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In our opinion: Family courts must uphold the value of child safety

Paperwork fills the desk of Judge John J. Romero Jr. in the Children’s Court Division at New Mexico’s Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Romero is the current Past President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Paperwork fills the desk of Judge John J. Romero Jr. in the Children’s Court Division at New Mexico’s Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Romero is the current past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Craig Fritz, For the Deseret News

Nearly 3,000 years ago, a wise King Solomon sat as judge over a child custody case. Two women claimed to be the mother of the same child, and only at the threat of chopping the baby in two was the false mother exposed.

If only today’s family courts were as judicious. And if only today’s outcomes weren’t just as violent.

Since 2008, more than 700 children have been killed by parents or parental-figures during circumstances involving divorce, child custody, child support and similar matters.

We understand the urge to keep families together, even in trying circumstances. Children deserve the stability afforded them when consistently raised by their parents or guardians. But at some point one must draw a line, and the data is now overwhelmingly clear the country has a crisis within its family court system. Keeping families together should never come at the cost of mortality.

The issue, which the Deseret News has spent the past four months investigating, is one of the legal system failing some of society’s most vulnerable populations — children and parents who are often victims of domestic violence.

Prevailing thought suggests ex-relationships, some of whom have been convicted of physical assault, should also have time with their legal children. According to a 2011 National Institute for Justice survey, 47% of custody evaluators still recommend unsupervised visitation even when there are reports of violence in the family. “In family court, they just bend over backwards to try to maintain parental ties and give visitation,” says John Myers, a family law attorney and professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law.

Family court judges have been walking a tightrope to find the right balance between safety and parental rights in their orders. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

Deseret News reporter Gillian Friedman details the account of a young Katie Tagle who was forced to relinquish her baby boy so he could spend a weekend with her ex-boyfriend, despite showing the judge evidence her ex intended to murder the 9-month-old. Ten days later, the baby was dead.

The story illustrates what some are calling an epidemic of disbelief — judges who doubt reports of violence on the grounds they’re trying to undermine the custodial rights of the other parent. It’s true some people lie, but most don’t. And not believing those who tell the truth has left scores of children dead.

A paradigm shift is in order. These cases shouldn’t be about parental rights but about child safety. Viewing issues through that lens should permeate attitudes within the judicial system.

That would be aided by finding a way to lighten the load on overburdened judges. According to experts, some judges see as many as 20 cases a day and are forced to make critical decisions in small time frames.

American society still places a premium on the safety, development and well-being of children, if recent backlash over e-cigarettes being marketed toward teens is any indication. Now it’s time for family courts to uphold that standard and for the rest of the country to demand something change.