Many parents say change cannot come quick enough regarding the rules and laws surrounding supervised visitation of children amid custody disputes. Three tragic stories are at the center of this push for change in California laws.
In 2017, a Los Angeles woman requested sole custody of her 5-year-old son. Her ex-husband fought for full custody. She was denied by the court, and shared custody was granted. She was forced to allow him to pick up their son for a scheduled visit.
Shortly after, the father suffocated his son, killing the boy while he was still strapped into his car seat. During a confession, he told investigators that he wanted to hurt his estranged wife, and that he thought she should be punished.
The L.A. man was sentenced to a prison term of 25 years, and the mom was left heartbroken and alone.
When Protective Orders Do Not Protect
Early this year, a Sacramento man with a documented history of mental health issues and a violent record was allowed to keep his court-ordered supervised visit with his 9-, 10-, and 13-year-old daughters. Knowing the man’s history, their mother had begged the judge not to grant the visitation.
Despite having a restraining order for domestic violence, the man was able to procure a semi-automatic rifle. He walked into a church for the supervised visit and gunned down his three young daughters and the visitation supervisor before turning the rifle on himself, leaving behind an unanswerable tragedy.
These are two tragedies among numerous cases where requests were dismissed and warning signs were ignored. In the current climate of custody, court systems sometimes eschew allegations of abuse or violent records and focus instead on balancing custody between both parents.
A Push for Change
Recently, survivors of domestic abuse and violent crime took to the Sacramento Capitol to push for the California family court system to reform custody and visitation proceedings. They pleaded with lawmakers to understand that during divorce and custody battles, both the spouse of an abuser and their children could be in grave danger.
Data from the Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) indicates that the U.S. has seen more than 870 cases of children killed by a parent or guardian during custody hearings due to separation and divorce. An estimated 10% (85) of these potentially preventable murders occurred in California.
This danger often intensifies during a separation when restraining orders have been put in place to protect the separating spouse from abuse. Recognizing the threat to the spouse/parent but not the child may put children at risk of being assaulted, harmed, and even killed, as they are now the recipients of the abuser’s anger, frustration, and attempts to hurt their ex-spouse.
Changes are Coming
In 2019, the California state auditor reported numerous times when the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) fell short. The CJP is the only agency providing oversight and investigating complaints regarding handling cases in courtrooms and the judges presiding over them.
Judicial oversight is especially important in cases of domestic violence, which often extends into financial abuse. When survivors of abuse are financially incapacitated, they cannot obtain adequate representation during custody hearings, causing an imbalance in the courtroom and often allowing domestic violence and child abuse to go unrecognized in custody cases.
Advocates for family court reform have urged for courts to rule on custody cases by putting the safety of the children front and center, recognizing a history of abuse and violence, and identifying signs of abuse when evident.
The survivors and their allies’ efforts have resulted in new legislation known as Piqui’s Law (named for one of the children slain by a parent during a custody battle). These new regulations would allow California to receive up to $25 million in federal funding while setting up a system prioritizing child safety during and after divorce and custody cases.
Keeping Safe During Supervised Visitations
Supervised visitation is one of the public policies that California already has in place protecting children’s best interests while parents deal with custody and visitation matters in the family courts. When a child’s safety is in question, judges may order a neutral third party to accompany the child to visitations at a specified place and time with a predetermined duration.
Domestic violence or abuse are not the only reason to necessitate court-ordered supervised visitations. Some other reasons why a court-ordered supervised visitation provider might include:
- Introducing parents to children when there is no pre-existing parent/child relationship
- Reintroducing parents to children following a long absence
- When a history of neglect or substance abuse exist or have been alleged
- When a parent has a mental illness diagnosis or concerns
- When there is a potential threat or concern that a parent may attempt to abduct a child
In California, all supervised visitation providers must follow the Uniform Standards of Practice for Providers of Supervised Visitation and meet these minimum qualifications before supervising visits.
Providers can be classified as:
- Non-professional – Typically a family member or friend, and does not provide supervised visitation services professionally
- Professional or Therapeutic – Educated and trained in providing supervision services and usually charge for their services
The family court will decide which provider best suits the needs of the supervised visits. Both non-professional and professional or therapeutic providers should make every effort to ensure children are safe and as relaxed as possible during a visit.
To fulfill their duties, a provider should be tuned into a child’s verbal and nonverbal behavior, listening, and watching closely for cues that may threaten the safety of the child or make the child uneasy during the visitation. This means they should always be present during the visit and ready to end the visit if any issues are detected.
In most cases, a local Family Court Service office can provide a visitation location. It is important to get a supervisor’s name and California Driver’s License number, and State Child Abuse Registry clearances and qualifications can be verified by calling TrustLine at 1-800-822-8490. More information on supervised visitations and related services can be found on the Supervised Visitation Network.
If you need help with a custody or divorce case, call 619-299-9780 to schedule a free telephone consultation or contact a San Diego family law specialist here.