Professor Merle Weiner’s proposal for a parent-partner status in American family law is novel and intriguing, and her exhaustively researched book makes a persuasive case for seriously considering the adoption of such a status. But because my principal preoccupation is intimate partner violence, I have to admit that it worries me. Weiner’s status would obligate parents to refrain from abusing each other (an obligation that already exists by virtue of both criminal and civil law, but is still too frequently breached) while at the same time requiring them to engage in relationship work both at the start of the parenting relationship and at the time when the romantic relationship ends (which assumes there has been a romantic, rather than short sexual, relationship between the parties). I immediately began to have doubts: how would the non-abuse and relationship provisions coexist in relationships marked by intimate partner violence?
Because Professor Weiner has long been thoughtful about intimate partner violence, she anticipated my concerns. In fact, Professor Weiner contends, the parent-partner status will provide greater protection for people subjected to intimate partner violence, not less. She proposes changes to both criminal and civil law that she believes would better protect parent-partners. Moreover, she makes it clear that the relationship work requires only that a parent attend counseling or an educational program at the other parent’s request. She is careful to note, too, that in the case of a child conceived through rape, the obligations between parents flow only one direction: from the rapist to the victim.
Professor Weiner argues that including the duty not to abuse in the parent-partner status sends an important normative message, recognizing both that “abuse between parent-partners is more common and more serious than violence between others in intimate relationships” and that the legal tools currently deployed to address that violence are in many ways inadequate. Professor Weiner’s solution is to expand the reach of both the civil and criminal law. On the civil side, Professor Weiner would ensure that protection orders enjoining both physical and psychological abuse are available to parent-partners from conception onward. On the criminal side, Professor Weiner would specifically criminalize parent-partner physical abuse.
Professor Weiner’s proposal to expand the definition of abuse in the context of civil protection orders recognizes the harm that psychological abuse inflicts; as she notes, many people subjected to abuse find psychological harm much more damaging than physical violence. Some states already authorize the entry of protective orders for some forms psychological abuse, and many scholars have argued that legal definitions of domestic violence should include psychological abuse. Nonetheless, there is reason to be cautious about embracing the proposal, as Professor Weiner recognizes. Without carefully defining what constitutes psychological abuse, some fear that an expanded definition of abuse could fail to distinguish between coercively controlling psychological abuse and garden variety nagging or name-calling. Extending eligibility for protective orders too broadly could also create unnecessary family litigation and overwhelm the courts, leaving judges with even less time and patience with which to address cases of serious intimate partner violence. Professor Weiner has more faith than I do that state legislators can and will craft these definitions in a way that will target only the behavior she hopes to capture, without creating a tool that perpetrators of intimate partner violence can use to harass and abuse their partners.
Professor Weiner also proposes that states create a new crime of abuse of a parent-partner. Professor Weiner notes that there is an ongoing debate about the efficacy of the criminal justice response to domestic violence. Since 1984, criminal justice interventions have been the primary response to domestic violence in the United States, a policy choice bolstered by the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money have been poured into the criminal justice system since 1994. And rates of domestic violence have fallen since 1994. Between 1994 and 2000, rates of domestic violence fell in tandem with the decrease in the overall crime rate; between 2000 and 2010, however, rates of domestic violence fell less than the decrease in the overall crime rate, notwithstanding the money and effort dedicated to the criminal justice response. There is no social science evidence to suggest that the criminal justice response has had an appreciable impact on domestic violence rates or has deterred abusers from committing acts of violence. Moreover, some scholars have argued that criminalization does more harm than good, both in the way that the legal system imposes itself upon victims of violence and in the damage done to perpetrators, many of whom are low income men of color, and their communities.
While Weiner sidesteps the issue of the efficacy of the criminal justice response, stating that “the wisdom of making the parent-partner relationship more relevant to the prosecution of behavior that is already criminal is a separate issue from whether a criminal law response is appropriate at all,” the act of proposing a new crime shows Weiner’s faith in the power of criminal justice intervention. Expanding the criminal law gives credence to the idea that criminal justice interventions are effective in addressing intimate partner violence. But there is no reason to believe that creating a new crime based on the parent-partner status will be any more of a deterrent than the prospect of incarceration for the many intimate partner violence crimes currently on the books has been. Diverting time and attention away from developing alternatives to the ineffectual criminal justice response to intimate partner violence by putting that effort into passing new criminal laws is simply bad policy and will not benefit the parents or children that Weiner hopes to help.
The parent-partner status could significantly benefit one category of victims of intimate partner abuse, however. Recognizing a parent-partner status could decrease the stigma experienced by women who want to maintain relationships with their abusive current or former partners or who appreciate their partners’ parenting skills even if they don’t want to stay in relationships. Many people subjected to abuse want to continue to have some relationship with their partners—they simply want the violence to stop. Professor Weiner recognizes this reality, and her suggestion that all states provide protective orders that allow for continued contact between the parties while enjoining further violence is a good one.
The requirement that parent-partners engage in relationship work raises obvious concerns. Professor Weiner is careful to note that one parent cannot force the other to remain in the relationship, and that “the educators and counselors must ensure that batterers are not using the obligation of relationship work as a way t gain access to and control over the other parent.” But even the requirement that a parent attend an information session will feel unduly onerous to a victim of violence who does not want to have any contact with a former partner and who knows that the abuser is using the requirement to harass or harm or fears that somehow, the abusive partner will be able to establish contact through the relationship work requirement. Allowing victims of violence to opt out of the relationship work requirements seems to me the only way to ensure that people subjected to abuse are truly protected from the harm that this requirement could cause.
A consensus that American family law should be organized around children’s well-being, and that ensuring well-being requires strengthening connections between parents, seems to be emerging among family law scholars. Professor Weiner comprehensively lays out the case for taking this approach, and in many ways, her argument is persuasive. But there are downsides to this choice, and one of them is the relative lack of concern for the rights and interests of adults, particularly adults who have been subjected to domestic violence. Although we pay lip service to protecting parents who have been subjected to abuse, a number of recent child-centered developments in the family courts, including friendly parent provisions, custody evaluation, parenting coordination, and mediation, have been criticized as not sufficiently attentive to the needs of victims of violence. As Professor Weiner acknowledges, although most courts purport to screen for domestic violence prior to ordering these services, screening is often slipshod, and many people subjected to abuse choose, for whatever reason, not disclose to court personnel.
Professor Weiner urges us to move forward with her proposals although “[u]ncertainties remain and unanswered questions exist.” And she’s right that if we wait to answer every question, change will never be made. Nonetheless, however appealing the theory is, without some certainty as to the effectiveness of the measures Professor Weiner proposes to protect people subjected to abuse, it may be difficult for those of us concerned about these issues to seriously commit to the parent-partner status.