"An Act relating to awarding child custody; and providing for an effective date."
Domestic violence is often a significant factor in divorce and child custody proceedings. According to the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States. The American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and numerous other organizations have recommended that if domestic violence has occurred in a relationship, the offender should not receive sole or joint legal or physical custody of children. A unanimous Joint Resolution of Congress, H. Con. Res. 172, adopted in 1990, urged states to adopt the statutory presumption "that it is detrimental to the child to be placed in the custody of the abusive spouse."
When children witness violence in the home, they have been found to suffer many of the symptoms that are experienced by children who are directly abused. Children exposed to domestic violence face increased risks that they will be killed or injured by the violence, that their emotional, physical and mental development will be adversely affected, and that they will be neglected or abused. We commonly encounter the mistaken assumption among professionals, including judges and custody evaluators, that children are in less danger from a batterer once a couple is no longer living together, when the reality is often the opposite.
By the end of the 2002 legislative session, 23 states had adopted the approach of the Model Code of the Family Violence Project of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. This model state statute clearly states that there should be a rebuttable presumption that it is detrimental to the child and not in the best interest of the child to be placed in sole custody, joint legal custody, or joint physical custody with the perpetrator of family violence. It emphasizes that the safety and well-being of the child and the parent who is the victim must be primary.
Unfortunately, courts sometimes apply psychological pressures that keep women tied to their abusers. "Friendly parent" statutes ask courts to assess each parent's willingness to co-parent when making custody decisions. Despite their reasonable reluctance to co-parent, battered women may end up being labeled "uncooperative," with an increased risk of losing their children to theirs and their children's abuser. This perpetuates family violence from one generation to the next at great social cost to Alaskan society. Amazingly, "Studies show batterers are able to convince authorities that the victim is unfit or undeserving of sole custody in approximately 70% of challenged cases." (American Judges Association). Friendly parent statutes are often the tool used by abusive parents against the protective parent.
serves to better protect children from the effects of domestic violence by achieving consistency between Alaska child protection statutes and child custody statutes. This bill incorporates the sense of the legislature in (6), (7) & (8) and 1999's that the effects of witnessing domestic violence is harmful to children, that parenting by a perpetrator of domestic violence places a child at a substantially higher risk of being directly abused, and that the sexual molestation of a child by their parents makes them unfit.
The bill also modifies our statutes "friendly parent" provision that inadvertently harms children, particularly in circumstances involving domestic violence, child abuse/sexual abuse and neglect. Alaska is in the minority of states that still have a "friendly parent" provision that inadvertently harms children, particularly in circumstances involving domestic violence, child abuse/sexual abuse and neglect. Also, while Alaska's child custody statutes specifically mention domestic violence as a factor to be considered, they allow wide discretion and do not give it special weight. It is simply one additional factor when considering the best interests of the child.
Effects of this violence on children have high costs in human lives and to our communities. Research has consistently shown that children who witness violence suffer a wide range of short and long-term emotional and behavioral problems that often follow them for life. These children are at higher risk for psychosomatic disorders, stuttering, anxiety and fears, sleep disruption, excessive crying, problems in school, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual acting out, running away, and even suicide. Boys who witness their fathers' abuse of their mothers or siblings are more likely to inflict severe violence as adults. Data suggest that girls who witness abuse may tolerate abuse as adults more than girls who do not.
Alaska ranks in the top 5 states in the nation for per capita rates of domestic violence. The rate of Alaskan women being killed by a partner is 1.5 times the national average. Alaska has 6 times the national average of reported child sexual assault. In 3 out of 4 reported cases, the victim knew the offender, the most commonly reported type of sexual abuse is a father who commits incest with his daughter--usually the eldest daughter. (AK Dept. of Health & Social Services)
HB 385 sends a clear message that we wish to halt the perpetuation of family violence from generation to generation and that perpetrators will be held accountable.
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