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Experts question family legal system

The Baltimore Sun

As details emerged about three youngsters apparently drowned by their father in a downtown hotel room over the weekend, legal experts and family advocates questioned whether Maryland law goes far enough to protect children in custody disputes.

Some argue that judges are too quick to dismiss women's claims of abuse and too willing to award unsupervised visitation - even if one parent has a history of mental illness or battering the other.

Amy Castillo, whose estranged husband, Mark Castillo, allegedly confessed to the killings, said in court documents that her husband had threatened to make her suffer by killing their children. He also had a history of mental problems.

But a judge rejected her request for a permanent protective order.

"There are some things judges should look at and should be open to looking at: evidence of a threat involving the children, the presence of a weapon and certainly, suicidal ideation by the father," said Leigh Goodmark, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

"The bottom line is we could absolutely be more proactive and do a better job, but there are still going to be cases like this. We're not going to prevent this from happening every time," Goodmark said.

The legal standard in custody or visitation cases is the best interest of the children. But it can be difficult to persuade a judge that violence against a parent poses a danger to the children, even though there is evidence to suggest that, she said.

"I think people do not realize how much connection there is between domestic violence and child abuse," said Dorothy Lennig, the director of the domestic violence legal clinic at the House of Ruth.

Goodmark's research has shown that though it's often assumed that women are making up allegations of abuse for their own advantage, the social science doesn't support that.

"Taking what battered women say seriously would go far," she said, adding that Maryland's law is weaker than the laws in other states, where judges must factor domestic violence into custody and visitation decisions.

Michaele Cohen, the executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, a statewide coalition, said she would like to see the law in Maryland changed in several ways.

Temporary protective orders should last longer, she said, a change her organization unsuccessfully lobbied for in last year's legislative session. This year, she has pushed for a law - which is also unlikely to pass - that would require people with temporary or permanent protective orders against them to surrender all their guns.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who sits on the Senate committee that deals with domestic violence laws, said: "The whole domestic violence area is one that is much on the mind of members of the General Assembly.

"This case is just devastating for the community," said Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat in whose district the Castillo family lives.

To Lennig, the law is not the problem. "The law is clear. I think we need to do more to enforce the law," she said.

The state should do more to provide secure places for supervised visitation or visitation exchanges, said Barbara Babb, associate professor of law and the director of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

A key problem in custody and visitation cases is that often abuse or other harmful incidents happen in private, without witnesses. He-said, she-said situations, can be very challenging for judges, Babb said.

Indeed they can, said Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman, a retired judge who left the Baltimore Circuit Court in 2002.

"These are one of the most difficult issues that a judge has to deal with. They are very, very emotionally charged," Friedman said. "There's a lot of anxiety for a judge."

Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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