History of the Battered Mothers Custody Conference
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By Barry Goldstein
Only Mo Hannah could make a frigid Albany weekend in January of 2004 the place to be for several dozen protective moms, supportive professionals and activists who came for the first Battered Mothers Custody Conference. Many of the attendees had to leave their rooms in the middle of the night wearing robes and pajamas after fire alarms were triggered by frozen pipes, but at the conference there was a warmth and caring all of us badly needed.
Although I had been part of the domestic violence movement since 1983, I was new to the national movement as my book SCARED TO LEAVE AFRAID TO STAY had only come out in 2002. I was excited to meet and work with national celebrities like Lundy Bancroft, Joan Zorza and Richard Ducote and Garland Waller. Lundy has been to all eight conferences and is such an exciting speaker because he provides information that could be used to totally change the broken system. Joan has been one of the national leaders in the movement for over thirty years. I had corresponded with her prior to the first conference when she reviewed my book in Domestic Violence Report. I met her at the first conference and she quickly became a friend and mentor. Richard Ducote is a dynamic speaker who attended the first several conferences and led the Truth Commission. At the first conference, Garland Waller played her award- winning documentary, SMALL JUSTICE which was the first time I saw it. She has participated in all of the conferences and has also shown her documentary about Richard Gardner.
This was the first time a large group of protective moms came together, shared their stories and understood they were not alone. It helped everyone to understand the pattern of mistakes the courts were making. Surprisingly there were few representatives from the domestic violence movement and many mothers complained their local battered women’s shelters had been less than helpful. Nevertheless the moms were excited by the support they gave each other and from the professionals who came to help their cause.
Dr. Mo Therese Hannah is a psychologist, but that didn’t save her from a traumatic experience in the broken custody courts. She only barely escaped with custody of her children and recognized the courts badly need reforming. Mo networked with other protective moms and eventually created the Battered Mothers Conference with her co-chair Liliane H. Miller. Without the tremendous efforts of Mo there is no Battered Mothers Custody Conference and the protective mothers movement would have been greatly delayed.
The second Battered Mothers Custody Conference was particularly exciting because of the presence of my personal heroes, the Courageous Kids and parts of the conference were taped for the PBS Documentary BREAKING THE SILENCE: CHILDREN’S STORIES.
The Courageous Kids are young adults who as children were ensnared by the broken custody court system and forced to live with abusive fathers because of the common mistakes these courts routinely make. They came together under the auspices of the California Protective Parents Association led by Karen Anderson and Connie Valentine. These young men and women described the unspeakable torment they were subjected to by their abusers and the denial of a relationship with their safe, protective mothers. Their stories were powerful because they had a moral authority none of the rest of us could match. The courts, after all were supposed to be working to protect these children and instead were the instrument of their torture.
We were especially excited about BREAKING THE SILENCE: CHILDREN’S STORIES because it would create widespread national exposure to the crisis in the custody court system. I have long believed that if the public knew how often courts ruin children’s lives and subject them to unspeakable trauma they would not permit it to continue. Unfortunately, the abuser groups also understood the documentary could undermine their ability to maintain what they believe is their privilege to control their partners and launched a vicious attack on what was a wonderful documentary. They attacked the film and the producers without even seeing it. We launched a campaign in support of BREAKING THE SILENCE, but PBS caved to the abuser’s lobby, limited the showing of the documentary and basically disowned it. BREAKING THE SILENCE has been shown throughout the country at meetings and conferences, but the cowardice of PBS prevented it from being the breakthrough that could have saved more children.
The battered women’s movement is a natural ally of the protective mothers movement. After our first conference Mo and I spoke about the importance of working with domestic violence organizations and we reached out to the New York State Coalition, the State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and other similar groups. As a result of these meetings and the ever more horrendous situation in the courts, domestic violence organizations have become our biggest supporters. Domestic violence advocates are now well represented at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference. Mo and I were invited to lead a workshop and then a separate discussion group at the 2008 NCADV national conference. Rita Smith, Executive Director of the NCADV and other staff have become regular participants at the Battered Mothers conferences and have given us everything we ever asked for. The NCADV invited Mo and I together with Garland Waller and Judge Mike Brigner to present about our book at a plenary session during the 2010 NCADV national conference in Anaheim. This has been a wonderful collaboration that will continue to benefit protective mothers and all of the battered women’s movement.
