From the Fall/Winter 2005 Research & Action Report
Monica Driggers, research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, has been working on court and criminal justice reform for nearly a decade. Driggers joined the team working on the Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project in 2002 and was one of the authors of its ground-breaking report released that year. She continues to advocate for the reforms proposed in the report. Her current projects include research and reform of parole processes in Massachusetts and an investigation of female prisoners’ connections to their children.
How did the Battered Mothers' Testimony Project develop?
The Battered Mothers' Testimony Project (BMTP) at the Wellesley Centers for Women was started by Carrie Cuthbert and Kim Slote, who had been training battered women's advocates throughout Massachusetts in human rights principles. BMTP used international human rights principles to address custody and visitation issues in family court cases involving domestic violence. Slote and Cuthbert built a team of experts to test the assertion that using this approach would enable survivors and advocates to effect greater long-term social change than other crisis intervention, criminal justice, and civil rights strategies traditionally used by battered women's movements in the U.S. The team included Lundy Bancroft, Jay Silverman, Cynthia Mesh, and me.
The findings were based on 40 in-depth interviews with battered women from across the state and a number of people, including judges, who work either for the Massachusetts courts or for the Commonwealth on custody-related matters. The project, which used both qualitative and quantitative methods for data analysis, produced the first human rights tribunal on domestic violence. Held at the Massachusetts State House in 2002, the tribunal featured testimonials from some of our participants. The project culminated in our final report, Battered Mothers Speak Out: A Human Rights Report on Domestic Violence and Child Custody in the Massachusetts Family Courts .
What recommendations were made in this report?
Well, our final report was over 100 pages long and nine pages were dedicated solely to next-step recommendations. It was very important for us to provide carefully crafted and well thought-out recommendations to our readers. Although hindered by limited resources, our efforts to implement these recommendations have continued. Since I'm working alone now, I've primarily focused on ensuring that the project maintains visibility with the courts, key members of the legislature, and advocacy groups. Though none of our priority recommendations have been fully implemented, I can say that most of them now enjoy wide support from advocates and policy makers. That was not the case when our final report was first issued.
Here are some of the recommendations that have been our priority:
- Custody decisions should not be made by a single person, especially in circumstances where one parent is, or is suspected of being, a batterer. Ideally, the courts should apply a team approach involving judges, guardians ad litem, social workers, family members, and other experts. A team-based, decision-making approach is more likely to produce safe, effective, and long-lasting results as it has in other types of cases.
- We propose enforcement of what we call the Family Court User's Bill of Rights, which dictates that all people involved in custody disputes should be made aware of their rights with respect to the legal process at the outset of divorce and custody proceedings.
- Domestic violence training for all family court personnel involved in custody disputes should be mandatory and renewed. Currently, this kind of training is not mandatory for Massachusetts judges or any court personnel.
- Courts need to ensure accountability of all court personnel, such as through the development of a results-oriented compliance process. Domestic violence survivors who have been involved in debilitating custody battles list court personnel accountability as their top priority in improving the system.
How have conditions improved for survivors of domestic violence?
Unfortunately, conditions for domestic violence survivors involved in custody battles aren't much better than when we issued our report in 2002. I receive five to ten calls per week from battered women embroiled in custody battles who are still facing the same human rights infringements identified in Battered Mothers Speak Out: A Human Rights Report on Domestic Violence and Child Custody in the Massachusetts Family Courts. Most of the calls are from Massachusetts residents, but an increasing number are national and international inquiries, which tells us that the problems are not isolated to Massachusetts or the U.S.
In some cases, conditions are even worse than before. As a result of the BMTP, several women across the state formed the Massachusetts Protective Parents Association. Shortly after its conception, the group had to stop meeting due to safety concerns - ex-partners may have been stalking members when they were attending meetings. Women still report concerns for their safety both in and out of court, and of poor treatment from judges and court personnel. The courts have made improvements to the guardian ad litem system and are trying to make safety-oriented improvements to court facilities. But unless and until judges and other court personnel fully understand the scope of the effects of domestic violence, they will not be able to make decisions that protect children from unsafe custody or visitation arrangements. The main complaint from survivors is that they feel as though they are trapped in endless litigation that they cannot afford financially or emotionally. But since the safety of their children is on the line, they persist. As one survivor recently told us, I either have to do something productive with this or die. This is my legacy to my children.
What are the challenges and barriers to implementing the recommendations?
Our biggest barrier is finding the financial resources to sustain the project. Changing state policy is a slow process and will not happen unless we are able to keep the project visible and dynamic. Initially, the project was funded in large part by the Ford Foundation, with support from a number of small foundations and by the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). Unfortunately, the Ford Foundation discontinued its funding in 2003, shortly after the final report was published. WCW has been providing support for a limited continuation of the BMTP since that time, with the focus of regaining funding and keeping the project's recommendations on the policy radar screen in Massachusetts. It is important to note that although the Ford Foundation did not continue funding for the BMTP, the foundation has cited the BMTP as a model domestic human rights project and featured it in the 2004 report on the need for expanding domestic human rights work, Close to Home. The foundation also requested our participation in its first-ever domestic human rights forum in June, 2004.
