Massachusetts law requires judges to take domestic violence into account when determining custody so the child, barring special circumstances, is not placed with an abuser. But interviews with family lawyers, advocates for domestic violence victims, counselors for abusers, academics and battered women describe a pattern of family court judges holding domestic violence against the woman in custody battles.
"It works immediately against you," Jaime said. "Lawyers will say keep your mouth shut about domestic violence, because you'll lose custody of your child."
The Republican is not identifying the victims of domestic violence or their partners in this story because of the sensitive nature of the accusations.
The treatment of domestic violence victims in family and probate court is neither a new issue, nor one specific to Massachusetts.
"I've been appalled by the family law response in Massachusetts to domestic violence for over 15 years now," said Lundy Bancroft, a Western Massachusetts expert who counsels abusers, wrote a book on domestic violence and has worked as a guardian ad litem, appointed by the court to look after children's interests. "It's case after case after case of not believing what the woman is saying without any valid basis for dismissing her reports of the history of domestic violence. There's a complete failure to do a proper investigation and a dismissing of her reports based on completely spurious reasoning."
A 1989 Supreme Judicial Court study found that gender bias existed in favor of fathers in custody cases, and many judges did not consider violence against women relevant in determining custody.
In 1998, Massachusetts passed a law creating a "rebuttable presumption" that being placed with an abusive parent is not in the best interests of a child. A parent who the court finds is abusive has the burden of proving why they should get custody.
Yet a 2002 study by Wellesley Centers for Women found that Massachusetts family courts were continuing to place children with abusive parents. The report found that judges and court personnel often minimized or ignored women's reports of abuse, or refuse to investigate or credit them.