AMY CASTILLO’S three children were drowned by her estranged husband during an unsupervised visit in 2008. Officials in the Montgomery County court system that oversaw the case judged the horrific outcome to be an anomaly.
After 15-month-old Prince McLeod Rams was killed in 2012 allegedly by his father during an unsupervised visit that had been opposed by his mother, officials again defended their procedures.
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Now a study suggests there are systemic shortcomings in how the Montgomery courts protect children. It makes a number of recommendations that officials should take to heart.
The report from Court Watch Montgomery, a nonprofit that aims to strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence, details lapses in the system. “In the Best Interests of the Child?” is based on observations of trained volunteers who attended hundreds of court hearings for protective orders over the course of a year. Some of what the observers witnessed: judges granting unsupervised parental visits to confirmed abusers without adequate scrutiny of parenting patterns; undue skepticism of women’s claims of abuse of their children; failure to order counseling for abusers; and a lack of programs facilitating the safe exchange and supervised visits of children.
According to the report, judges in 70 percent of the hearings ordered unsupervised visits between a child and father even after finding clear and convincing evidence that he had committed violence against the child’s mother. “Violent domestic violence offenders generally don’t make safe, nurturing fathers but many judges act . . . as if one has nothing to do with the other. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Laurie Duker of Court Watch. The report catalogues the harm done to children in homes where there is domestic violence, even when they are just witnesses. Boys, for example, who witness domestic abuse are twice as likely to become perpetrators of domestic violence as are boys who do not witness abuse.
The group, which doesn’t name judges and goes out of its way to praise positive actions, has credibility with the courts, and its previous reports have led to new practices. That’s also to the credit of open-minded officials such as John W. Debelius III, administrative judge for the Montgomery Circuit Court, who told us he is reviewing the group’s new report. But some of the recommendations, such as the creation of a safe-exchange program and a center for supervised visits, will require additional resources and so, for the first time, Court Watch is directing its recommendations to Montgomery’s county executive and council. We urge them to pay attention to this critical need.