In the state of California, emotional abuse is not weighed as heavily as physical abuse in child custody cases. According to the American Humane Society, children who are emotionally abused are affected as much, if not more than, those who are physically abused. However, the difficulty in proving emotional child abuse along with a combination of external factors make claims of emotional abuse less influential in the eyes of the court.
Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that interferes with the cognitive, social and psychological development of a child. These harmful behaviors include ignoring, isolating, exploiting, verbally assaulting, rejecting, terrorizing and neglecting. It is important to note that not all negative attitudes or actions are emotional abuse, as many parents can occasionally exhibit one of these behaviors in an isolated incident. Rather, it is the chronic pattern of behavior that constitutes emotional abuse. In “Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned,” Douglas Besharov, former director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, notes, “Emotional abuse is an assault on the child’s psyche, just as physical abuse is an assault on the child’s body.” This abuse can result in poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, withdrawal, poor social development, alcohol and/or drug abuse, suicide and difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships and employment in adulthood.
In family court, evidence of emotional abuse is typically examined as an individual instance of abuse, making it difficult to establish that this type of abuse occurs chronically. When these instances are reduced to singular events, it does not accurately present the cumulative effect of the abuse over an extended period of time. In cases in which there is no hard evidence, psychological evaluations may be used to determine whether a child is being emotionally abused. These are reviews performed by a neutral psychologist either appointed by the court or agreed on by the parties involved. However, these are not always effective, as children are often hesitant to speak poorly of a parent. Some might even be coached to provide scripted answers, but evaluators are typically able to pinpoint recited answers and have been trained to pick up on even the most subtle signs of emotional abuse.
Family courts have taken huge strides in recent decades with regard to recognizing domestic violence, especially in the context of child custody disputes. The law acknowledges other forms of abuse as well. As Family Code Section 6203(b) states, “Abuse is not limited to the actual infliction of physical injury or assault.” In child custody cases, whether they be in cases regarding dissolution of marriage, legal separation or paternity, “the health, safety and welfare of the child” is what is taken into consideration first and foremost (Family Code Section 3011).
However, California family courts do not take custody away from a parent unless they believe it to be in the best interest of the children, taking into consideration the emotional harm they would be inflicting by stripping away a parent’s custodial rights and thereby alienating a child from his or her parent. If it is proven that a child is being emotionally abused in the state of California, primary custody typically goes to the non-abusive parent with visitation to the abusive parent. In cases of physical abuse, the perpetrator often loses all custodial rights.
While it is rare for custody to be stripped entirely from a parent as a result of emotional abuse alone, such was the case for the emotionally abusive mother of Ariel Winters. The 17-year-old “Modern Family” sitcom star was legally emancipated in May of 2015 after her sister was granted temporary guardianship when evidence was uncovered proving her mother had been emotionally abusive. No evidence of physical abuse was ever presented to the court.
In the end, the courts determine custody based on the best interests of the children and take all factors into consideration when measuring the parent’s suitability. Family courts need to be educated on the long-term effects of emotional abuse on children in order to more adequately determine custody just as they became educated on physical abuse and domestic violence decades ago.
If your child has been victimized by a parent or guardian through emotional abuse, help is available. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a facility that specializes in the treatment of adolescents and teenagers struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. It is important to recognize how emotional abuse affects a child’s mental health. Call 866-615-7266 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer