the mother as the "problem" in cases where the child(ren) report abuse by their father. The mother's "behavior" is attributed to false syndromes (like the bogus Parental Alienation Syndrome) that are used to justify switching custody from perfectly fit mothers to documented felons, abusers and molesters.
Women's civil rights are systematically violated. Evidence is ignored or not allowed into court; outside, court-appointed mediators, evaluators, and psychologists issue reports that are biased against the mother by using sexist stereotypes that play
well with judges and favor fathers. Women who have been victims of abuse are often required to "mediate" with their abusers. The court seems to bend over backward to accommodate the fathers' interests while the best interests of the children are ignored. In addition to institutionalized sexism in the court system, the influence of the Fathers' Rights movement is orchestrating the bias in today's family courts.
The Fathers’ Rights movement is anchored in patriarchal ideology and is well organized and funded (both legally and illegally by federal, state and local visitation program funds). Its members are men and women who share a conservative political ideology. They work to influence and train judges, court personnel and attorneys who represent fathers. An American Judges Association study showed that up to seventy percent of fathers who fight for custody of their children get it (and some men fight for the right to children who aren’t biologically, or adoptively, theirs).
CA NOW has become a leading voice in the movement for family court reform. We have sponsored conferences and forums to bringthese issues to light. We have publicized our Family Court Report and made it and other resources and information available to thepublic on our website. We have worked to support family law reform legislation, and are currently working on a Protective Parent Reform Act-recently passed in Tennessee-that would address many of the pervasive problems in the family courts. We have met with the Judicial Council-the group that oversees the judges I California-and brought these issuesto their attention. We have applied political pressure to elected officials and politicians. We have made court watch materials available for local grassroots efforts to monitor the courts.
We are deeply committed to ending the practice of discrimination against women in family courts and the danger for children it so often leads to. If we are to achieve true equality in all aspects of society, we must ensure the fairness of our judicial system. Please join us in that effort.