People in Connecticut were shocked and sickened to learn that 7-month-old Aaden Moreno was thrown off a bridge in Middletown and his father is the prime suspect. The child’s mother had sought a protective order based on the father’s history of abuse and threats against the mother and child.
It is natural to want to believe this is a rare exception and the father was some kind of monster, but domestic violence experts understand these avoidable tragedies are all too common. In a recent two-year period, we found news stories of about 175 children killed by abusive fathers involved in child custody cases. In many cases, like this one, a court ruling gave the father the access he needed to kill the child.
In Connecticut, five children were slain since 2008 by abusive fathers involved in contested custody. The research demonstrates at least 75 percent of contested custody cases involve domestic violence, but the courts have yet to adopt evidence-based responses to abuse cases.
Dianne Bartlow followed-up on the 175 child murders by interviewing judges and court administrators in the communities where the children were murdered.
She asked the question we should now be asking of the court system in Connecticut: What reforms have you created in response to these horrific tragedies? Prof. Bartlow interviewed the best judges who were most informed about domestic violence because they were the most interested and therefore willing to take the time to be interviewed.
In answer to the question, no reforms had been undertaken because the judges all believed the tragedy in their community was an exception.
We cannot forget about little Aaden Moreno and dismiss his killing as still another exception. No judge wants to be responsible for hurting children and surely Judge Barry Pinkus is heartbroken over his role in Aaden’s death. In the transcript, Judge Pinkus denied the protective order because there wasn’t a continuous threat of present pain or injury.
Obviously, the judge could not save the child using the standard court responses, but might have benefited from learning about domestic violence dynamics.
There is now a substantial body of scientific research that would make judges’ jobs easier, but our children will not be protected until we rely on domestic violence experts instead of general practitioners and integrate this important research into the standard practices.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Research from the Centers for Disease Control establishes that children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse live shorter lives and suffer more illnesses and injuries.
The Saunders’ study from the U. S. Department of Justice found many evaluators, judges and lawyers do not have the specific domestic violence information needed. These unqualified professionals tend to focus on unscientific alienation theories and the myth that mothers frequently make false reports. That is the focus on many cases and leads to outcomes that jeopardize children.
The Safe Child Act is an evidence-based approach requiring that the health and safety of children must be the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. It also encourages the use of a multi-disciplinary approach so that the specialized research and experts can help inform court decisions. The ACE Research demonstrates what behaviors and tactics impact children’s health and safety. It is hard to imagine anything that goes more to the essence of the best interests of children.
Most of the time when custody courts rely on old practices, the mistakes do not lead to the obvious tragedy we just saw. The children will suffer unhappy childhoods full of pain and stress. Many will make poor decisions that harm themselves and negatively impact society. Others will suffer from a variety of ailments that we will all pay for in the form of health insurance and reduced productivity.
In all too many of these cases, the failure to recognize the risks will prevent children from reaching their potential. The Safe Child Act will give the courts the opportunity to safeguard our children, their futures and their potential.
It is said that the saddest questions start with what might have been. Certainly that is the case for Aaden Moreno. We have the research and the expertise to make our courts safe for children. We love our children. We must have the will to pass the Safe Child Act and give our children the chance to accomplish whatever they are capable of.
Somewhere, little Aaden Moreno will be watching us.
State Rep. Edwin Vargas is a career educator currently representing the 6th District of Hartford in the Connecticut House of Representatives.
Barry Goldstein is the author of books on domestic violence and custody including: The Quincy Solution: Stop Domestic Violence and Save $500 Billion. He is research director for the Stop Abuse Campaign.