BWJP – Custody Project

About the Custody Project
?BWJP is working to improve the family court response to domestic violence through a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women.  The goal of the project is to enhance safety for battered women and their children by ensuring that family court decision-making accounts for the nature and effects of domestic violence.

BWJP has developed a four-part model to help family court practitioners make domestic violence-informed decisions and take domestic violence-informed action.  The model can be applied by anyone who is involved in a family court case (advocates, attorneys, guardians, evaluators, mediators and judges) at any stage of the family court process (intake, case management conference, mediation, evaluation, and trial).”
For a brief history of the Custody Project and a current progress report, please click here.

Overview of the Project
For years now, survivors and advocates have complained that the family court system is failing to adequately protect the safety and wellbeing of children – and their battered and battering parents – in child custody cases where domestic violence is alleged. In 2009, in an effort to respond to that reality, OVW and BWJP entered into a two-year cooperative agreement to develop a framework to help family court practitioners better identify, understand and account for the context and implications of domestic violence in child custody cases. That cooperative agreement was extended for an additional two years, through September 2013.

BWJP and its project partner, Praxis International, assembled a national workgroup, a blue ribbon team of representatives from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, as well as scholars and expert practitioners from across the country. The national workgroup has provided critical leadership and guidance for the project since its inception.….

What We Have Learned Thus Far
Several themes have emerged from the work we have completed to date. These themes are consistent with and supported by the prevailing research in the field, as well as the experiences of the family court practitioners and litigants across the country with whom we have met.

1. Ill-defined terminology
There is very little agreement among practitioners about the meaning of commonly used terminology like
domestic violence, high conflict, parental alienation, and best interests. This inconsistency in terminology leads to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.

2. Lack of clarity regarding professional roles and functions
In addition to ill-defined terminology, we also observed that practitioners often lacked clarity about their own roles and functions within the family court system. For example, some evaluators perceived their function to be strictly about determining what parenting arrangement would be in the best interests of the child, while other evaluators saw their role as facilitating a settlement between the parents. We saw many, many examples of this sort of confusion about who was responsible for what within the family court system.

3. Inconsistent screening, assessment and assumptions about domestic abuse
While most family court practitioners appeared to engage in some sort of screening for domestic violence, we saw very little evidence that practitioners routinely used any standardized protocol or tool to determine the nature and context of domestic violence. Instead, we observed that many practitioners simply relied on their own gut feelings or instincts to determine whether domestic violence has occurred and imposed their own personal assumptions about domestic violence when making sense of what was going on.

4. Poorly informed decision-making
We saw that big decisions were being made by practitioners in all court settings in the face of tremendous factual uncertainty – and in some cases, on the basis of wildly inaccurate information – with very few opportunities for the parties to challenge the “facts” or correct the record. We also saw that the paucity of reliable information and inconsistent assessments led to poorly informed decision-making.

5. Disconnected interventions and services
In what Jill Davies refers to as “service-defined” as opposed to “survivor-defined” interventions, we also saw that the interventions and services offered were often disconnected from what people actually needed. ….”