OPINION: Family court: an abuser's playground

By Katelyn Galea | March 27, 2024 2:00pm

Photo courtesy of Katelyn Galea.

Growing up, I spent more time in the courtroom than I did at school. By the time I turned seventeen, Child Protective Services knew me by name — compared to my teachers who hesitated to address me when I raised my hand in class. However, the reason why they got to know the little girl calling their phones so well didn’t seem to instill concern in anyone. 

Each year, 18% of maltreated kids are physically abused by their parental guardian. Of that 18%, 58,000 children each year are still placed in custody of their abuser. I represent one of the 58,000 children that have suffered because of the United States’ flawed and outdated family judicial system. For nine years, I did not receive the help I pleaded for in the courtroom. Now as an adult in college, free from my abuser, I live with the social and academic repercussions from my childhood experiences.

“The power of voice is the most influential aspect of a person,” my teachers ingrained in me and my classmates' minds each school year. In kindergarten, this meant I learned how to share colored pencils with my desk partner during arts and crafts. During a thoughtful conversation over a game of speed in the sixth grade, me and my best friend found out we share the same love for turtles. High school introduced teenage love, a significant moment of emotional vulnerability. 

However, even after achieving all these milestones in my life, no one could convince me that my voice held any sort of power. Behind closed doors I was silenced, moreso punished, for using the voice I was born with that was a supposed “gift.” 

In an abusive household, speaking your opinion or questioning the abuser is equivalent to intentionally placing your hand on a burning oven top. From a legal standpoint as well, children under the age of fourteen are not allowed to testify for custody or visitation preferences in the United States. Between the threats and manipulation within an abusive household and the legal restraints, children are truly silenced and stuck with their abuser for at least fourteen years.

The day I turned fourteen was the most hope-filled day of my life. Every therapist, school counselor and Child Protective Services agent told me when I turned fourteen everything would change — I had the chance to escape. However, what they failed to inform me of is how little of a chance there was for me, a child, to be listened to in court. My mediator, who was supposed to give a professional opinion on my safety and well-being, listened to me struggle to tell the horrifying stories of what occurred behind closed doors at my abuser’s house. His input: My abuser was fit to remain in control of my life. 

A couple months later, Child Protective Services was called on my abuser. I spoke to the representative, and again, told my story in vivid detail hoping there was something the stranger sitting across from me could do. Her response: “Unless you’ve been beaten to the point of hospitalization, there is nothing I can do to help you.” At this moment, I completely lost hope that the family judicial system, which is in place to protect children, would listen to my pleas.

My experience in the courtroom is not a unique one. There have been multiple findings throughout the years that “courts routinely rely on the wrong experts” when handling child abuse cases. The lens of an evaluator is clouded by biases, personal beliefs and financial incentives, which prevents decisions to be made based on the benefit of the child. The court practices that have been mandated since the creation of the judicial system are outdated and in need of change.

Significant development has been made in the study of the psychological impact an abusive environment has on a child. These findings have the potential to influence the courtroom to make decisions that serve justice for suffering kids. The Safe Child Act is an example of a proposal that is backed by scientific research to make court rulings safe for children. However, this proposal did not make it far, as it was turned down by officials many times. Without change of action from our country’s leaders, children will continue to suffer the physical and psychological harm of their abusers.

The abuse I endured for eighteen years has had detrimental effects on my psychological well-being. As a first-year college student in a city 652 miles from home, the wounds in my mental state have become apparent in my day-to-day social interactions.

After experiences during my childhood, I found peace in my own presence and became content with being alone a good chunk of my day. In college, however, you are always surrounded by people. Compared to my peers, I felt like it took me longer to trust all the new faces because in the back of my mind, I doubted their intentions in getting to know me.

Starting my new life while healing from my abusive relationship with my family member is draining and affects the depth of the relationships I am developing with friends. This is not abnormal, as college students who have a history of childhood trauma tend to struggle adapting to the buzzing, fast-paced college environment.

In a study that followed 210 college students, 36% of them experienced various forms of childhood abuse. The result of this study was that the 36% having experienced a form of abuse were less likely to still be enrolled in college by the time their graduation year approached.

Childhood abuse has its effects on survivors socially, but, especially for college students, there are heavy effects it can have on the academic aspect as well.

Personally, I use school as an outlet for my struggles at home, as I love to learn, read and write. School provided a space where for eight hours a day I was away from my abuser and able to do what I love. This is not the case for everyone though. The effects of trauma trickle into every part of a person’s life, and it can get to the point where it becomes unmanageable.

The fact that childhood abuse affects childrens’ developmental growth in social and academic aspects is undeniable. The question no one seems to have an answer to is if officials will take the issue seriously enough to save the next generation from experiencing what hundreds of thousands of kids did in the last twenty years.

Katelyn Galea is a freshman at the University of Portland. She can be reached at galea27@up.edu.

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