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Family abuse and custody decisions

Virginia courts generally give great weight to allegations of domestic violence (or family abuse, as the phenomenon is called in Virginia), but a recent study appears to indicate that such allegations may backfire against the parent who is alleging abuse by the other parent.

The study was conducted by a professor of clinical law at George Washington University and its principal conclusion was that mothers who report abuse are losing child custody at surprisingly high rates.

The author of the study said that her results paralleled the recent “Me Too” movement, which involved women who were not believed when they alleged sexual abuse at work. The investigative team reviewed 4,388 custody decisions that were available online. Their goal was to determine the rate at which judges disbelieved claims of abuse and were removing children from the custody of the parent who made such allegations. The study also attempted to measure the effect of gender on such decisions.

The study separated abuse into domestic violence against the mother, child physical abuse and child sexual abuse. Courts credited the mother’s claims of abuse by the father in only 36 percent of the cases. In cases involving only child abuse, the courts accepted the mothers’ and children’s claims only 21 percent of the time for child physical abuse and 19 percent of the time for child sexual abuse.

In one striking finding, the study found that mothers who reported abuse lost custody 28 percent of the time, while fathers who alleged abuse lost custody only 12 percent of the time. Even when the court’s written decision said that the father’s abuse had been proved, the mothers lost custody 13 percent of the time. When a mother’s abuse was proved in court, the father lost custody only four percent of the time.

The report has not yet been published in any academic journal, but it is certain to make waves when that happens.

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