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Proposed law would make it tough for abusive parents to get unsupervised visits with their kids

On New Year’s Eve in 2017, a West Sacramento mom went to pick up her 9- and 12-year-old daughters from their father. Instead, she was met with tragedy.

The mother and father had waged a bitter custody battle for years, and she repeatedly had told the courts that her ex-husband, Hamdy Rouin, had beaten her and threatened to kidnap their kids. Still, while the custody question played out, he was allowed unsupervised visits with the girls.

During that New Year’s Eve visit, the father locked both girls with him in a car and set it on fire, killing all three of them.

State Sen. Dave Min cites the deaths of those two girls as inspiration for his latest piece of legislation, which would require courts to consider a parent’s history of violence and substance abuse before allowing them to have unsupervised visits with their children.

“There have been too many tragic results,” said Min, D-Irvine.

Senate Bill 654 — which cleared a major hurdle Thursday, Aug. 26, as it passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee — also would change the default in custody cases from having kids testify in open court, in front of both of parents, to having kids testify in closed chambers unless a judge finds good reason to make the testimony public.

“That can be incredibly traumatizing for children,” Min said of such testimony, noting they’re often asked to pick a parent while the other watches.

The bill is the latest example of how Min, who ousted a GOP incumbent to win central Orange County’s 37th Senate District in November, is carving out a reputation for promoting antiviolence legislation. Other bills from the former UC Irvine law professor during his first eight months in office have addressed gun violence and protecting victims of domestic violence. Much of that work has been informed by his wife, Jane Stoever, who’s also an attorney and created the UCI Law Domestic Violence Clinic.

While Min said he doesn’t want to be “pigeonholed,” hoping to also work on issues such as budget reform and climate change, the freshman senator said he’d welcome a reputation as an antiviolence crusader.

“I want a strong economy and good jobs,” he said. “But I also want to keep families safe.”

Min’s new bill drew support Wednesday from Angelina Jolie, an actress and international advocate for the rights of women and children. Jolie wrote in her letter to the Assembly Appropriations Committee supporting SB 654 that it “provides critically important protections for children’s physical safety, trauma recovery, and psychological well being and that (it) encourages parents to receive needed treatment.”

Every year, an estimated 58,500 children across the country and 6,000 in California are ordered to have unsupervised visits with a parent who’s been formally accused of abuse, according to The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.

Since 2008, the nonprofit Center for Judicial Excellence reports that 72 kids have been murdered during custody or visitation with an abusive parent in California. And in 22 of these cases, the family court had previously been presented with evidence of some form of abuse.

“We know that children who have become homicide victims are murdered by a divorcing or separating parent during court-ordered unsupervised visitation despite the fact that the court has evidence of a history of child abuse,” said Jonathan Raven, a chief deputy district attorney in Yolo County and former director of the State Office of Victim Services.

Min’s bill, which Raven supports, wouldn’t automatically eliminate unsupervised visits for anyone accused of abuse. Instead, Raven said, it would simply require judges to review the parent’s background and make a record of their reasons for allowing such visits to take place.

Custody battles often are contentious, and accusations can fly from both parties. But Raven said one parent can only manipulate the system under this bill if a judge allows it.

“This law explicitly states that before considering allegations of child abuse, the court may first require independent corroboration, including reports from the police, the court, probation departments, social welfare agencies, and medical facilities,” Raven said.

“In other words, a judge certainly should not make a finding based on the words of one parent.”

Some critics have raised concerns about the other component of the bill, Min acknowledged, arguing that children testifying in closed chambers will make custody cases less transparent. But Min noted that judges can make exceptions to the rule. And, he said, the tradeoffs “are worth it to protect the emotional well being and health of children.”

Raven agrees.

“Why force child to testify in front of a parent who is sexually abusing her only to have that parent take out his or her anger on the child after hearing that child’s testimony?”

The bill, SB 654, had to be debated by the Assembly Appropriations Committee because a legislative analysis estimates it will cost trial courts between $600,000 and $1.1 million more each year to provide written support for all cases where unsupervised visits are allowed despite abuse allegations.

Raven said he thinks those costs are “greatly exaggerated.” But he added, even if those estimates are accurate, “is that too high a price to pay to save the lives of innocent children?”

The appropriations committee unanimously approved SB 654 on Thursday. It will next head to the Assembly floor for a vote.

Source: Orange County Register

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