Call in Congress for Family Court Reform

us capitol
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF)

By Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

On a Saturday evening in late March 2008, a 41-year-old Maryland man named Mark Castillo drowned his three children in the bathtub of a Baltimore hotel room.

Castillo and his wife of 10 years, Amy, had been embroiled in a grueling custody dispute. Amy Castillo had repeatedly warned the courts that her mentally ill husband was unraveling, and had physically threatened her and their children. As a result, she tried to persuade the judge in the custody case to end Castillo’s unsupervised visits with the children.

But the judge was not persuaded. He chose instead to rely on the testimony of a court-appointed psychologist, who said Castillo posed no risk to his family. Castillo’s visits with his children remained unchanged. Less than a year later, the children were dead. Castillo turned himself in hours after he killed them, having failed in his attempt to also kill himself. Castillo pleaded guilty in 2009 and is currently serving three life terms without the possibility of parole.

Anti-domestic violence advocates plan to cite the Castillo case and others like it at a Congressional briefing in Washington on Tuesday in an attempt to gain support for family court reform. The advocates say that children are too often endangered by family courts and the supposed experts those courts rely on. Psychologists used by the courts to help make decisions “in the best interest” of children, the advocates argue, often lack expertise in child abuse and domestic violence.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has introduced a resolution that spells out what advocates call urgent and long overdue improvements to the way family courts handle allegations of abuse made during custody disputes. The resolution will require that any claims of abuse be thoroughly investigated by the courts before any custody proceeding even begins.

“Protecting our children is one of the most important things we can do for society,” said Poe in a press statement announcing the measure. “Courts should resolve all claims of abuse independently before looking at any other factors in deciding custody or visitation. An independent and rigorous investigation into claims of abuse, coupled with heightened evidentiary standards, will help courts prevent the endangerment of any child.”

The resolution does not carry the force of law, but rather expresses the sentiment of both houses of Congress. Still, a coalition of 18 anti-domestic violence and child advocacy groups say adopting the resolution would be a critical step forward. They circulated a letter to Congress last Friday, encouraging support for the resolution.

“Too often, family courts sideline violence and abuse concerns in favor of unsound quasi-scientific psychological claims about the parents and children,” the letter said.

Concerns about the role of psychologists in family courts — they are often known as “forensic evaluators” — have existed for years, mostly discussed in the closed circles of those who work in the often poorly financed and volatile world of child welfare, child support and juvenile crime. ProPublica has spent several months exploring the work of such evaluators in New York City Family Court, and will publish some of its findings in the coming weeks.

The resolution to be proposed Tuesday would also call for new standards for the kind of scientific evidence and expert testimony allowed in custody disputes. For too long, advocates against domestic violence say, courts have relied on widely disparaged psychological theories to settle contentious custody disputes. Foremost among them is a diagnosis known as “parental alienation syndrome” — a highly controversial theory that, in its most extreme application, suggests parents, typically mothers, will concoct allegations of abuse during a custody dispute to heighten their chances of winning.

In a package of briefing materials distributed along with the resolution, the advocates point to several studies showing how the theory had been dangerously applied, with family courts regularly awarding sole or shared custody to fathers with histories of violence.

ProPublica contacted the National Board of Forensic Evaluators, a Florida-based organization that says it has certified dozens of people to evaluate children and families in custody disputes. The organization said it was reviewing the resolution and would issue a response. We will include it when we receive it.

The resolution is based on a similar effort from 1990, in which Congress agreed that state courts should presume against a batterer in a custody decision. Afterward, 26 states passed laws to that effect.

“It is my hope that this new resolution will provide similar encouragement,” Poe said in his statement.

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