Lesley Hu with her son Pierce O’Loughlin. Pierce’s father murdered the nine-year-old in January 2021 after a San Francisco family court judge rejected his mother’s appeal for sole custody.

When Judges Dismiss Claims of Domestic Abuse, Children Can Die

Lawmakers, experts and advocates across California are pushing for legislation that would make judges take regular training in recognizing domestic violence and child abuse. The crusade is an attempt to lessen the chances that a judge will place a child in the custody of a dangerous parent. Family court judges routinely decide that domestic abuse claims are not credible and grant custody to the allegedly abusive parent. But making the wrong call can end with children losing their lives.

State Sen. Susan Rubio, who introduced a senate bill to expand the California Family Code to include coercive control in family court hearings and criminal trials, speaks about the need to keep children of domestic violence survivors safe in front of Los Angeles City Hall on June 27, 2022.

Coercive Control Victims Face Skeptical Judges, Court Transcripts Show

On average in the U.S., more than 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men, will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Nevertheless, when victims turn to family court for protection from their abusers, they often face skeptical judges. And that’s especially true when the abuse doesn’t leave a mark.

The entrance to Los Angeles Superior Court's Stanley Mosk Courthouse is shown, with three robed stone figures above the doorway.

‘I Was Not Allowed to Have My Own Thoughts’: California Courts Start Penalizing Psychological Domestic Abuse

While not all California judges are sympathetic to the stories of intimate partners who claim emotional abuse, and some even exhibit misogynistic conduct, others have shown an interest in using new legal tools to give the benefit of the doubt to people who say they are victims.

In a Los Angeles-area case, a judge acknowledged the evolving understanding of domestic violence to include psychological abuse, and extensively cited the state’s new coercive control law in his ruling.

A white woman with blond hair stands on a lawn in front of the water, with a city skyline in the background.

Expanding View of Domestic Violence Gives Survivors New Tool, but Unsympathetic Judges Remain an Obstacle

A California law enacted in 2021 allows domestic violence victims to claim coercive control — a broad range of behaviors including humiliation, surveillance, intimidation, gaslighting and isolation that strips an intimate partner of a sense of autonomy and personhood.

Experts in domestic violence say judicial skepticism of abuse victims, often with misogynistic overtones, has long been widespread in U.S. family court, creating dangerous hurdles to justice. The expanded conception of domestic violence on paper is of limited use if judges continue to cast a skeptical eye on testimony, usually from women, of manipulation within intimate relationships.