Victimizing The Victims

Consuelo fontaine called for help after she fled her allegedly abusive husband— so the city tried to take her kids away. Her story is increasingly common.

Consuelo Fontaine is a victim of domestic violence. She tells a familiar tale: her husband left all the child care and housework to her, they argued a lot, he belittled her, he insisted on sex when she had health problems, he isolated her from friends, he controlled the purse strings but wouldn't let her get a job.

Her estranged husband, shuber fontaine, declined to comment on these charges.

Consuelo, fearful that verbal abuse was escalating into physical abuse, decided to leave. On July 21, 1998, she gathered up her four children and fled to a Staten Island domestic violence shelter.

Fontaine on the city's approach to her case: "It doesn't seem to matter what really happened."
Mayita Mendez
Fontaine on the city's approach to her case: "It doesn't seem to matter what really happened."

Her nightmare should have been over; it was only beginning.

For the next 10 months, Consuelo would find herself in and out of family court, trapped in an increasingly tangled web of accusations and obfuscations. On September 17, 1998, two months after she left Shuber, the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) charged her with neglect for allowing her children to witness domestic violence. "Respondents constantly argue in the presence of the children, with the children intervening and the child . . . states that she wished her parents would not argue as much," the city's neglect petition states. "As a result of the foregoing, subject children are neglected."

No matter that Consuelo had already extricated herself from a bad situation. The city continues to press the case, insisting that exposing her kids to domestic violence renders Consuelo an unfit mother. ACS wants the children taken away.

Consuelo's case is bizarre, but not unusual. The legal term for her crime is "failure to protect," and across the city mothers like Consuelo are being punished for their husbands' abuse.

It is a new and unanticipated reaction to the decades-long effort to publicize the plight of battered mothers and of children growing up in violent homes. "Increasingly in New York City, abuse and neglect proceedings are brought against battered mothers whose children are removed from them where the only allegation is their children's exposure to domestic violence," concludes a new report by the Working Group of the Child Welfare Subcommittee of the New York City Inter-agency Task Force Against Domestic Violence.

With little regard for the specifics of each situation, this is happening even in cases like Consuelo's, where the mother has already left her abuser and the kids are in no danger. Domestic violence advocates across the city report a flood of new failure-to-protect cases crossing their desks and assert that the city, in its prosecutorial zeal, is punishing victims rather than batterers, and traumatizing kids rather than rescuing them. As a result, battered women may be increasingly reluctant to reach out for help. "Knowing that they may be investigated by child protective services," the report says, "battered mothers are more likely to remain in the abusive home, isolated and afraid, so that they can remain with their children."

The task force sees the surge of "failure to protect" cases as part of a larger trend, under Mayor Giuliani, toward removing kids from their homes rather than providing services to prevent foster care placement. (The number of neglect cases filed by the city has shot up from 6658 in 1995 to 10,395 last year— a 56 percent increase.) In domestic violence cases, where no one is disputing the mother's competence, that policy can be especially cruel for kids. "Removing children re-victimizes them by increasing their fear of abandonment, while they are struggling with anger, grief, anxiety, and feelings of being responsible for the abuse," the report concludes.

According to advocates, city caseworkers typically demand that battered women leave their abusers and threaten them with the loss of their children if they don't. Meanwhile, the city's domestic violence shelters are saying, sorry, no room. Consider the women's plight: In 1997­98, the Victim Services department received 34,175 requests for shelter from domestic violence. That's an average of 38 requests a day— during a period when there were an average of only 10.6 shelter spaces available per day. And the shift from temporary shelter— for those women who are lucky enough to land a spot— to permanent housing is equally difficult. In New York City, 31 percent of abused women say they returned to their batterers primarily because they could not find permanent housing.

"The onus is always on the mother to move. That often means making the mother homeless, and making the children go through that," says Susan Lob, a domestic violence consultant. "It's a vicious cycle. If the kids are taken away from her, it's even harder to get into a shelter since women with kids have priority. And yet she can't get the kids back until she has permanent shelter."

The city, on the other hand, says its record on domestic violence is good. ACS spokesperson Leonora Wiener points to an increase in spending on domestic violence prevention (from $200,000 last year to $400,000 this year), noting that the city has hired a full-time domestic violence specialist for one of its 14 field offices and trained 400 of its 1200 ACS caseworkers about teen relationship abuse. As for the charges made in the task force's report, Wiener would say only that ACS is studying the document.

Meanwhile, though the city doesn't track the number of failure-to-protect cases it has prosecuted, anecdotal evidence— backed by family court records— continues to pile up:

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