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Child custody laws must target dangers of domestic violence

State legislatures in Missouri and other states continue to look for ways to improve the administration of child custody laws to make them even more supportive of the needs of the children. Although child custody law is guided by the all-encompassing mandate of deciding what is in the best interest of the children it doesn't always work out that way. Better legislation may involve a clarification of the goals of child custody law and more accurate wording of the provisions contained in the law.

Some child advocates, including those from a group called Child USA, are encouraging state legislatures to help to find laws that will better identify the warning signs of child abuse and domestic violence that may be occurring within a family or that may be indicated by prior histories of mental problems. There is also a call for legislation requiring the courts to hire trained mental health professionals to testify in custody cases. It is asserted that these witnesses must receive certain training in recognizing the dynamics of domestic violence.

The advocates told state legislatures in Pennsylvania that judges and those appointed to assist in custody evaluations are often reluctant to find that a parent could be a danger to his or her own child. They pointed to a local case where the mother of a child told the judge repeatedly that the father was a danger to the child. The repeated warnings were accompanied by court-ordered evaluations that found the father had a history of violence and harassment against the mother and others.

The judge in that case nonetheless ordered an overnight visit that resulted in the father killing the child and himself. The legislators were informed that over 600 children in child custody disputes were murdered in the United States since 2008. The movement toward new laws to target the dangers of domestic violence are being considered in Missouri and throughout the country. 

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