Feminist custody evaluators are the most likely to view family violence as “intimate terrorism.” That’s one finding of a new survey of custody evaluators conducted by three academic researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana and the University of Kentucky at Lexington. (The survey was published in a subscription-only journal, so I can’t provide a link. One of the authors was kind enough to send me a copy.)
I’ve written a lot about family court judges and their propensity for ruling that children’s contact with their dad is not in their “best interests.” But that suggests that judges make those rulings unaided, and that’s often not the case.
In contentious custody cases, judges often refer the matter to custody evaluators to make recommendations about who should be the primary custodial parent, how much contact the non-custodial parent should have, if any, and under what circumstances. Not surprisingly, those recommendations carry considerable weight with judges. After all, why refer the matter to an expert and then ignore his/her advice?
So questions about just who these custody evaluators are, what their biases are, what their training is, etc. become germane to the issue of child custody. And that’s what the survey by the three researchers is all about.
It’s in the nature of a trial run. It’s a small sample of people (just 23 evaluators) who were interviewed at least in part to see if it was worthwhile to study the matter further. I’d say it is, and in fact the researchers, Megan Haselschwerdt, Jennisfer Hardesty and Jason Hans, have already conducted a 500-person study that they say should be published later this year. I’ll be interested to read it.
There are several major problems with custody evaluations, some of which the authors of the survey refer to. First, Paul Millar of Brock University in Canada points out that the high cost of custody evaluations, on top of the cost of the divorce and custody case itself, screens out all but relatively wealthy or the relatively angry couples. A 2004 survey of judges in the American Mid-West found that “excessive cost” was the major barrier to the conduct of custody evaluations.
Second, no one as yet agrees on how a custody evaluation should be conducted. How should it be done? What information should be gathered, how, by whom and from whom? Those most basic of questions remain unanswered, with the result that individual evaluators perform evaluations to suit themselves.
Third, there are no qualifications for performing a custody evaluation. Millar reports that most evaluators are either psychologists or social workers, but no state except California has legal requirements for custody evaluators. And even those psychologists and social workers may or may not have training in domestic violence issues.
So at the outset, judges are relying on evaluations that are conducted in no standardized way and by someone who may or may not know much about how to advise about custody.
And that, it turns out, is the good news.
The survey begins by spelling out two different types of domestic violence as seen and interpreted by two different types of observers. The different types of DV are “intimate terrorism” and “situational violence.”
Intimate terrorism is that type of DV in which one partner seeks to control the behavior of the other partner to an inappropriate degree. The control extends far beyond the immediate incident to the relationship generally.
Situational violence is more random, more occasional and is not part of a generalized effort to control the behavior of the other partner. It’s the result of immediate stress in the relationship.
The two types of custody evaluators identified by the researchers stem from the two existing types of education about domestic violence. Those types of education are the feminist and what the authors call the “family violence” types.
Feminism and family violence represent two main theoretical perspectives on DV. For decades, feminist and family violence researchers have been at odds over the foci and conceptualization of DV (Johnson, 2008). Feminist DV researchers have focused primarily on violence against women (Johnson, 2008) and pointed to patriarchy, expressed through general male dominance in society and contemporary constructions of masculinity and femininity, as the underlying factor that perpetuates DV (Jasinski, 2001). Feminist DV researchers typically analyze data from agency-based samples, such as women who seek help from shelters (Johnson, 2008). They report that DV is gender asymmetric, with men primarily being perpetrators and women primarily being victims (Johnson, 2008). In contrast, family violence researchers view violence as an outcome of family conflict that is instigated by stress; thus, some violence within families is considered normative (Jasinski, 2001). Family violence researchers typically utilize samples from large-scale surveys of the general population (Johnson, 2008). In contrast to feminist DV researchers, family violence researchers report that DV is gender symmetric, with perpetration and victimization reports nearly identical for men and women (Jasinski, 2001).
Haselschwerdt, et al interviewed 23 subjects, all of whom reported having a good bit of experience doing custody evaluations for courts. As Paul Millar indicated, of the 23 subjects, 18 listed their profession as either psychologist or social worker.
The researchers relied on narrative answers to the questions posed and, from those answers decided which category, “feminist” or “family violence” each respondent fell into. Nine held feminist views about DV and 14 held typically family violence-related attitudes.
Perhaps the most important finding of the entire survey is that only one thing predicted who would fall into which category – their DV training. No other demographic factor – not sex, not age, not education – predicted whether an evaluator would have feminist or family violence attitudes toward DV.
Of the 14 family violence evaluators, 10 listed only “several 1-2 hour workshops” as their sole DV training while two said they had no training at all. By contrast, those evaluators of the feminist perspective referred to things like “40-hour DV shelter training,” “20-hour DV shelter training,”teaches DV classes/seminars” and the like.
In short, the more training these evaluators had in DV, the more likely they were to be persuaded of the feminist point of view on DV. And that, as you recall, means that to them, almost all perpetrators are men, almost all victims are women, patriarchy is at the root of the DV evil, we must change our masculine selves in order to eradicate DV and the only meaningful data come from women in DV shelters.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s beginning to look like less training is better when it comes to custody evaluators and issues regarding allegations of domestic violence.
The authors elaborated further on just what the mindsets of the two groups consist of. I’ll discuss that more in my next post.