Over the last decade, more than 700 children have been killed by a parent or guardian in the midst of a family court case like divorce or custody hearings.
That’s according to a new database by the Center for Judicial Excellence that for the first time quantifies these deaths — 11 of which occurred in Utah. An investigation out this week by the Deseret News looked into how the system has failed these children. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with reporter Gillian Friedman and started by asking her about the story of a mother in California.
A warning to listeners — this interview contains descriptions of violence against children.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Tell me about the main character in your story, Katie Tagle.
Gillian Friedman: When Katie Tagle was 23 years old, she had recently had a baby boy. She had left her ex-boyfriend months before, after he had beaten her so severely that she had lost consciousness. But her ex-boyfriend was able to gain joint custody.
One morning she woke up to an email that made her heart stop, and in that email her ex-boyfriend described a threat to murder the child. He said he was going to put Benadryl in the child's juice bottle, and that's how he was going to kill their baby Wyatt. He said he was going to do that because he was so angry that Katie Tagle wouldn't get back with him.
And so when Katie saw that email, of course she was terrified, and she went to family court and said, “You can't let my ex-boyfriend have contact with my baby.” The judge listened to her, and then said, “My supposition, ma'am, is that you're lying.” Then he ordered Katie to hand over her baby Wyatt, and 10 days later her ex-boyfriend murdered the baby and then killed himself.
CB: Tagle hoped for some sort of response to her son's death — maybe a change in the law or a change in courts. Did she end up getting that?
GF: She didn't, and that case happened about 10 years ago. When I spoke to Tagle, she said after this happened there was a lot of media attention, and she hoped things would change with the family court system. But she hasn't seen anything change.
CB: One of the threads in your story follows how in many cases — not all, but many — women in family courts are not believed when they bring forward allegations of abuse by their partners. Why aren't women believed?
GF: I have experts telling me this is a kind of a #MeToo movement that hasn't been explored, and it's happening in family court now. Both mothers and fathers are affected by this. Both mothers and fathers abuse their children and kill their children.
But we see that mothers are disadvantaged more often, and the reason for that is a controversial theory called Parental Alienation Syndrome. It holds that women who enter a custody battle will, due to a psychological syndrome that develops, brainwash their children to believe that their children are being abused by their father.
The problem with this theory is that it's been widely discredited. Experts say sometimes parents do lie in family courts. Sometimes there are issues associated with false allegations — that does happen. But the idea of a psychological syndrome which makes women just out of nowhere feel compelled to lie in order to ruin the life of their ex? That doesn't actually occur.
But this syndrome is still very much in play in family court decisions, and it makes it so when women enter family court they're often seen as lying right off the bat before they even say anything.
CB: A family court judge that you spoke to for this story basically said, “Judges are human and humans can make mistakes,” especially when they're dealing with an overflow of cases, which often happens in family courts. Can you fix the fallibility of humans? Is that what the issue is here?
GF: People say, when they hear about cases like this, “If people are going to kill their children, they're going to kill their children, and there's not much you can do about it.” But really, my reporting found that that's not the case, and there's a lot that family courts can do.
They have to say: “Is this a false allegation? Is this a situation where it's really immediate danger or not?” So they have a hard job, but certainly it seems that there are theories in the court system that make it harder for these allegations to get taken seriously.
CB: This story is the first in a series on family courts for the Deseret News. As you take a closer look, has this system been failing families and children?
GF: That's why we're taking a close look at this over months. This story was reported over a period of four months, and it seemed that the more people I talked to, the more people confirmed that this is an ongoing problem that's been happening for decades.
The real problem here has been a challenge associated with quantifying the problem, rather than just people saying, “This happened to me.” We were really able — with this story — to say, “Well, 700 children are dead, so there's a problem.” One dead child is too many children. I hope that this series will shine light on a very complicated and nuanced problem, but one that's absolutely affecting the health and well-being of children.