Domestic Violence Expertise in Child Custody Evaluations

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Socially recognized expertise in domestic violence represents deliberative power and control, not true knowledge of reality. Government-funded studies of child-custody evaluations in highly contested child-custody cases illustrate the social construction of domestic violence expertise and its power and control. In these studies, domestic-violence experts position themselves above the controversy, evaluate others’ beliefs against their expert beliefs, criticize others for lacking domestic-violence expertise, and recommend more thorough training in domestic violence expertise. That procedure generates cultic pseudo-science. It cannot deliver progressive enlightenment. Better public mechanisms are needed to ensure that narrow claims of expertise are broadly accountable to truth and justice.

Domestic violence social-scientific scholarship is an intellectual horror show. Sensational, grotesquely false claims that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women have circulated in public discourse for decades. Domestic violence scholars have argued bitterly for decades about the share of domestic-violence victims who are men. Rejecting gender-stereotyping of domestic violence doesn’t require any particular expertise. Recognizing that men account for a significant share of domestic violence victims isn’t intellectually difficult. Domestic violence social-scientific scholarship has failed utterly on these and other basic measures of intellectual merit. That failure has significantly harmed close interpersonal relations and has been central to the rise of mass incarceration.

Consider the federally funded report Custody Evaluations When There Are Allegations of Domestic Violence: Practices, Beliefs, and Recommendations of Professional Evaluators. It was received by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011. Custody Evaluations is a report of a large project that drew upon the contributions of many persons with expert credentials in domestic violence. This report positions its authors above other professionals:

The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of the beliefs and investigative practices of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who had been appointed by a court to evaluate families in disputed custody cases when there were allegations of domestic violence. Objectives were to examine the relationship between the evaluators’ beliefs and practices and their recommendations for custody and visitation, and to examine how the evaluators’ recommendations influenced case outcomes, including settlement agreements and court orders following trial.^

In short, domestic violence experts evaluated the evaluators. They did so without providing an evaluation of how others evaluate their own expertise. Custody Evaluations’s assumption of knowledge dominance doesn’t advance mutual, consensual recognition of commonly perceived truth.

Custody Evaluations controlled the use of domestic violence in a way that does violence to understanding. Custody Evaluations used the term “domestic violence” to mean “intimate partner violence.” The stated reason for that terminological substitution isn’t reasonable.^ Domestic violence includes violence among parents and adult children, e.g. grandmother and adult daughter. It also includes violence between other adult relatives and adults and co-residing children. Intimate partner violence is more readily gender-stereotyped than is domestic violence. Using the term domestic violence to mean intimate-partner violence supports gender-stereotyping domestic violence. Custody Evaluations gender-stereotyped domestic violence.

Custody Evaluations asserts the importance of specialized knowledge. That specialized knowledge relates to parents’ legal rights to interact with their children. In circumstances of claimed violence and abuse, public authorities have to make difficult decisions about parental rights. Custody Evaluations asserts:

Assessing and understanding intimate partner abuse (henceforth referred to as “domestic violence”) as a factor in custody and visitation determinations requires specialized knowledge.

The assertedly required specialized knowledge is remarkably broad:

Such knowledge includes recognition of non-physical forms of abuse, such as social isolation, intimidation, financial abuse, and sexual abuse and of the power dynamics and inequality that arise from these forms of abuse; awareness of the high rate of concurrence of child abuse; the influence of victimization on the results of psychological tests administered to parents as part of evaluations; the cognitive, social, behavioral and health problems that can result from children’s exposure to domestic violence; and the ongoing risks of violence and stalking on the part of some perpetrators after the couple has separated.^

That’s the specialized knowledge for which the authors of Custody Evaluations claim credentialed authority. Custody Evaluations doesn’t indicate the decades-long bitter scholarly controversy about the basic facts of men victims of domestic violence. Yet if domestic violence scholarship cannot commonly recognize basic facts about serious physical injury from domestic violence, how credible is a claim to specialized knowledge of “non-physical forms of abuse, such as social isolation, intimidation, financial abuse”?

