How the ACEs Test Can Be Used in a Child Custody Case

aces test

In Minnesota, as in other states, child custody is decided based on what would be “in the best interests of the child.” The list of “best interest” factors considered by the Minnesota legislature in 2015 to reflect developments in the understanding of what is truly best for children. As we learn more about what helps and harms children, courts can and should adapt the way they think about child custody, and the ACEs test can be a part of that. 

Knowledge that is emerging in the area of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) should inform child custody determinations. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), ACEs are potentially traumatic experiences in childhood that can have negative impacts later in life.  They increase the likelihood of physical and mental health issues, substance abuse, and socioeconomic challenges. Many ACEs can be prevented, however, and preventing trauma to a child can yield benefits to the adult that child becomes, and to society.

What Are ACEs?

Adverse childhood experiences were originally studied at Kaiser Permanente in conjunction with the CDC in the mid-1990s. Falling into three categories—abuse, neglect, and household challenges—the ACES identified were:

  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Substance abuse in the household
  • Parent figure treated violently
  • Mental illness in the household
  • Incarcerated household member
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect

Children score one point for each ACE, and the higher the score, the likelier it is that the child will experience a negative impact. For example, an ACE score of 6 is associated with an average life expectancy reduction of about 20 years. ACEs increase the risk of a child smoking or becoming a heavy drinker; not finishing high school, being unemployed, and not having health insurance; and experiencing a range of health conditions ranging from depression to obesity to heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, some of these outcomes can themselves put stress on the children’s own adult relationships.

In short, courts that are concerned with promoting the best interests of children should be concerned about minimizing ACEs.

Helping the Courts Understand the Importance of ACEs

Although the ACEs study was rigorously conducted and the results respected by health professionals, many in the court system are unaware, or minimally aware, of how the ACE test score can affect a child’s future. Without this knowledge, a court may examine the best interest factors through a distorted lens and arrive at a result that is not best for the child, especially when one of the parents is abusive to the other or the child. Common mistakes courts make in this area include:

  • Considering only physical assaults
  • Considering only recent violence
  • Failing to recognize “high conflict” interactions between parents as domestic violence
  • Forcing children to spend time with an abusive parent
  • Failing to ensure that court professionals are trauma informed
  • Underestimating the impact and importance of domestic violence and child abuse
  • Discounting reports of abuse as “he said, she said”
  • Failing to investigate reports or signs of child sexual abuse
  • Not paying attention to children’s fear or understanding its significance

Unfortunately, courts are often entrenched in their existing practices and ways of looking at what is in a child’s best interests. For example, courts often give high priority to the involvement of both parents in a child’s life. If one parent is emotionally abusive, giving that parent greater access and decision-making power not only exposes the child to more stress, it may keep the child out of therapy where that abuse might be revealed.

If you are in a situation that is exposing your children to ACEs, and you are trying to minimize their exposure to trauma, you should not assume that a judge in your family law case understands ACEs. If there is a guardian ad litem involved in your case, he or she may have some familiarity with the ACEs study, but again, you can’t count on that.

It is important to work with a family law attorney who understands childhood trauma and the importance of minimizing ACEs. Your attorney can work to educate the court early in the case about what ACEs are, why there is reason for concern, and what actions the court can take to protect your children.

Domestic violence is harmful to children, but most of the harm comes from the tension, anxiety, and fear an abusive environment creates. When courts understand that, it may change the way they analyze child custody cases. An expert witness who is able to testify knowledgeably about ACEs can inform the court and cause a dramatic shift in how the judge looks at domestic violence. Once the court learns about the impact of ACEs, that information can’t be unlearned. Education the court receives in one case will benefit children in future cases.

If you are involved in a Minnesota child custody case, or plan to be, ask your attorney how to incorporate the ACEs test into the legal process. If you have further questions, we invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.

 

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