Reporter's Notebook: Jennifer Collins speaks about her family's case
Jennifer Collins says that her father beat her as a child. She says that she told court officials and therapists several times during a tragic and lengthy custody trial that she did not feel safe with him. Nonetheless, Hennepin County Family Court put her and her older brother Zachary in his custody when they were just 7 and 9. It was believed that their mother was unstable and coaching the two children. Despite findings of spousal abuse, her father, Mark Collins of Crystal, Minn., was seen as the more fit parent.
Today, at 23 years old, Jennifer feels cheated. As a kid everyone told her if she told the truth everything would be OK. "But it wasn’t, was it?" She says on the phone from her mother's house in Western Holland. "I know I am an adult and it shouldn't matter so much anymore, but I want justice for us kids and for other kids who are currently being abused," she later adds in an e-mail.
Jennifer says her past has shaped her future. Upon graduation from college, the psychology major plans to be an advocate for change. She hopes to move to the U.S. and work on issues of family court reform and the rights of children. Someday, she would like to start her own organization for abused children, run by adult survivors of child abuse. "I think it is about time for such a bold organization…" she wrote.
For now, Jennifer is focused on getting the word out. She has started a website with several YouTube videos detailing her version of the past. She has sent over 400 emails to every U.S. Senator, member of the Minnesota legislature and advocacy groups she could find to raise awareness. She’s even worked with StopFamilyViolence.Org to set up an online petition on behalf of her family.
While reluctant to share the intimate, tragic details of her past, Jennifer realizes the power of her family's story. They went forward to raise awareness about the system that they believe failed them. "[Family court] is the one who should be charged with 'Failure to Protect!,'" she says.
Unfortunately, experts and advocates in the area of abuse say what happened to the Collins family is a widespread problem within the American judicial system. There have been several studies done around the country that show the difficulties family courts have in protecting women from domestic violence and children from abuse, says Dr. Joyanna Silberg, clinician and Executive Vice President of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.
Every week the organization's website is flooded with people in similar situations needing help. It is astonishing the number of custody cases where domestic violence is present in which the courts award the children to the abuser, she says.
"It isn’t as if people want to harm children. Certainly nobody consciously wants to harm children, but it’s a matter of systemic errors that allow children's needs to fall through the cracks. The same systemic errors exist in many states and counties."
Abusers will often challenge custody because it is a way for them to continue to exhibit control over the woman or kids they batter, she says. "It’s almost a science of how to get custody when you are an abuser. There are websites and play books you can find on line. If you are accused of child sexual abuse, some lawyers will recommend the thing to do is to go for full custody… Chances are the court will look at you as, 'here’s a nice guy who wants to be part of the children's lives.'"
More often than not, a battered woman is not going to want let the children go to the home of the man who abused her, and she ends up looking hysterical and frantic as she pleads for their safety, at times defying ordered visitation upon the advice medical practitioners. Lawyers for the abuser will then capitalize on that behavior and make the battered parent look unstable—using labels such as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP) or Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), a disease not substantiated by the American Psychological Association with little scholastic or empirical evidence. Here's a great Newsweek story on the subject.
Slowly some states are starting to introduce legislation to improve the system, says Silberg, who is working on federal reform to better protect children from abuse. In Tennessee, for example, a bill was passed making it illegal to use PAS as a custody reversal basis if abuse is alleged. In other places lawmakers are trying to do the same thing with MSbP.
The system changes slower than the cases cycle through. A little while ago Silberg worked with a client whose father was implicated for physical abuse and had punched his child in the face. He got full custody. Years later the mother was finally allowed weekend visitation.
"But that's not uncommon. That's a very common story," Silberg says. "If you spent a day in my shoes you would not believe you are in America. It's like the Middle Ages, a Third World County. It's truly a veil over reality. It's so sad."