As the movement strengthened, new presenters became regular participants. Searching for Angela Shelton is an award winning movie that created its own movement. When Angela speaks at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, one minute we are crying the next laughing as she brings an intense emotional connection to the audience. Wendy Murphy is an attorney and former prosecutor whose book AND JUSTICE FOR SOME deeply resonates with protective mothers. Wendy brings a perspective about how women and victims are treated that is missed when we just hear the repeated misinformation in the media. Nancy Erickson was a law professor at New York Law School when I was a student, but we never met until she came to her first Battered Mothers Custody Conference. Since then Nancy has become a friend and colleague and is a contributor to our book and regular speaker at the conferences.
For the fourth annual conference, Mo had the idea of creating a Truth Commission made up of a multi-disciplinary group of leading experts in domestic violence and custody who would listen to the testimony of sixteen protective mothers and use this information together with their knowledge of domestic violence custody cases to make a report about the problems in the custody courts and potential solutions that could prevent the all too common tragedies discussed in the testimony and research.
We listened to the mothers’ testimony in front of the conference and then met privately to discuss the issues and prepare the report. While there were a few minor disagreements most of the conclusions and recommendations were unanimous and the atmosphere for the discussions was collegial. The Truth Commission presented its report and discussed it at the conference in front of all the participants. The reaction was supportive and appreciative. We later exchanged drafts by email as we prepared the final written report that can be found on the Internet and in our book.
The Truth Commission Report created a lot of excitement when we released it because it not only exposed the extent of the problem but also provided realistic solutions. One of the people who was impressed by the report was a publisher at Civic Research Institute which produces quality research and other material by and for professionals. She asked Mo Hannah to prepare a book based on the Truth Commission Report and Mo invited me to co-edit the book with her. This became DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY which was published in April of 2010. Many of the experts who present at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference became contributors to the book. We are excited that the book will be available at the upcoming 8th annual conference January 7-9. We will be discussing how to use the research in the book to help win better results in court.
When a woman is living with an abusive partner, she is really living in a pretend world. He will repeatedly hurt her and then deny it or claim she caused him to hurt her. She can’t challenge him because it is not safe. One of the important parts of healing once she can leave him is to return to reality and speak about the truth. That is another reason why the court system is so destructive as mothers are repeatedly punished for trying to speak about reality that the courts treat as undermining the children’s relationship with the abuser. This dynamic was discussed in THE BATTERER AS PARENT which says one of the best things we can do to help the CHILDREN is to help the mother heal. Nevertheless the courts routinely do the opposite.
This is another reason why the Battered Mothers Custody Conference is so valuable. At least for that one weekend each year, we are among friends, we can speak the truth, the reality may not be pleasant but at least we can escape the pretend world of the courts and the abusers. It is important for protective mothers to know they are not alone. Other wonderful people are going through the same attacks and being pathologized by unqualified "experts."
More than once I have told a story at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference that inspired me to start writing my first book. Three young children complained that their father was physically and sexually abusing them. They told the judge, the CPS caseworker, their attorney and the evaluator what their father did to them. As frequently happens, these professionals whose job it was to protect children decided the mother had brainwashed the children and warned she would lose custody if she didn’t stop. Before the first unsupervised visitation could occur, the father was confronted by the baby sitter in the presence of the law guardian. He admitted that he had kissed his daughters on their privates. The law guardian immediately made a motion to stop the visitation which I joined. The judge consulted with the evaluator who said the father showed poor judgment but there was no reason to stop the visitation. During the first visitation the four-year-old was penetrated for the first time. I made a new report to CPS when the judge refused to protect the children based on the father’s admission. The judge yelled and screamed at me saying CPS had already investigated the charges. They assigned a new caseworker who did a thorough job this time and found out the father had done even worse than we alleged. They brought charges against the father and he never again had anything but supervised visitation.
After the mother won custody, she invited the new CPS caseworker and myself to a celebratory dinner to thank us for our work. The kids had gifts, but most of all they had a name for us. They called us "believers" because we believed them when all the other professionals failed to do so. I can tell you there is no greater honor than to be called a believer. The 2009 conference took place just days after my license was suspended in retaliation for exposing an abusive judge. I was not sure how I would be received or what my future was and suddenly Mo called me up to the stage and presented me with the Believer award.
I look forward to seeing everyone at the 2011 Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Albany January 7-9. For more information you can check our web site at http://www.Batteredmotherscustodyconference.org My friend, Ben Atherton-Zeman will be performing at the conference and has created believer bumper stickers. Please come to a place where protective mothers and their children are believed. I don’t know what will happen in our work to reform the broken custody court system, but as for me, I’m a believer!
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence expert, speaker, writer and consultant. He is the co-editor with Mo Therese Hannah of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY.