In recent years, lawyers and judges have increasingly recognized the role that exposure to trauma plays in the lives of persons who are involved with the legal system. While trauma can come in many forms, providers of mental health or legal services need to be especially aware of trauma that is ongoing and has intergenerational consequences. The term “intergenerational trauma” has most often been associated with societal trauma that has been inflicted on certain racial or ethnic groups, who live with the effects and pass them along to succeeding generations. Frequently discussed examples of this are African American slavery, Native American forced attendance at boarding schools, and the Holocaust of World War II. All of these horrors affected survivors in a myriad of ways, and the economic, social, and emotional impact can be felt many generations later.
Here, though, I want to focus on a more mundane and equal-opportunity form of intergenerational trauma: family violence, which is defined here as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or aggression directed against an intimate partner or child in the family. These are sadly common behaviors that occur across race, gender, and socio-economic status lines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over their lifetimes, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience physical or sexual violence or stalking, and more than 43 million women and 38 million men experience psychological aggression. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reports that in 2019 there were approximately 656,000 victims of child abuse and neglect in the U.S., which is a rate of 8.9 victims per 1,000 children Certain ethnic groups such as American Indians and African Americans had even higher rates, and children under 1 year of age had a rate of victimization equal to 25.7 per 1,000 children. Evidence suggests that the incidents of family violence have increased during the isolation, stress, and lock-downs of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While conventional wisdom has long suggested that children living in violent homes may learn to be abusers or victims when they grow up, research on the biopsychosocial nature of family violence gives us insight into why this is the case. Continue reading “Interrupting the Intergenerational Trauma of Family Violence”
When lawyers think about working with clients who have addictions, we often imagine clients who are young or middle-aged and facing legal consequences such as criminal charges for drug possession or for driving under the influence of alcohol or another drug. But not every person struggling with addictions is young, in trouble with law enforcement, or even using substances in a visible way that signals addiction to family members or professionals.
More than 2.5 million adults over age 55 struggle with addictions every year in the United States. Continue reading “What Does Addiction Look Like?”
Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court rarely hears family law cases, this year it heard Michels v. Lyons, which involved Wisconsin Statutes Section 767.43(3), also known as the Grandparent Visitation Statute.
There, a child’s maternal grandmother filed a petition for visitation after the parents, who never married and were no longer together, chose to reduce the amount of time the child spent with the grandmother. The circuit court granted visitation rights to the grandmother, and the court of appeals certified the matter to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to clarify the standard of proof that is required for a grandparent to overcome a fit parent’s decision regarding visitation.
Clarifying the standard of proof necessary, Justice Rebecca Dallett, writing for the majority, vacated the order granting the grandmother visitation and discussed the constitutionality of the Grandparent Visitation Statute itself. Continue reading “After Michels v. Lyons, What Visitation Rights Do Grandparents Actually Have?”
This semester in Professor Lisa Mazzie’s Advanced Legal Writing: Writing for Law Practice seminar, students are required to write one blog post on a law- or law school-related topic of their choice. Writing blog posts as a lawyer is a great way to practice writing skills, and to do so in a way that allows the writer a little more freedom to showcase his or her own voice, and—eventually for these students—a great way to maintain visibility as a legal professional. Here is one of those blog posts, this one written by 2L Brooklyn Kemp.
What makes a house a home is not merely the brick and mortar of a building, but the foundation of a family. As the saying goes, “home is where the heart is”–where one experiences love, support, and growth.
As a student in the Guardian Ad Litem workshop this semester, I have become more aware of the reality that some children do not have a place to call “home” until they are adopted, after their natural parents’ parental rights are terminated through a court order. This can be a lengthy and emotionally debilitating process. Although in some circumstances children get a happy ending with a nurturing family, other children are traumatized when they realize they will never see their parents again.
Even children who are able to manage the emotional turmoil may end up being stuck in foster care, a temporary home, for long periods of time as their parents oppose termination of their rights to the children.
