Abusers are gaming the legal system and children are paying the price — their lives.
Why are so many children still murdered by parents and/or family with histories of domestic violence when the red flags are right in front of us? The case of 8-year old Autumn Hallow in Minnesota was anything but justice:
“The last call made to police regarding suspected abuse and neglect of young Autumn was within two weeks from Autumn’s death.”
Ms. Kruse, Autumn’s mother, had a protective order (type of restraining order) against Autumn’s stepmother, who is implicated in Autumn’s death. In the months leading up to Autumn ‘s murder, many other calls were made to child protective services and police regarding concerns about suspected abuse and neglect.
According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, which tracks information on crimes of post-separation child murder:
From 2008 to today, 762 children in the United States have been murdered, many by a divorcing or separating parent with a history of domestic violence.
Concerns by Divorced Mothers Fall on Deaf Ears
Ms. Kruse’s legal loss of her child began in 2013 when she and Mr. Hallow went through a post-separation custody dispute. Fast-forward to April of 2020. Ms. Kruse had just plead to family court judge, Judge Yunker, to order Autumn’s father to release Autumn for court-ordered parent visits, which he had been withholding for three months straight.
Judge Yunker denied Ms. Kruse’s request.
Autumn never got to see her mother after that — she was killed at the hands of her father and stepmother. Judge Yunker apparently ignored Ms. Kruse’s cry for help to visit her daughter on the grounds that Ms. Kruse “failed to demonstrate that the current circumstances constitute an emergency” and indefinitely delayed any hearing until “COVID-19 pandemic orders permit.”
This judge failed to appreciate the criminal aspect of long-term isolation by Autumn’s father and stepfather combined with multiple reports of abuse and neglect of Autumn.
Similarly, Thomas Valva’s murder followed a custody dispute, in which the mother lost custody to the father, despite the father’s history of domestic violence.
Thomas’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, lost custody of her children following a “contentious” divorce proceeding. The mother who warned the judge of her ex-husband’s violent temper, was seen as hysterical and thus, unreliable. It turns out that the judge got the wrong parent.
In January of 2020, under the custody of Thomas’ father, Michael Valva, 41, an NYPD transit officer, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, 42, Thomas was murdered.
Thomas’s mother, Thomas’s school, and others submitted multiple reports to child protective services in the time leading up to little Thomas’s death. Among many horrible accounts of abuse and neglect, Mr. Valva forced Thomas to sleep in the garage on many nights in “below-freezing temperatures.”
Eventually, Thomas was not saved — he froze to death in Mr. Valva’s garage.
His father and stepmother were indicted on charges of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child.
Enough is enough right? One would think such overt red flags for child abuse would not go ignored again. But tragically, they did in the case of Autumn Hallow’s murder, and many more.
Why? One reason is the family court culture, which treats “parental alienation” as higher risk than child abuse. The outcome? Hundreds, if not thousands of preventable child murders.
Every child deserves safety, health, and comfort — so why are the CHILDREN’S needs coming last and the parent’s needs first?
Common themes of children murdered by their own parents
- Legal history of “high conflict” custody disputes;
- Protective order from one parent against the other parent or stepparent;
- History of multiple police and protective services reports regarding the children (including “suspicious injuries”) all resulting in lack of substantiation and lack of protective action;
- Family court judges minimize or ignore the history of abuse against one parent when making decisions about parenting time and supervision with the child, even when the child witnessed the abuse and/or when there are allegations that the child has been abused or neglected by the violent parent;
- Police are not equipped or permitted to get involved with “custody issues” and are instructed to defer to government protective agencies, even though police officers are mandated to act if they have probable cause to believe that a child is being abused; and
- In days or weeks leading up to child’s murder, the parent who has shown concern has been prevented from seeing the child, and sometimes the child has not shown up to school for a long period of time.
Every time I see another one of these stories of murder of children, the elderly and persons with disabilities, I ask myself “how did this happen AGAIN?” What is missing among the trainings and protocols of police, protection agencies, and courts that blind them to recognizing grave risk of harm before it’s too late?
Some of this stems from cognitive dissonance, a “state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way.”
Most people assume that one’s parental instinct prevents one from killing, or seriously harming, one’s own child or knowingly permitting serious harm to that child.
When another story is released about parents murdering their kids, reactions tend to be “unbelievable” or “what a tragedy”.
But it happens more than we think — yet we remain shocked and blind to the pattern right in front of us.
Family Court Bias Against Domestic Violence Survivors
Back to the elephant in the room — the criminal justice and family court system is prejudiced against domestic violence survivors, especially women. This factors into the senseless and preventable death of children like Autumn, Thomas, and Prince.
The father of 15-month Prince McLeod was a known domestic violence offender. Yet he had access and opportunity to enact further violence.
He killed Prince — his own child.
Professor Joan Meier, Esq., of George Washington University Law School, analyzed over 2000 court cases where mothers alleged the father was abusive. In 14% of cases where a court found the father was in fact abusive, custody was still awarded to the father.
Overall, courts were more negative against mothers who claimed the father was abusive, compared to mothers who did not make such claims.
Oftentimes in domestic violence cases, both parents are automatically portrayed as creating the conflict in custody issues, when it is the abusive parent who works the court system by coercive control and manipulation.
Domestic abuse is left silent in the home, when the same conduct outside of the home is labeled a crime.
Some states are making progress by proposing bills for judges to have mandated specialized training on domestic violence and child abuse. Trainings include addressing the “limitations in Child Protective Services responses to allegations and the fact that abuse may have occurred even if an investigation did not substantiate it.” It was Prince’s murder that prompted legislative action in Maryland.
If you’re reading this, then you care in some way about what’s happening to the most vulnerable. What would you do? What if this was your child, relative, or friend?
Take today to start acting, educating yourself about the signs of abuse, beyond classic black eyes and broken bones, but also the signs of isolation and neglect. Legally speaking, harming a child, elderly person, or person with disabilities is a crime.
Practically, criminal acts between family members are rarely prosecuted and thus the purpose of protecting these individuals is shattered by the lack of enforcement.
The safety of children and other vulnerable individuals depends on education and systemic change of protective services agencies, the police, the family court system, and more. Don’t be afraid to speak up and show them real-life stories — you never know who could be the one to save a person’s life.
Rather than wait until after another abuser murders a child, let’s act NOW to change the way the legal system responds to parents with domestic violence histories.