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By Deborah DeBare
Providence Journal. July 24, 2010.
During the last few months, the Rhode Island Family Court opened the door for new solutions that could provide greater safety for victims of domestic violence and their children. In its search for a new Family Court chief judge, the State of Rhode Island must weigh numerous credentials. In order to build upon the crucial work that Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah initiated this year, one of the top qualifications for the next chief judge must be a commitment to champion our children’s safety.
From the surveys of 101 survivors, 204 case reviews, four focus groups and several interviews with key informants, the report found that during the custody and visitation process victims of domestic violence continue to suffer abuse, children suffer abuse and victims and their children face devastating financial impacts.
Many of the survivors reported that on many occasions they were followed, harassed, threatened and assaulted, even with a valid restraining order — in some cases, even in the courthouse. Much of the time, the history of abuse was minimized by the court. As one survivor put it, “I feel like the court dismissed my concerns about the safety and did not take them seriously, despite the fact that he has a very well-documented history of violent behavior.”
When this continued abuse is minimized, those survivors with children have even greater concerns. As one survivor surveyed stated, “I lived in a house with a man who threatened to kill me so many times I lost track, and I was having to hand my 4- or 5-year-old child over to him to go on visitation. .?.?. That was unsafe.” Another survivor, frustrated by the danger to her children’s well-being, reported in a survey, “They [the children] feel like they are walking on egg shells.”
Finally, the fairness of a system that is set up to protect people comes into question when survivors of domestic violence and their children seek a way out of an abusive household only to face major financial barriers to resources they need, finding themselves in legal debt and ultimately faced with poverty. Over three-quarters of the survivors interviewed made less than $35,000 a year. A third of those paid over $25,000 in legal fees.
These stories reveal the need to prioritize safety in Rhode Island’s custody and visitation process. On June 18, Judge Jeremiah opened the door to children’s safety by closing the Rhode Island Family Court for a special training session led by nationally renowned author Lundy Bancroft and me. The training was designed to increase judicial awareness of the ongoing impact of domestic violence and the court system on victims of domestic violence and their children and was the first of the 12 recommendations from the coalition’s report to be implemented.
The next Family Court chief judge can immediately build on this work by implementing three other policies:
•?Implement court protocols that ensure the safety of victims and their children in custody and visitation cases.
•?Use statutes and policies to prevent abusers from using the court system to further victimize domestic violence victims and their children.
•?Strengthen domestic-violence education for professionals who are involved in the custody and visitation process, including, but not limited to, mediators, guardians ad litem, those in the Family Court investigative unit, supervised facilitators and mental health professionals.
Deborah DeBare is the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.