Open adoption occurs when the natural parents still have ongoing contact with the child whom they have relinquished for the adoption. Some states have embraced the idea of open adoption, codifying it into statutory provisions.
Wisconsin currently does not legally recognize open adoption. Continue reading “Home is Where the Families Are: Open Adoption in Wisconsin?”
Kara is a single parent with two children. She works full-time, but still makes less than $1,500 each month. Kara’s boyfriend Jay, the father of one of Kara’s two children, lives with her, but does not always contribute to the household. In addition, he’s physically abusive to the family cat and to Kara. After the most recent incident where Jay pushed Kara into the wall and grabbed her arm so hard he left a bruise, Kara wants him to leave. And she wants a restraining order. But knowing who to call and where to go—and, most of all, how to pay for services she’ll need—is overwhelming her. If Kara lives in a state that invests in civil legal aid, she’ll have no problem finding resources and will be able to have a lawyer represent her—at little to no cost to her—at any court hearing she needs to get a domestic violence injunction.
While Kara’s story is merely illustrative—though many people experience circumstances like Kara’s every day—its larger point is important. Civil legal aid is a combination of services and resources that helps Americans of all backgrounds—including those who face the toughest legal challenges: children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and victims of domestic violence—to effectively navigate the justice system. Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of one’s ability to pay. It provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. Civil legal aid makes it easier to access information through court forms; legal assistance or representation; and legal self-help centers. Civil legal aid also helps streamline the court system and cuts down on court and other public costs. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we close with “justice for all.” We need civil legal aid to ensure that the very principle our founders envisioned remains alive: justice for all, not the few who can afford it.
Our state has had a rocky history of funding civil legal aid programs. While the state did begin such funding, of late, that funding has since dropped precipitously. In 2007, for the first time in Wisconsin history, the legislature included nearly $2 million in the state budget for civil legal aid. In 2009, the funding was increased to just over $2.5 million. But in 2011, the funding was eliminated completely from the state budget. From 2012-2015, Wisconsin was one of just three states that did not provide any funding for civil legal aid for low income people. (The other two are Florida and Idaho.) Continue reading “Saving by Investing in Civil Legal Aid”
On Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued a summary disposition reversing the judgment of the Alabama Supreme Court in V.L. v. E.L. (577 U.S. ___ (2016)) In that case, two women had been in a committed relationship with each other for over 15 years. While they were together, E.L. gave birth to three children through assisted reproductive technology, and she and V.L. raised the children together. At some point thereafter, V.L. formally adopted the children in Georgia, with the express consent of E.L. who retained her own parental rights. The Georgia court entered a final decree of adoption recognizing both women as parents to the children.
In 2011, V.L. and E.L. split up while living in Alabama, and shortly thereafter V.L filed a petition in circuit court alleging that her former partner was denying her access to the children. She asked the Alabama court to register the Georgia adoption, and to grant her some custody or visitation rights. The circuit court granted visitation, and E.L. appealed, claiming that Georgia lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter the decree of adoption. The Court of Civil Appeals rejected the jurisdictional argument, but did remand the case with directions to the family court to hold an evidentiary hearing before awarding visitation rights to V.L. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, holding that Alabama was not required to accord full faith and credit to the Georgia judgment because Georgia did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to allow V.L. to adopt the children while E.L retained her parental rights.
In its per curiam opinion reversing the Alabama Supreme Court decision, SCOTUS emphasized that states are required to afford full faith and credit to a judgment unless that judgment was rendered by a court that “did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter or the relevant parties.” Although a court can look into whether a foreign court had jurisdiction, jurisdiction is presumed if the judgment is one of a court of general jurisdiction, and the presumption cannot be rebutted simply because a foreign court disagrees with the outcome of a case. Continue reading “Full Faith and Credit for Adoption”
During the past month, the American public has been bombarded with news reports about a continuing measles epidemic, as well as an extensive debate about whether measles vaccinations should be required to stop this epidemic and prevent future ones from developing.
