The murders of at least a dozen children in the past three months put a spotlight on a disturbing pattern of a U.S. court system that appears to be deliberately putting custody in the hands of dangerous parents.
According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a national organization that closely tracks the trend, more than 900 children have been killed by one of their parents in the United States since 2008.
A study of the murders shows that many of the children were killed by a parent who was granted either sole or shared custody by a judge despite there being either strong evidence of or a conviction for child abuse against them.
It also shows that the murders are mostly committed by fathers. Of the 53 children murdered since 2022 after a custody switch to the fathers, seven were committed by mothers.
In Colorado, four children were killed in January and February in murder-suicides carried out by their fathers.
As reported by the Denver Gazette and confirmed by The Epoch Times, in all four cases, court records show that judges, without explanation, disregarded concerns raised by the children’s mothers about their safety if custody were awarded to their fathers.
One of those mothers is Andrea Berry. Her ex-husband, Dan Hollins, is alleged to have killed their 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, and then himself in February.
Berry, from Elizabeth, Colorado, told The Gazette that she spent seven months trying to get the police to investigate him on allegations that he was sexually abusing Sophia and using her in child pornography but that a police commander told her to stop “pestering” the department.
She got an even worse response from Douglas County Family Court Judge Rebecca Moss, who implied that Berry would lose custody if she brought up any allegations of abuse. Moss didn’t respond to a request for comment.
According to court documents, Berry reported that Sophia came home with ligature marks around her ankles after being with Hollins and told stories about sexual encounters with him.
Family Judges Not Following Law
Barry Goldstein, a former attorney and past national research director for Stop Abuse Campaign, told The Epoch Times that one of the major causes of the disturbing trend is that child abuse is treated more like a family problem than a crime, and that family court judges have come to assume the role of therapist rather than someone charged with applying the law.
“If the offender is a stranger, the person is to be brought up on criminal charges and the goal is a conviction,” Goldstein said.
“When the offender is someone the child knows, especially a close relative, the investigation is led by a social worker and the goal is reunification with the offender.”
In the ultimate in gaslighting, the courts, Goldstein said, “do everything to conceal evidence of the abuse and silence the child—and then turn around to say since there is no evidence of abuse, that means the mother is coaching the child.”
Goldstein pointed to two studies on the trend: one on adverse childhood experiences by the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention and an investigation by professor Daniel Saunders for the National Institute of Justice into the practice of family court judges awarding children to abusive parents.
Both studies, he said, provide overwhelming evidence of family court judges not following the law, putting children in danger, and favoring abusive fathers over protective mothers in custody decisions.
He said judges follow an unscientific theory called “parental alienation.”
There is major debate over the term parental alienation, which refers to a child’s estrangement from one parent due to the psychological manipulation of the other.
Groups such as Post Modern Justice Media Project promote the theory; others say it was made up as a cover for well-established abuse.
Both sides agree that it’s usually triggered by events such as divorce and that allegations of abuse should never be dismissed as merely arising from manipulation on the part of the accusing parent.
Grant Wyeth, a writer who tracks the way courts treat domestic violence globally, said that parental alienation is being used as a “gatekeeping device” by judges to create what he called “a repugnant market” around child abuse and domestic violence.
In outlining the market in a recent article titled “The Best Interests of the Abuser,” Wyeth pointed out the league of court appointees who feed off of the parental alienation theory.
These court appointees include counselors, social workers, guardians ad litem (court-appointed people who will protect the interests of someone unable to take care of themselves), reunification therapists, and divorce and custody lawyers.
‘They Don’t Want Evidence’
Attorney Richard Ducote pointed out that this court-appointed work is hand selected by the judge, unlike regular court cases, in which parties choose their own witnesses.
Ducote, who also speaks nationally on the growing trend of family court judges awarding custody to abusive parents, told The Epoch Times that he has represented several mothers stripped of custody after being accused of parental alienation not just for raising claims of child abuse, but for actually providing evidence of it.
