More than 800 children have been reported murdered by a parent going through divorce or separation in the United States since 2008. More than 100 of those cases included rejected pleas within the family court system to intervene before the child’s death.
Oftentimes, the people making final decisions on the cases don’t have specialized training on domestic violence or family abuse dynamics.
There’s now a growing push to change that.
Ali Kessler only knew her son's father a short time before she learned she was pregnant. They were never married, never lived together and he wasn't there for the birth. Kessler says the father made it clear repeatedly in emails, texts and phone calls that he wanted nothing to do with the pregnancy. But then shortly after Greyson was born, his showed up wanting half custody.
“When I spoke to a lawyer, they said pretty much unless you can really prove that the other parent is unfit, they are going to get 50 percent custody no matter what,” Kessler recalled.
Kessler says Greyson’s father made co-parenting extremely difficult and was verbally abusive to her the entire time.
“I sent him a spreadsheet of 11 schools that I toured and made lists of pros and cons and finances and everything and he said no to all of them,” she said. “I would get texts saying, ‘You're a wonderful mother and Greyson's lucky to have you’ and then I would get texts saying, ‘You deserve to have your head separated from your body,’ and he wrote, ‘I’m not the violent type, but God will deal with you.’ He has told me in person and via text his life mission will be to make me suffer.”
Meanwhile, Kessler says Greyson wasn’t adjusting well and would throw tantrums and act out after spending time with his father. She said the 50/50 schedule had Greyson confused and upset.
Fed up with the abuse and taking over parental duties often times during dad’s visitation time, Kessler said she filed contempt motions, requests to change the time-sharing, and asked for a psychological evaluation on her son’s father.
The threats and abuse escalated when Greyson’s father started contacting Kessler and her boyfriend. She filed for a stalking injunction and a domestic violence injunction in May of 2021.
“I wrote in big letters, 'I fear for my life, my boyfriend’s life and most of all, my child's life.' I included 250 pages of text messages and documentation.”
A judge denied the domestic violence injunction, just as a mechanic found a tracking device on Kessler’s car. Greyson's father told her he knew she had been to the courthouse and he stopped taking Greyson to school.
“I called the police three times to get wellness checks to knock on the door. Each time they knocked, no answer, there's nothing they can do their hands are tied.”
Meanwhile, Kessler’s attorney also filed for an emergency pickup order. It was also denied. She tracked down the landlord of Greyson’s father’s apartment who agreed to let a locksmith open and door with police there.
“At four something in the morning, I get a knock on my door and it’s the investigators about three officers letting me know that they found my son in his father's apartment where I told him that he was and that they were both dead and that he was shot in the head and that he was gone. And then, that's all I heard. The following day, I got a notice from the court saying that my lawyer filed an injunction for stalking, and it was approved. So, basically, they're saying I wasn’t safe, but it was ok that my child would go to him.”
Danielle Pollack with the National Family Violence Law Center is helping write legislation like Greyson's Law and similar bills across the country.
“If the average person understood what happened inside our family courts, they would not stand for it. It’s shocking,” Pollack said.
Bills that require courts to consider criminal convictions in custody cases expand the definition of domestic violence to include psychological abuse and coercive control. Some legislation would also require judges and other custody workers to receive training on child sexual abuse and family abuse dynamics.
“The idea is to prioritize child safety over parenting rights. Abusers use the court sort of as a tool to continue their harms to the victim and most of them to the child,” Pollack said.
Federally, a provision in the Violence Against Women Act would provide incentives to states to properly train the courts. One of the few national studies inside family court cases found they disbelieve child abuse claims, especially sexual abuse, at high rates.
The study also found when a mother reported any abuse and a father claimed alienation, the mother lost custody nearly half the time. Pollack says there are tens of thousands of children trapped in prolonged abuse.
After leaving what she describes as an abusive marriage and spending years tied up in family court representing herself due to financial abuse, Tina Swithin founded One Mom’s Battle in order to educate people how to navigate the system with an abusive partner.
“They have to put their trauma aside and almost go into it with a strategy mindset,” Swithin said.
Swithin says she recently learned there are few requirements state by state for judges to have even the basic training in domestic violence, much less things like coercive control.
“What we know from research is that it only takes one person to create a high conflict situation, but both of them get that label and that's really lazy. We need to do better,” she said.
Through One Mom’s Battle, and with the help of other organizations and parents like Ali Kessler, they are getting proclamations all over the country to designate November Family Court Awareness month.
“The feedback we're receiving is we had no idea. It's also giving survivors an opportunity to have a voice in their community and become involved in change at their level,” Swithin said.
“I will not rest until I get justice for Greyson, because John's dead. John killed himself. There is accountability and I will find it,” Kessler said.
To learn how to get a proclamation in your city, visit FamilyCourtAwarenessMonth.com.