How Many Children Are Court -Ordered Into Unsupervised Contact With an Abusive Parent After Divorce?
Contact: Joyanna Silberg, PhD, Executive Vice President
According to a conservative estimate by experts at the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence (LC), more than 58,000 children a year are ordered into unsupervised contact with physically or sexually abusive parents following divorce in the United States. This is over twice the yearly rate of new cases of childhood cancer.
Experts at the LC consider the crisis in our family courts to constitute a public health crisis. Once placed with an abusive parent or forced to visit, children will continue to be exposed to parental violence and abuse until they reach 18. Thus, we estimate that half a million children will be affected in the US at any point of time. Many of these children will suffer physical and psychological damage which may take a lifetime to heal. The Leadership Council urges citizens to work with legislators and agencies in their communities to examine this problem, review state agency policies and procedures, and develop legislative and policy solutions that help ensure safety from violence for children following divorce.
How We Obtained This Estimate:
No one knows the exact number of children who are left in the unprotected care of an abusive parent following their parents' divorce. The Leadership Council has studied the problem and using the best available research has attempted to come up with a conservative estimate of the problem. We estimate that each year, 58,500 minor children are placed at risk for injury because the courts ordered them into the unsupervised care of a violent parent.
The estimate is meant to be conservative and was obtained using the figures in the following table. The research that we used to obtain these figures is explained in more depth in the following section.
Number of children affected by divorce each year
Number of families with allegations of child abuse and/or severe domestic violence (13%)
When investigated, percentage of cases found to be valid or suspected to be valid. (Research suggests that the number is between 43 and 73%, with most data showing the rate is closer to 70%. To be conservative we will use 60%)
Percentage of children left unprotected. (Research suggests that the number is between 56-90%, with most data showing the rate is closer to 90%. A conservative estimate is 75%)
Estimate of children in the U.S. who are left in the unprotected care of an abuser after their parents' divorce
It is difficult to determine the number of divorcing families affected by violence. The Women's Law Center of Maryland analyzed an extensive dataset, which consists of a random sampling of all divorce and custody cases filed in Maryland during fiscal year 1999. Domestic violence (including child abuse) was alleged by at least one party in 240 cases out of 1,847 (13.0%).4
This is likely an underestimate as court records often fail to note domestic violence5 and other studies have shown higher rates. For example, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), looking solely at court records, found documented evidence of domestic violence in 24%-55% of custody court records depending on the state.6
In addition, studies suggest that in divorces marked by ongoing disputes over the custody and care of children, there is often a history of violence in the family and a likelihood that the violence will continue after the separation. In many cases, the violence involves severe battering and/or the use of weapons.7
To be conservative we will go with 13%. So how many of these allegations are likely to be valid. Research suggests when allegations of child abuse are investigated, approximately 50-73% are found to be valid.8
However, when courts get involved in determining custody, children are rarely protected from the violent parent. In at least 75% of cases the child is ordered into unsupervised contact with the alleged abuser. (Research has found results ranging from 56-90%; a conservative estimate is 75%).9
So how many children whose parents divorce are left in the unprotected care of an abuser each year in the United States ? Thus a conservative estimate based on available research is that approximately 58,500 are left at risk of physical and psychological injury after being ordered into the unsupervised care of an abuser after their parents divorce. This number includes both those who are left in the sole care of an abuser and those who are required to have unsupervised visits.
Compare this to the number of cases of childhood cancer per year. In 2004 the incidence rate of newly diagnosed childhood cancers in the U.S. was 22,586.10
Most people who divorce do so early in their marriage,.3 and children who are court-ordered into the custody of, or unsupervised visitation with, an abuser will be at risk of abuse until they reach adulthood. Consequently, at any point in time it is likely that a half a million children are left unprotected from a violent parent after their parents' divorce.
1. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2000). Divorce - Helping Children Adjust. http://www.medem.com/medlb/article_detaillb.cfm?article_ID=ZZZ4KZADH4C⊂_cat=0
(“Every year, more than one million children in the United States experience the divorce of their parents.”)
2. National Institutes of Mental Health. (2002, October 15). Preventive Sessions After Divorce Protect Children into Teens.
(“About 1.5 million children experience the divorce of their parents each year—ultimately 40 percent of all children.”)
3. Shiono, P. H., & Quinn, L. S. (1994, Spring). Epidemiology of Divorce.Future of Children, 4 (1). Available athttp://www.futureofchildren.org/usr_doc/vol4no1ART2.pdf
(Each year since the mid-1970s, more than 1 million children have experienced a family divorce.”)
4. The Women's Law Center of Maryland. (2004). Custody and financial distribution in Maryland: An empirical study of custody and divorce cases filed in Maryland during fiscal year 1999. Towson, MD.