Custody Evaluations expressed preference for the power and control model should be questioned. Custody Evaluations depreciates custody evaluators:

Most custody evaluators are mental health professionals, not experts in domestic violence. Lacking specialized knowledge of the dynamics and impact of domestic violence, they may instead rely on overarching clinical theories, such as family systems, cognitive-behavioral, or psychodynamic perspectives, and perhaps knowledge of child development to inform their assessments and recommendations.

Experts in domestic violence typically prefer the “power and control model” over mental health:

Experts in domestic violence, however, regard many of these commonly utilized clinical theories as inappropriate for assessing domestic violence (Fagan et al., 1983) and prefer the power and control model (Dalton, 1999) as the most appropriate foundation for understanding the perpetration of domestic violence and its impact on the family.^

Some dissenting experts in domestic violence have compellingly criticized the power and control model as a “data-impervious paradigm and a flawed strategy.”^ The authors of Custody Evaluations used their power of authorship to ignore that scholarly critique. That’s a private victory and a public loss. Power and control is an unpropitious model for generating progressive enlightenment about domestic violence or any other important public issue.

Viewpoint diversity is critical for progressive enlightenment, but evaluating viewpoint diversity inevitably becomes entangled in issues of self-positioning. Consider, for example, the federally funded report Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations: Their Relationship to Evaluator Demographics, Background, Domestic Violence Knowledge and Custody- Visitation Recommendations. It was received by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012. Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs is a report of a large project that drew upon the contributions of many persons with expert credentials in domestic violence. In 1986, the principal investigator of Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs sharply criticized a scholarly article asserting that domestic violence is a human issue rather than a women’s issue.^ That is a central matter in a scholarly controversy about domestic violence that has continued to the present. In a 2002 article in the journal Violence Against Women, the principal investigator wrote an article entitled Are Physical Assaults by Wives and Girlfriends a Major Social Problem?^ The answer, according to this article in Violence Against Women, seems to be no. Evidence from hospital emergency department visits from domestic violence suggests otherwise. The principal investigator of Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs seems far from a neutral evaluator of evaluators’ evaluations of men’s and women’s conflicting claims of domestic violence.

Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs examines beliefs without a clear connection to truth about domestic violence. The report declares its major goals to be:

  • to investigate the extent to which child custody evaluators and other professionals who make court recommendations believe allegations of domestic violence are false;
  • to explore the relationship between these beliefs and (a) knowledge of domestic violence and (b) recommendations about custody, supervised visitation, and mediation;
  • to examine whether beliefs about false allegations of domestic violence are related to beliefs that false allegations of child abuse are common; abuse of parents should not be a criterion in custody and visitation decisions; and that parents often alienate their children from the other parent;
  • to examine the relationships between beliefs about false allegations and beliefs about patriarchal norms, social dominance, and justice in the world.^

Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs surveys beliefs and interviews domestic violence “survivors.” It evaluates the beliefs of persons surveyed relative to the beliefs of domestic violence experts. It tendentiously highlights differences in beliefs among persons surveyed and obscures differences in beliefs among domestic violence experts. It doesn’t analyze systematically collected, representative data about actual acts of domestic violence in relation domestic violence allegations.

Whether allegations of domestic violence are true or false is central to deciding highly contested child custody cases. Scholarly work suggests that a significant share of domestic violence allegations are true, and a significant share are false.^ Custody evaluators evaluate the specific cases before them. The domestic-violence experts who authored Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs recommend training in domestic violence:

All professional groups involved in custody evaluations need DV training prior to involvement in DV custody cases, as well as yearly continuing education.^

Child-custody awards are highly disparate by gender. Sensational claims about domestic violence make reducing that gender inequality a matter of controversy over domestic violence. With their support for gender stereotyping, the power and control of domestic violence experts undermines men’s roles in raising children and women’s opportunities to participate fully in the workforce.

Domestic violence is far too important of a public issue to be under the power and control of domestic violence experts. Recognizing the abysmal failures of domestic violence expertise isn’t intellectually difficult. The challenge is to convert that recognition into better quality public discussion.

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