“They don’t want the evidence, because it doesn’t serve their customer base,” he said.
Missouri attorney Evita Tolu told The Epoch Times that family court judges, sometimes considered the lowest in the hierarchy of judgeships, use it as a way to “reward colleagues” and gain political, social, and financial favors. Tolu is involved in one of the more horrific cases of a judge using parental alienation to benefit court appointees.
“All judges are after all … just lawyers who won political appointments,” she said.
Tolu is currently representing Cynthia Haynes in the wrongful death lawsuit of her 14-year-old daughter Mikaela, who committed suicide after being forced by the court to spend time with her father, Charles Haynes, despite his past convictions and confession to raping Mikaela’s older sister.
Mikaela repeatedly told Judge John Schok that her father had also molested her, but Shock still ordered her into the custody of Bernice Haynes, Mikaela’s paternal grandmother. Schok didn’t respond to a request for comment.
There is nothing in the hundreds of documents pertaining to the case that show why Cynthia Haynes lost custody of Mikaela with the exception of an allegation of “parental alienation” against her for raising the issue of Charles Haynes’s past abuses.
The U.N. Human Rights Council assembled a special team to study family court corruption globally. It spent a year collecting and studying cases and in October 2022 released its findings and recommendations.
It concluded that the term “parental alienation” and similar concepts is being used systematically to strip mothers of custody and grant it to fathers accused of domestic violence in a way, the report says that “totally disregards the possible risks for the child.”
“Accusations of parental alienation by abusive fathers against mothers must be considered as a continuation of power and control by state agencies and actors, including those deciding on child custody,” the report said.
Solutions Include Retraining Judges
Some efforts have been made to fix the problem, and there is pending legislation in some states to stop family court judges from making rulings that put children in danger.
Goldstein wrote legislation, the Safe Child Act, that he is trying to get adopted in each state.
Under it, family court judges would undergo retraining on domestic violence and child abuse, be barred from excluding evidence, and be prohibited from arbitrarily ordering children into mental health therapy that forces them into a relationship with an abusive parent.
Some states, such as North Carolina, have adopted the Safe Child Act or a version of it, such as Kyra’s Law and Kayden’s Law, each named after a little girl killed by her father after a family court judge ignored warnings that the child wouldn’t be safe with him.
On July 27, 2016, 2-year-old Kyra Franchetti was murdered by her father, who authorities say shot her twice in the back during an unsupervised, court-ordered visit.
In some states, lawmakers have introduced bills aimed at stopping judges from deviating from child abuse laws.
In New Hampshire—where there are several pending Republican-led reform bills against the state’s family courts—two rules raised special concern that the court is deliberately sidestepping constitutional rights.
The first rule, Rule 1.2 of the New Hampshire Family Court Division, states, “As good cause appears and as justice may require, the family division may waive the application of any rule, except where prohibited by law.”
The second, Rule 2.2, states that the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence don’t apply to the actions of the family courts.
“However, the court in its discretion may utilize the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence to enhance the predictable, orderly, fair, and reliable presentation of evidence,” the rule states.
Gender Bias Against Women
Both rules were adopted by the courts themselves. State Rep. J.D. Bernardy, also an attorney, called the rules problematic, saying they interfere with fundamental constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial.
“Discovery, access to witnesses, and timeliness can be totally upended by them,” he said. “A fair and clear process is important in anything, but it is especially crucial when it comes to one’s children on a court docket.”
Ducote and other advocates, such as Goldstein and Wyeth, all emphasize that attitudes also need to be changed throughout the system, starting with a gender bias against women.
“Anyone who calls this issue ‘men bashing’ is practicing denial,” Ducote said.
Anne Marie Weisman told The Epoch Times that right after a veteran police officer testified about the child abuse her daughter had experienced at the hands of her father, a New Hampshire family court judge proceeded to issue a secret order granting the father full custody with permission to take the child from school without Weisman’s knowledge.
