Street United MethodistChurch 134 Mathewson StreetProvidence, RI02903
The Discredited 'Parental
June 27, 2006
TUCKED INTO a Rhode Island
alleged-murder story in the May 9 Journal is a disquieting detail: The
alleged killer's two children, ages 7 and 9, were in the apartment
during the alleged fight to the death. The divorced father had left his
children with a sitter to go out drinking; in the middle of the night
he brought home the man who would die in his West Warwick
The court computer spits out an 18-page rap sheet on
C. Potter, charged with first-degree murder in the death of James
Martin. It dates back to his first arrest, for domestic assault, seven
years ago. The Journal reports that he also stands "accused of
violating probation from a 2004 felony domestic-assault case, in which
he was given a four-year suspended sentence."
So how did such a father get the children? It goes back
years, to an astounding proposition.
In an all-night final session on June 2, 1961, Rhode
sleep-deprived General Assembly unanimously approved dozens of laws,
including one that set up Family Court. Gov. John Notte
immediately named a chief judge and four associate justices. Pumped
with patronage, the court ballooned. Today, its 13 judges and 8
magistrates impose sweeping decisions, with judicial immunity. Rhode
Island is the only state that gives judges
lifetime tenure without review.
Many of the lawmakers who established Family Court were
lawyers -- directing a river of revenue to their profession. Did anyone
really believe that adversarial litigation could help troubled
families? This combative protocol has produced irresolvable wars of
attrition, benefiting no one but profiteers. Lawyers, intent on causing
collateral damage, bring in mental-health "experts" and send volleys
whizzing back and forth.
In 1975, Rhode Island
legislators approved "irreconcilable differences" as a ground for
divorce. This eliminated any mention of "distasteful details of
personal conduct." Though state law requires domestic violence to be
considered when awarding child custody, the court routinely presumes no
fault and awards joint custody. Even when there is a record of domestic
violence, judges issue bizarre orders requiring the abuser and the
abused to agree on important decisions in their children's lives.
Abusers with money or other forms of influence, skilled
terrorizing their families, easily gain the upper hand. Their children,
suffering nightmares and stomach ailments, refuse to visit them. The
abusive parent charges the protective parent with "brainwashing" the
children, and wins sole custody.
The so-called Parental Alienation Syndrome, touted by
the Rhode Island Family Court, has been discredited by the American
Psychological Association and, recently, by both the National Council
of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Children's Legal Rights
Journal. For more than a decade, I have witnessed the devastating
effects of this strategy in Rhode Island
courtrooms and families.
Abusers often pride themselves on a no-nonsense parenting
style that may appeal to judges. They typically show little concern for
their children. Some pursue the children to torment their ex-partner or
to avoid paying child support. Some force the children to deliver
intelligence on the ex-partner, for protracted litigation against the
protective parent. Threatened by a brutal, angry, demanding parent, the
children frequently suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and
A North Providence nine-year-old,
diagnosed with PTSD, feared that his father would kidnap him and kill
his mother, so he refused to attend school after his father returned
from military duty in Iraq.
On April 11, 2005,
while the mother's lawyer was away on court assignment, the father's
lawyer brought an emergency motion with a court-ordered guardian; the
obliging judge ordered the father to enter the mother's home and "pick
up" his truant son.
Mayhem ensued when the father appeared with two police
officers. He literally picked up his screaming son and took him out
over his shoulder, past the boy's weeping mother, grandmother, and
therapist. The damage of this shock-and-awe approach is not easily
Today, the boy must refer to his stepmother as "Bonus
and he sees his real mother one hour a week, under intense court
In another case, last month, after a lengthy series
the Family Court program that helps recovering addicts keep their
babies, The Journal held an online interview with the chief judge.
Outside, a teenager stood in pouring rain and handed out fliers with a
photo of herself as a baby in her mother's arms.
Her father, a Johnston
policeman charged twice by the Department of Human Services with
failure to pay child support, had accused his former wife of drug
addiction. Repeated tests proved him wrong, but the chief judge
inexplicably gave him the baby.
"All my life," read the teen's flier, "my father told me
everyone else that I had a druggie for a mother. Three years ago I
figured out he was lying. I finally left my father's violence and
returned to my mother."
Since then her father has not let her talk to her
half-sisters. Tormented with rage, she has sought help from
The problem is not limited to Rhode
Island or the United
a group called Fathers4Justice asserted that "judges are denying fathers access to their children on little more
than the say-so of vindictive ex-wives." Those fathers lost credibility
this year after their plot to kidnap the prime minister's child became
public. The Guardian noted ("Sins of the Fathers," May 8): "The
little-known but astonishing truth about the family justice system is
that it routinely grants contact orders to men who have been violent
towards their partner and children. In the past decade, family courts
have ordered 11 children to have contact with fathers who subsequently
A year ago, the Rhode Island Senate established a
to study Child Safety in Custody and Visitation. It never met.
Legislators seem too busy to care who, if anyone,
is watching the children.
The Rev. Anne Grant, a retired minister and former executive
director of the Women's Center
of Rhode Island, is writing
a book on domestic-violence child-custody cases.