New Utah Law Prioritizes Child Safety in Custody Courts — ProPublica | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

During the 14 years Leah Moses fought her ex-husband for custody of their two children, she repeatedly warned the court that he was abusive. It was a tough sell: Moses, a midwife, sometimes acted as her own attorney; her ex-husband, Parth Gandhi, was a psychologist who hired experts to persuade the Utah court that Moses’ allegations were a ruse to estrange him from the children.

Getting nowhere, Moses turned to the Utah Legislature. She believed things might change if judges were required to consider evidence of family violence in their custody decisions, and if expert witnesses had actually dealt firsthand with abuse victims. The Legislature adjourned in 2023 without acting on a proposal to reform how the state handles custody cases.

Months later, Moses’ ex-husband shot and killed their 16-year-old son Om at Gandhi’s Salt Lake City clinic, then turned the weapon on himself. At the time, Gandhi had full custody of Om.

Rather than retreat into grief, Moses returned to the Capitol to again call for change.

This time, lawmakers passed legislation, signed into law last month by Gov. Spencer Cox, codifying parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act. It mandates, among other things, that judges deciding custody first consider risks to the child’s safety. (The law previously only said they could consider evidence of violence.)

“I wish it had been done for me, that these protections had been in place a year earlier,” Moses told ProPublica. “My personal hope is that no more children die as a result of being in custody cases — that decision makers recognize violence much sooner and give kids a chance.”

The legislation follows ProPublica’s reporting on Utah courts’ handling of custody cases involving allegations of violence. That reporting showed judges had in two instances ordered children to participate in so-called reunification therapy with fathers who had been accused of abusing them. Both fathers have denied the abuse allegations and responded by accusing their ex-wives of parental alienation, a disputed theory in which one parent is accused of brainwashing a child to turn them against the other parent.

In one case, a boy who accused his father of sexually abusing him barricaded himself, along with his sister, inside a bedroom in their mother’s home to avoid going to a Texas reunification program with their dad. In another, two brothers were ordered to attend the same Texas program with their dad, whom they said had abused them. When they refused to take part in the therapy, their bedding, food and clothing were confiscated, according to court testimony, and they were prohibited by court order from contacting their mother for months.

Under the new Utah law, courts can only require treatments that have been shown to be effective, and it prohibits therapies that separate children from a parent to whom they are bonded (provided the parent does not pose a threat to their safety).

“Any type of reunification therapy has to have proof of safety and effectiveness,” said state Rep. Paul A. Cutler, a Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation, known as HB 272. “No more sending kids out of state to some unknown camp run by uncredentialed people — can’t do that anymore — only proven therapeutic treatments by professionals.”

State Sen. Michael K. McKell, the bill’s other co-sponsor and a practicing attorney, said in his experience the same attorneys often work with the same experts to counter abuse allegations by citing parental alienation.

“I can predict who the custody evaluator will be based on who the attorney is, and I hope that stops,” McKell, a Republican, said. “Courts are going to have to be more careful about who they allow to opine on custody.”

Proponents of the bill said most resistance to it came from divorce attorneys.

The law requires expert witnesses to be qualified and credentialed and to have experience working with abuse victims. Utah courts will also be required to train judges and other court personnel to better recognize domestic violence and address child safety in custody cases.

“Courts are doing a poor job in these cases,” said Danielle Pollack, policy manager at the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University’s law school. Pollack, who provided technical assistance to proponents of the Utah legislation, said the training will help judges recognize experts on family violence.

Utah is the second state, after Colorado, to pass legislation that adopts nearly all provisions of the federal Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act, or Kayden’s Law, Pollack said. (Other states, including California, have enacted portions of the law.)

“What this does is it puts child safety as the first priority of custody,” Cutler said of Utah’s law. “It prioritizes the child’s safety over the parents’ rights to manipulate their children for their own use.”

Advocates said they were heartened that now a red state, Utah, and a blue state, Colorado, have embraced the reforms.

Pollack attributed the success in Utah to ProPublica and other news organizations drawing attention to the problem, and to parents like Moses who shared their personal struggles to draw attention to family violence and protect their children.

After the murder of her son, Moses said she felt a moral obligation to continue pushing for the law.

“In endless hearings in my case there was every indication of violence,” Moses said. “The most disappointing thing is that I could not get the system to pay attention to the violence against me and my family.”

Hannah Dreyfus contributed reporting.


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