Another challenge was that when first released, the BMTP report was met with strong reactions - some of which were quite negative. As a human rights report, it was designed to approach and analyze its subject pointedly in order to shame state actors into action - to provoke action from those engaged in domestic violence and child custody cases. This method, although usually successful in the long-term, resulted in an initial response of hurt and frustration by the court. Many felt that the report didn't sufficiently acknowledge the work done over the years.
An ever-present barrier when dealing with issues of domestic violence is that many people (including policy-makers) are squeamish about the topic. Even though society has come a long way in recognizing the problem of domestic violence, we are still reticent to deal with the fallout from abusive relationships. Getting people to focus on what happens to women after they separate from an abuser'and not look at it simply as a one-dimensional problem confined within the walls of a home'has been very difficult. Most people still think that once a woman has left her abuser the trouble is over. In fact, her most difficult times may have just begun.
Have you seen some success despite these challenges?
Yes, I would say that we've made some significant progress. Despite their initial negative reaction, the courts conducted their own assessment of how they deal with domestic violence and their research supported the findings of the BMTP. I am now working with the courts to find ways to implement some of our recommendations. The Executive Branch is dealing with the issue via the Governor's Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence. Legislators and advocates alike have taken note of the success and benefits of a human rights approach to domestic violence. Perhaps most importantly, the project has been replicated in other states. Just as it was important to document what happens to battered women in court, it is crucial that we show that this is not a problem confined to a limited number of women in only one state.
How are other communities across the country utilizing this work?
Representatives from Michigan, North Carolina, Alaska, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Florida, and Maine have contacted me for information on how to replicate the project. The most notable replication to date was done by the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which conducted its own BMTP in 2002 and 2003, resulting in published findings very similar to those of the Massachusetts BMTP. Now California has a modified version of the BMTP underway that is looking at large numbers of court case files as well as face-to-face interviews in order to gather data. The California BMTP's plans for the future also include holding a human rights tribunal, modeled after the Massachusetts tribunal, in which the victims of the California family courts will testify about their experiences publicly. Karen Anderson, Director of the California Protective Parents' Association, has explained that their project hopes to document a pattern of judicial abuse and bias and to introduce human rights principles into the solutions they will propose.
What’s next for the Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project?
I have developed a proposal to start us on the road to creating a national version of the BMTP because I think the next step is to investigate how widespread the problem is. This proposal has three major goals: 1) to produce a follow-up report to the original BMTP; 2) to hold a national human rights tribunal on battered women, child custody, and the courts; and 3) to develop a national research and advocacy plan with the participation of researchers and advocates from across the country. I believe that a national BMTP, and even the process of creating such a project, will:
• help educate policy-makers about the domestic violence human rights movement.
• give state court systems greater incentives to create internal changes. The prospect of national results that compare states to each other would, in all likelihood, generate competition between states.
• show that human rights can be used successfully in the U.S. to facilitate change in the court system, which is often regarded as the branch of government that is most tied to traditional practices, and therefore the most reluctant to change.
As an institution, the courts are in the midst of major systemic and cultural changes. Even as recent as the 1980s we talked very little of things like victim participation and restorative justice. Now those ideas have become mainstream. The iron is hot—it’s a good time to introduce the human rights paradigm to the new problem-solving approach to justice.
What is human rights fact-finding?
As detailed in Battered Mothers Speak Out: A Human Rights Report on Domestic Violence and Child Custody in the Massachusetts Family Courts, the BMTP “instituted a multi-year, four-phase study using a variety of research approaches in which human rights fact-finding was complemented by qualitative and quantitative social science research methodologies. [H]uman rights fact-finding aims to uncover patterns of state practices that may indicate where human rights violations are occurring, who is responsible for the violations, and who is affected by them. The ultimate, and explicit, goal is to expose human rights violations in ways that prompt governments to implement changes that rectify the violating practices.” Based on various methodologies and non-random sampling, this human rights audit does not claim to be a rigorous scientific study.
Why look only at women?
The BMTP team acknowledges that battering does not discriminate between women, men, girls, and boys. As noted in the BMTP’s human rights report, however, “[C]urrent research data demonstrate that the majority of partner abuse cases involved male violence against female partners; this project therefore chose to limit its primary interviews to female victims of partner abuse.”
Battered Mothers Speak Out: A Human Rights Report on Domestic Violence and Child Custody in the Massachusetts Family Courts documents how the Massachusetts Family Courts violate the human rights of women and children by:
- failing to protect battered women and children from abuse;
- discriminating and showing bias against battered women;
- engaging in degrading treatment of battered women;
- denying due process to battered women;
- allowing batterers to continue abuse through the family courts; and
- failing to respect the economic rights of battered women and children.
The report also includes a lengthy list of recommendations for change aimed at government institutions and battered women's advocates.