In fact, all states require vaccinations against many contagious diseases, including measles. But there are exceptions, and the exceptions are broader in some states than others. Only a handful of states limit exceptions to medical necessity – for example, a child whose immune system is compromised by chemotherapy should not receive immunizations. Most states allow religious exemptions, so parents who are, for example, Christian Scientists need not vaccinate their children in contravention of their religious beliefs. However, about a third of the states, including Wisconsin, also allow much broader exemptions based on “conscience” or “philosophical reasons.” These broader exemption categories often can be invoked with little or no effort on a parent’s part, such as by checking a box on a form and signing it, and thus have the potential to erode the requirement if enough people choose not to vaccinate.
Continue reading “Vaccination Uproar”
There are few things in family law more controversial than alimony (also referred to as spousal maintenance), which is defined as a series of support payments made by one former spouse to another. Traditionally, alimony may be awarded when one spouse has need of financial support to maintain the marital standard of living, the other spouse has the ability to pay it, and the award meets certain criteria of fairness (e.g. it should not plunge the paying spouse into poverty or excuse the payee spouse from engaging in paid employment). Historically, alimony was paid by ex-husbands to their ex-wives, but today’s laws make it plain that either a man or a woman may be the payor. Spouses who have stayed home or reduced paid employment to raise children may claim that their activities at home made success at work more possible for the other spouse to succeed in the workplace, and that this should result in a greater share of the property division or an alimony award to either compensate the stay-at-home spouse for the sacrificed opportunities (restitution) or enable him or her to re-tool for a job with good pay (rehabilitation). Indeed, statutes like Wisconsin’s §767.56 direct judges to consider all of these factors (and others) in determining whether to award alimony to a divorcing spouse.
Nonetheless, alimony has never been common and has become less so: the few empirical studies that have been done show that only a small minority of divorcing spouses are awarded alimony of any amount and for any duration. The reasons for the always-low and still-declining numbers of alimony recipients are many and varied, and a full discussion of all of the theories requires more than a blog post.
Continue reading “Spouses, Income, Alimony”
Anyone living in the United States who has watched TV in the last two weeks is undoubtedly aware that the NFL is in the midst of a storm of bad publicity. First, we saw the chilling videotape of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice delivering a punch to the head that knocked out his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer, and then roughly dragging her off the elevator and dropping her like a sack of potatoes on the floor. Only days later, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves in the midst of a similar scandal when their star running back Adrian Peterson was charged with felony child abuse in Texas, where it is alleged he beat his 4-year-old son with a “switch.” Perhaps learning from the debacle that ensued when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell originally imposed a meagre two-game suspension on Rice for his misdeeds, the Minnesota Vikings have suspended Peterson from games and team activities indefinitely, although since he continues to draw his $11 million dollar salary, he is hardly a sympathetic character at the moment. Meanwhile, the incidents involving NFL player violence against their partners and children keep surfacing.
A lot has already been said and written about these cases, and much of the discussion is thoughtful and educational. Numerous commenters, including New York Times columnist Michael Powell, have pointed out that we should not be so shocked that players who are rewarded for brutality on the football field revert to violent behavior at home. He makes an excellent point. After all, the NFL is not the only place where people who use force, sometimes brutal force, in their jobs have a hard time turning it off at home: the military and various police forces have faced similar issues. Moreover, we live in a society with a high tolerance for violence, at least violence of a recreational sort—as evidenced by numerous TV shows, video games and movies. Continue reading “Brutality Touches Down at Home”
Adoption is intended to create lifelong parent-child relationships, and irrevocable parental obligations, no matter the challenges the newly-formed family might face in integrating an adopted son or daughter. However, in a tragic number of cases, parents decide not to keep the adopted child. Perhaps the highest-profile failed adoption in recent years was that of Artyem Savaliev/Justin Hansen, a seven year old Russian adoptee who in 2010 was put on a flight to Moscow by his Tennessee adoptive mother with a note explaining why she no longer wanted him. The case sparked concern and outrage in both Russia and the US.
