Early one day last year, Kellie Elliott stopped by her estranged husband Shane’s house outside Camden in western Ohio. Her 13-year-old son, Caleb, and 10-year-old daughter, Gracie, had spent the weekend there, but they hadn’t turned up for school that snowy morning of 25 January 2022.
Elliott didn’t dare approach the front door because she was fearful of Shane, whom she was divorcing. He had subjected her and her children to violent outbursts for years, behavior which she had reported to authorities without meaningful effect.
Instead, she honked her car horn from the driveway in an attempt to get her children’s attention and waited for the police, whom she had already called, to show up.
“When [the police] came, they walked around the house several times,” Elliott recalled. “They pinged [Caleb’s and Gracie’s phones] so we knew they were inside. I told them to break down the door and go in.”
Officers found that the children’s father had shot Caleb and Gracie in their faces – killing them – before shooting himself and dying.
“When [the officer] came back out, he said … ‘I’m just so sorry,’” Elliott recalled.
Elliott became only one of an alarmingly growing group of mothers facing such an unimaginable tragedy in her home state.
In the 12 months leading up to 30 June last year, Ohio recorded 112 domestic violence deaths, of which 22 were children or teenagers. That is the highest number of such killings since a coalition of support groups known as the Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN) started tracking data seven years ago.
“The pandemic, kids being home, people being forced together because of lockdowns, the inability to access resources – all of those things, we are assuming, are a part of the reason,” Lisa DeGeeter of the ODVN said.
That threat facing children is far from exclusive to Ohio. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in December found that, nationally, child homicide rates have increased every year by an average of 4.3% during the last decade, “with a precipitous rise from 2019 to 2020 [of] 27.7%”.
While child victims of domestic violence from shootings stood at 146 and 125 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, they rocketed to 201, 206 and 188 in 2020, 2021 and last year.
Children are far more at risk of being killed by a caregiver than, by comparison, at school, with guns overwhelmingly being the weapon most commonly used.
The vast majority of the time, children who are killed die at the hands of their fathers or male caregivers. The Center for Judicial Excellence, a California-based non-profit, reports that fathers have been responsible for 70% of children killed in cases where parents were divorcing or separating since 2008.
This rise in child killings is playing out as efforts to enact new laws advocating for 50-50 custody arrangements are gathering pace in states across the country. Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia have recently passed laws that presume 50-50 custody when parents separate while many others are considering the measure or variations of it.
Advocates for 50-50 custody point to a host of studies that show children do best when both parents are involved in their upbringing. On the other hand, opponents believe that blanket 50-50 custody laws would put children who may already have been exposed to abuse and violence in even greater danger.
“They are poor policy,” said Danielle Pollack of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School.
In March, Ohio state representatives introduced a similar 50-50 custody bill. A host of legal experts have assailed the proposal.
“It’s not remotely safe for families in violent situations [and] completely relegates the children’s safety to the background, as if kids are little more than pieces of property,” DeGeeter of the ODVN said.
DeGeeter says that of the 22 children killed in domestic violence cases in Ohio in the year-long period ending last June, 18 died at the hands of their biological father or stepfather, with a mother co-charged in one of those cases. The remaining four were older teens who were killed by their romantic partners.
For years, Kellie Elliott had endured, documented and shared with others – including her lawyer – the brutality Shane inflicted on her and her children. (One quarter of cases reported to the ODVN involved victims who previously reported such abuse to the police, as Elliott had.)
In 2015, Shane Elliott was charged with domestic violence after attempting to strangle and threatening to kill Kellie, who escaped by running a quarter of a mile to a neighbor’s house. Authorities let him plead guilty to a lesser charge, she said.
Kellie Elliott tried to leave. For a time, she said, Shane began taking medication and cut his heavy drinking, convincing her their marriage could be salvaged. But after several months, he stopped the medication and resumed drinking.
She took photos of her children’s bruised bodies and shared them with a guardian ad litem – a court official whose job it is to serve in the interest of children caught up in a marital breakup.
However, survivors such as Elliott and victims groups say guardians ad litem can be severely underqualified. The Ohio supreme court requires that a person attend only 12 hours of training to become a guardian ad litem.
“They need more training in domestic violence and mental health,” Elliott said. “We need psychologists meeting with both parents who can assess behaviors.”
Elliott’s children may be gone. But she hasn’t given up honoring them by campaigning for children and parents who are in the position she once faced. In recent months, she’s been to the Ohio statehouse in Columbus three times to speak against a previous version of the 50-50 custody bill.
She plans to go back.
“Not every woman who is experiencing domestic violence is crying wolf,” Elliott said. “When women have evidence, it should never be ignored.”
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/may/18/child-custody-laws-domestic-violence-homicide-rising US child killings have risen rapidly – why are more states pushing for joint custody laws? | US news