(“Domestic violence (including child abuse) was alleged by at least one party in 240 cases out of 1,847 (13.0 percent). Of these, 169 allegations were made by women and 36 by men.”)
5. Kernic, M.A., Monary-Ernsdorff, D. J., Koepsell, J. K., & Holt, V. L. (2005). Children in the crossfire: Child custody determinations among couples with a history of intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 11 (8), 991-1021.
(Researchers at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center in Seattle , studied divorce cases and found that in 47.6% of cases with a documented, substantiated history of domestic violence, no mention of the abuse was found in the divorce case files. Similarly the National Center for State Courts that a screening process [utilized by the mediation program] revealed a much higher incidence of domestic violence than a review of court records alone would have indicated [see ref 6 below]).
6. Susan Keilitz et al, Domestic Violence and Child Custody Disputes: A Resource Handbook for Judges and Court Managers , prepared for the National Center for State Courts; State Justice Institute," NCSC Publication Number R- 202, p. 5.
7. Johnston, J. R. (1994). High-Conflict Divorce. The Future of Children, 4(1), 165-182, p. 167.
8. Research used in substantiation estimate:
Brown, T., Frederico, M., Hewitt, L., & Sheehan, R. (1997). Problems and solutions in the management of child abuse allegations in custody and access disputes in the family court. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 36 (4), 431-443.
(Researchers reviewed court records of some 200 families where child abuse allegations had been made in custody and access disputes in jurisdictions in two states, observed court proceedings and interviewed court and related services' staff.The allegations of abuse were usually valid. 70% were determined to involve severe physical and/or sexual abuse. The overall rate of false allegations during divorce to be about 9%, similar to the rate of false allegations in noncustody related investigations.)
Faller, K. C., & DeVoe, E. (1995). Allegations of sexual abuse in divorce. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4 (4), 1-25.
(Researchers examined 214 allegations of sexual abuse in divorce cases that were evaluated by a multidisciplinary team at a university-based clinic. 72.6% were determined likely; 20% unlikely; and 7.4% uncertain. Of the 20% of cases that were judged to be false or possibly false cases, only approximately a quarter (n = 10) were determined to have been consciously made. The remainder were classified as misinterpretations.)
Thoennes, N., & Tjaden, P. G. (1990). The extent, nature, and validity of sexual abuse allegations in custody and visitation disputes. Child Sexual Abuse & Neglect, 14(2), 151-63.
(Researchers examined court records in 9,000 families in custody/visitation disputes. In the 129 cases for which a determination of the validity of the allegation was available, 50% were found to involve abuse , 33% were found to involve no abuse, and 17% resulted in an indeterminate ruling. [*note: Court records provide less reliable than evaluations by multidisciplinary teams trained in recognizing child abuse].)
Jones, D.P.H., & Seig, A. (1988). Child sexual abuse allegations in custody or visitation disputes: A report of 20 cases. In E.B. Nicholson & J. Bulkley (Eds.), Sexual Abuse Allegations in Custody and Visitation Cases: A Resource Book for Judges and Court Personnel. Washington, DC: American Bar Association, pp. 22-36.
(This article reports on 20 cases evaluated by the C. Henry Kempe Centre which involved both sexual abuse allegations and a parental custody dispute. 70% of cases were found to be reliable and 20% of the cases appeared fictitious.)
McGraw, J.M., & Smith, H.A. (1992). Child sexual abuse allegations amidst divorce and custody proceedings: Refining the validation process. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 1(1), 49-61.
(This study describes 18 cases of child sexual abuse allegations made during divorce and custody disputes. The cases were reviewed using the clinical process of validation used at the Kempe Center in Denver, Colorado. The number of cases categorized as founded was eight [44.4%]. In two cases [ 11%]) there was insufficient information to make a determination, and five were judged to be based on an unsubstantiated suspicion. Three cases were judged to be fictitious [16.5%], only one of which came from a child.)
Paradise, J. E., Rostain, A. L., & Nathanson, M. (1988). Substantiation of sexual abuse charges when parents dispute custody or visitation. Pediatrics, 81(6), 835-9.
(Researchers systematically evaluated child sexual abuse cases in a hospital-based consecutive series and one author's practice were systematically reviewed. Abuse allegations made within the context custody or visitation dispute [39% of the sample] were compared with cases in which custody or visitation was not an issue. Cases involving custody problems were found to involve younger children [5.4 vs 7.8 years]. Sexual abuse allegations were substantiated less frequently when there was concomitant parental conflict [nonsignificant] but were nevertheless substantiated more than half of the time.)
Trocme, N., & Bala, N. (2005). False allegations of abuse and neglect when parents separate. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(12), 1333. (PDF)
Using data from the 1998 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS-98), this paper provides a detailed summary of the characteristics associated with intentionally false reports of child abuse and neglect within the context of parental separation. The national study examined abuse and neglect investigated by child welfare services in Canada.