Goldstein said the problem is “just that rampant.”
In high-conflict custody cases involving child abuse, the judges “are getting it wrong just about 100 percent of the time,” he said.
Court System Turns It Into a Gender Issue
All these advocates agree that most fathers in custody disputes would never think of harming their children and that there are cases of mothers who are the abusers.
Tolu said the family court system is primarily responsible for turning child abuse into a gender issue. She said she has been accused of promoting false narratives of misogyny simply by representing victims of it.
“It’s funny that this kind of criticism doesn’t come out of the woodwork when it’s a story about a priest or a scout leader molesting little boys,” she said.
Several national organizations have also called for the elimination of absolute immunity for judges.
“Unfortunately, history shows us we can’t rely on the checks and balances to hold judges accountable,” Keith Neely, an attorney for Institute for Justice, told The Epoch Times.
The legal group started a national campaign against judicial immunity earlier this year. Neely said that when judges do something as egregious as sending a child to their death, they barely get a slap on the wrist because of the immunity they enjoy.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor who talks nationally about eliminating absolute immunity for judges, said that the practice of “judges judging judges undermines the system’s ability to prevent misconduct on the bench.”
Some parents are also filing lawsuits against some of the court appointees. Tolu is the first to win a federal judge’s approval to bring a civil suit against a guardian ad litem in a custody dispute.
On March 2, six mothers filed a class action lawsuit against a Colorado evaluator alleging he deliberately concealed evidence of child abuse and recommended custody be granted to abusive fathers.
When Biases Turn Deadly
A Utah father’s alleged recent murder of his five children and their mother is an example of such attitudes.
At first glance, Michael Haight seemed like a distraught dad who inexplicably killed his entire family, then himself. The violent shooting came after his wife, Tausha Haight, filed for divorce.
Haight’s friends described him as a loving family man who coached Little League sports.
However, a closer review of the killings reveals that Haight had a long history of violent assaults on his wife and children and had controlling tendencies. According to police records, reported allegations of the abuse date as far back as 2017.
The Haights’ eldest daughter, Macie, as the records show, recounted her father choking and shaking her and banging her into hard objects such as the wooden back of a couch.
She talked about his verbal assaults on her mother and how he would take her cellphone away from her to review her text messages.
The case was handed over to court prosecutors, but Haight was never charged. Records show that when Haight was asked about the abuse, he simply denied it.
Two weeks after Tausha Haight filed for divorce, Michael Haight allegedly killed her and their children: 17-year-old Macie, 12-year-old Briley, 7-year-old twins Sienna and Ammon, and 4-year-old Gavin.
2 Horrific Cases
A GoFundMe started in Tausha’s name passed $100,000 in January.
Just before the Haight family murders, 12-year-old Angelique was shot by her father, Leonard Ahearn, after a family court judge in Tennessee gave him custody despite past cases of child abuse severe enough to warrant a no-contact order.
Between those two horrific cases came the murder of 8-year-old Cameron Lynn and 6-year-old Audrey Jane by their father, Adam Zipperer, in Fort Collins, Texas.
All three cases were in the same month as a verdict in the murder trial of Michael Valva, who killed his 8-year-old son, Tommy, after a New York family court judge ignored his mother’s warnings and gave the father full custody.
The murder happened only a few months after the federal passage of Kayden’s Law, named after a little girl who was beaten to death with dumbbells by her father, Jeffrey Mancuso.
A family court judge gave Mancuso shared custody despite documented evidence that he was a danger to his daughter.
Children aren’t the only ones in danger.
According to her family, Esmeralda Casillas, 36, informed a family court that her husband repeatedly threatened her and her boys with guns. The judge granted the father shared custody anyway.
In November, in Los Angeles, Salvador Velasquez gunned down Casillas in front of her twin sons.
Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Goldstein’s background. The article misstated the amount of time Berry spent trying to get the police to help her. The Epoch Times regrets the errors.