California children deserve to be safe from violence and abuse. Here’s how we are making it happen.
On New Year’s Day 2018, Sacramento families woke up to learn that the previous night, two young girls, aged nine and twelve, had been murdered by their father on an unsupervised visit. This horrific murder shook the community and made international headlines.
But perhaps the saddest aspect of this tragedy was that it should have been prevented. This man had a long and well documented history of violence directed against his children and their mother, including violating domestic violence restraining orders at least 546 times dating back to 2012 and threatening to kill these girls.
Based on this history of violence and abuse, the mother was awarded sole physical custody of their daughters, but the father was still allowed visitation rights with the children without any supervision. Unfortunately, these types of unsupervised visitation rights are all too often granted to parents with a history of violence, sexual abuse, or substance abuse. And while California law requires courts to consider these factors in making custody decisions, there is currently no such requirement when it comes to awarding unsupervised visitation rights.
That’s why I introduced Senate Bill 654, which would require courts to consider a parent’s history of violence and substance abuse before allowing that parent to have unsupervised visits with his or her children. This is already required for custody decisions, and there’s no good reason it shouldn’t be extended to visitation rights as well. Whether time with a parent is described as “custodial time” or “visitation,” the child experiences it the same, and the risks of harm to that child don’t differ based on this legal label.
The evidence is clear — parents with a history of violent and abusive behavior are likely to direct that violence against their own children. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has described, in families experiencing domestic violence, there is a 30 to 60 percent chance of co-occurring abuse directed at both an adult and child victim. Prior domestic violence is by far the number-one risk factor in family homicide cases, and we know that domestic violence and substance abuse are linked and often occur simultaneously.
An estimated one in every 19 children in California is abused, and the risk is even higher for children in families who separate and divorce. Every year, 58,500 children — including 6,000 here in California — are ordered into unsupervised visitation with abusive parents. More often than not, this leads to continued child abuse, with the long-lasting physical and mental harm that results. And far too often, we end up with tragically fatal outcomes, such as the case with the two Sacramento girls. According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, since 2008, 72 California kids were murdered during custody or visitation with an abusive parent. In 22 of these cases, the family court had been presented with evidence of some form of abuse.
SB 654 will also help with court backlogs. Currently, a parent worried about their children’s safety when they are with the other parent needs to return to court again and again to try to convince the court to limit unsupervised visitation. By requiring judges to assess the risks to a child’s safety upfront, SB 654 would reduce the need for ongoing court involvement.
There has never been a more urgent time for this legislation. As George Washington University law professor Joan Meier states, “The harm to children in the nation’s family courts has reached crisis proportions.” Child abuse expert John Myers agrees, saying, “If there is something that could be fixed in the family court system, it could be this: that we are too willing to give visitation to people with a proven track record of violence.”
My bill would provide this much-needed change to our family courts and protect the safety of our children, as required by the California Constitution. SB 654 has received unanimous votes in the Legislature and will be heard next in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Aug. 26. Please contact your local Assemblymember and urge them to support this life-saving child abuse prevention bill.