When there was an on-going custody dispute the substantiation rate by CPS was 40% and an addition 14% were suspected but there wasn't enough evidence to make a final determination. 12% were believed to be intentionally false. Allegations of neglect was the most common form of intentionally fabricated maltreatment. Substantiation rates varied significantly by source of report, with reports from the police (60%), custodial parents (47%), and children (54%) being generally most likely to be substantiated, while noncustodial parents (usually fathers) have a lower substantiation rate (33%), and anonymous reports being least likely to be substantiated (16%). Of the intentionally false allegations of maltreatment tracked by the study, custodial parents (usually mothers) and children were least likely to fabricate reports of abuse or neglect.
Hlady, L.J., & Gunter, E.J. (1990). Alleged child abuse in custody access disputes. Child Abuse & Neglect, 14(4), 591-3.
(Researchers reviewed the charts of all children involved in custody access disputes seen by Child Protective Services (CPS) at British Columbia's Children's Hospital in 1988. Of the 370 such children evaluated by CPS, 34 involved allegations of child sexual abuse (CSA) that arose during custody/access disputes. These children's physical examinations were then compared with the 219 children seen during the same one-year period for alleged CSA not involving custody/access disputes. A similar percentage of positive physical findings were found in both groups. It is concluded that the concern that allegations of CSA that arise during custody/access disputes are likely to be false is not borne out by these findings.)
9. Research used in this estimate:
Neustein, A., & Goetting, A. (1999). Judicial Responses to Protective Parents, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4, 103-122.
http://www.haworthpressinc.com/store/SampleText/J070.pdf (go to page 109 of pdf)
(Examined judicial responses to protective parents' complaints of child sexual abuse in 300 custody cases with extensive family court records. The investigators found that only in 10% of cases was primary custody was given to the protective parent and supervised contact with alleged abuser.Conversely, 20% of the cases resulted in a predominantly negative outcome where the child was placed in the primary legal and physical custody of the allegedly sexually abusive parent (see p. 108). In the rest of the cases, the judges awarded joint custody with no provisions for supervised visitation with the alleged abuser.)
Lowenstein, S. R. (1991). Child sexual abuse in custody and visitation litigation: Representation for the benefit of victims. UMKC Law Review, 60, 227-82.
(This study examined 96 custody and visitation disputes involving allegations of child sexual abuse from 33 states. Visitation was the principal issues in 36 cases. The father was alleged to have sexually molested their child in each of these 36 cases. Yet in two-thirds (24) of these cases the alleged perpetrator was granted unsupervised visitation.
Custody was the principle issue in 56 cases. In 27 of the 56 cases (48%) mothers lost custody. In 17 of these cases (63%) the mother lost custody to a father alleged to be a perpetrator. In two cases (3.6%) fathers lost custody. No father lost custody to a mother whose household included an alleged perpetrator (either the mother, a stepfather, the mother's boyfriend, or one of mother's relatives).
Kernic, M.A., Monary-Ernsdorff, D. J., Koepsell, J. K., & Holt, V. L. (2005). Children in the crossfire: Child custody determinations among couples with a history of intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 11(8), 991-1021.
(Examined the effects of a history of interpersonal violence on child custody and visitation outcomes. Mothers in cases with a violent partner were no more likely to obtain custody than mothers in non-abuse cases. Fathers with a history of committing abuse were denied child visitation in only 17% of cases.)
Saccuzzo, D. P., & Johnson, N. E. (2004). Child custody mediation's failure to protect: Why should the criminal justice system care? National Institute of Justice Journal, 251, 21-23. Available at http://ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/jr000251.pdf
(Researchers compared 200 child custody mediations involving charges of domestic violence with 200 mediations that did not.Joint legal custody was awarded about 90% of the time, even when domestic violence was an issue.)
Johnson, N. E., Saccuzzo, D. P., & Koen, W. J. (2005). Child custody mediation in cases of domestic violence: Empirical evidence of a failure to protect. Violence Against Women, 11(8), 1022-1053.
10. U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. (2007). United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2004 Incidence and Mortality Web-based Report. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Cancer Institute.Available at: www.cdc.gov/uscs .
For more information see:
Dallam. S. J., & Silberg, J. L. (Jan/Feb 2006). Myths that place children at risk during custody disputes. Sexual Assault Report, 9 (3), 33-47. (PDF)
American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence. (2006). 10 Myths About Custody and Domestic Violence and How to Counter Them. Washington, DC: Author.http://leadershipcouncil.org/docs/ABA_custody_myths.pdf
More research is available from the Leadership Council web site
The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence is composed of national leaders in psychology, psychiatry, medicine, law, and public policy who are committed to the ethical application of psychological science and countering its misuse by special interest groups. Members of the Council are dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of children and other vulnerable populations. More information can be found at: www.leadershipcouncil.org