- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

Savvy parents in Maryland are learning they can use their children's custody as a weapon to fend off charges of child abuse, a state delegate learned last night.
Child advocacy groups and a room full of parents who felt they had been victimized by the state's judicial system told Delegate Joan Pitkin how judges settle abuse cases on whims and skilled defense lawyers have learned to undercut charges by painting them as custody disputes.
"The civil and criminal defense bar have honed their skills," said Eileen King, regional director for Justice for Children, a national nonprofit group.
One woman, identified only as "C," described how her charges, that her husband was sexually abusing their two children, were dismissed by child protective services with the repeated question, "Are you going through a divorce?"
Another, who went by the initial "D," cried as she described how a complaint that her ex-husband was sexually abusing their 5-year-old daughter somehow in the secretive world of family courts led to her daughter being taken from her and placed in long-term foster care.
What happens in a lot of these cases, when the father or mother formally accuses their spouse of child abuse, they then become the focus of the investigation, Mrs. Pitkin said.
Things have a way of getting turned upside down, the group of parents said.
Mrs. Pitkin hosted the meeting to gather ammunition for a law to open up what is seen as a child court system that operates behind closed doors.
Statewide last year there were nearly 31,000 claims of child abuse; 74 percent were found to be unsubstantiated.
Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, a Montgomery County plastic surgeon, offered herself as a "beacon of hope" that protective parents can free their children from harm.
Dr. Morgan served the longest detention for civil contempt in American history, 25 months, for refusing a court order to reveal the whereabouts of her daughter, Hilary, who Dr. Morgan believed had been sexually assaulted by her husband.
In February 1990, Hilary was discovered living in New Zealand with her grandparents.
"Osama bin Laden had nothing to teach me about evil on September 11," she said. She likened Maryland family court judges to the Spanish Inquisition in their potential to inflict cruelty.
She said women currently have three options against family law judges who wield nearly absolute power: Give in to the incest or abuse, get a gun and risk your soul or pick up the child and run for your life.
Ms. King of Justice for Children said the "system" has failed children because child protection workers often assume that charges must be false if they are made in the context of a divorce.
Also, prosecutors won't pursue such cases unless they're certain they'll win and judges who don't understand the dynamics of child abuse are often angered at the cases and react harshly to protective parents by denying them custody of their children, she said.
"We are going to have to have laws that say judges can't do that," said Gloria Goldfaden, executive director of the private organization, Prevent Child Abuse Maryland.
"The only answer is to get the word out," Mrs. Pitkin said. "That's what we're trying to do. If people don't hear it, they won't get outraged. They need to get outraged."

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