Post-adoption family breakdowns are occurring in other less visible ways, including in Wisconsin. Last fall, Reuters published a five-part expose on “private re-homing,” a euphemistic term for advertising one’s unwanted adopted children on the Internet in order to find them a new home. This allows the parents of international and domestic adoptees to effectively, and beyond the supervision of child safety networks, pass off their parental obligations to strangers. Continue reading “Wisconsin Assembly Responds to “Child Exchange””
Western society has traditionally assumed a gender binary, classifying sex and gender as “male” or “female.” This binary is reflected in many aspects of our legal system. However in recent decades, the gender binary, and related assumptions about the fixed nature and unambiguous meaning of sex and gender, has been challenged by transsexual, transgendered and intersex people seeking legal recognition of their sex and/or gender identity and protection from discrimination based thereon.
In the US, the majority of states now permit alteration of sex on birth certificates for transsexual persons (whether sex-reassignment surgery is required varies from state to state), although a handful of states still take a “fixed from birth” approach to legal sex. The legal landscape in relation to marriage for transsexual people is similarly inconsistent and in flux.
Challenging the fixed nature of sex/gender is an important development, but in most jurisdictions, the gender binary has been kept legally intact. More recently, some jurisdictions are grappling with the question of “other-gendered” and “other-sexed” persons (the terms are not synonymous – the Norrie case, below, was framed as an issue of biological sex, not gender identity.) The issue has come to a head in Australia, where special leave to appeal to the High Court has been granted in a case involving a person who wishes to be recognized as legally genderless. Continue reading “The Gender Binary”
Child adoptions in the United States may be legally arranged through state or private agencies, or through individual contacts between would-be adoptive parents and birth mothers. In any of these situations, state laws require court hearings and extensive psychological screening of the child and the prospective adoptive parents to determine (among other things) whether the child is in fact available for adoption and whether the prospective parents are safe, competent, and suitable for that child. Once an adoption order is entered, the child is the child of the adoptive parents for all purposes, just as if she had been born to them.
What would happen if such safeguards were not in place? Unfortunately, we now have a glimpse of what might happen to children in an unregulated adoption market, and it is chilling. A Reuters investigation, published in part by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (to read part one, click here ), reveals that for at least the past 5 years, there has been a thriving Internet market in private re-homing of previously adopted children. Adopted children with severe physical or emotional problems that overwhelmed their adoptive parents were sometimes placed with strangers who, via Internet chat groups, promised to give the kids a new home. However, without those time-consuming home visits, interviews and psychological evaluations, the parents placing the children had no real clue what would happen to their kids once the new “parents” took over. Nor did some of them seem to care, so desperate were they to unload those troubled adoptees.
Let me say here that many of these kids were indeed very troubled by any standard. Most (but not all) were adopted from foreign countries such as Russia or China, where they may have suffered from mistreatment by their birth parents or neglect in overcrowded orphanages. Some of them had violent tendencies and attacked their new parents, new siblings, or new pets. Some engaged in property destruction, including disturbing behaviors like smearing feces on walls, sexual acting out, or substance abuse. Some may have reactive attachment disorder, which is the inability to form normal emotional attachments to other people, thought to be caused by trauma and extreme emotional deprivation early in life. The adoption agencies washed their hands of the children upon completion of the legal adoption and provided no remedial services. Most of the parents earn too much to qualify for poverty-based programs, and there aren’t enough of those anyway. Private counseling and treatment costs a king’s ransom. It is not hard to see why the parents became desperate, and turned (as many people do) to the Internet for factual information and emotional support. Continue reading “Desperately Seeking Re-Homing”