Preventing child abuse in custody cases
Fourteen-year-old Shayna Blumenfeld of Port Washington, from home, appeared virtually in front of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Forensic Custody Evaluators, expressing the importance of making child safety the top priority in custody cases.
Shayna is a youth ambassador for Kyra’s Champions, an organization that works to pass laws to protect children in child custody cases that could protect children like Kyra Franchetti, a 2-year-old from Manhasset who died in a tragic murder-suicide by her father in 2016.
The founder of the organization, Jacqueline Franchetti, had pled numerous times to the New York Family Court System for sole custody, but she was ignored. To prevent such a tragedy from happening again, Kyra’s Champions advocates for a set of laws included in Kyra’s Laws. Facets of Kyra’s Law include making child safety the top priority in custody and divorce cases, an action passed in 2018, and the establishment of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Forensic Evaluators which works to explore the role of forensic evaluators in child custody cases. Pending laws include established supervised visit guidelines and training for forensic child custody evaluators.
“I am 14-years-old and I am here to be a voice for all the children that our family court system is currently failing; children who do not have a voice of their own and children who are not with us today,” Shayna said before the commission during the Sept. 9 public hearing. “You may think I am too young to have a say. After all, what could I know? I am 14. Well I do know a few things.”
Shayna went on to say that she does know that the judicial system is failing her friends, including Franchetti, a grieving mother. She also knows that child safety must be the number one priority in child custody cases, something child advocates like Shayna and Franchetti argue is often overlooked.
“So let’s talk numbers,” Shayna said. “Eighty-seven. In New York State, we have a child abuse rate that is 87 percent higher than the rest of the country. Six. The maximum hours of training it takes in New York State to determine the fate of a child. That’s less than a school day. Five. The number of children that died today because of child abuse. Two. The number of birthdays those children will get to celebrate before they die from child abuse, of which 80 percent will be murdered at the hand of their own mom or dad. One, the number of people it takes to make change.”
Kyra, Shayna said, was a 2-year-old child murdered by her own father while going through a child custody case on Long Island.
“The forensic evaluator in Kyra’s case dismissed any and all claims of family violence, even though Kyra’s mother was pointing out that her father was dangerous,” Shayna said. “They even dismissed that Kyra’s father had just purchased two guns, one of which was the very gun used to kill little Kyra. And yet, the forensic evaluator still recommended joint custody. How is this even possible?”
Had the forensic evaluator in the case received more thorough and effective training, they could have acted appropriately when presented the red flags in this case, she argued.
“Let’s return to that number I said before, 87,” Shayna said. “In New York State, we have a child abuse rate that is 87 percent higher than the rest of the country. So what should be done? What has bothered me the most about Kyra’s untimely death? I’m only 14-years-old and even I can figure out the answer to both these questions is training. Children’s safety must come first and remain at the heart of every decision being made regarding their custody. End of discussion.”
In recent years, at least 743 children have been murdered in New York. Shayna and her friends, to honor their memories, have planted 743 blue pinwheels in Port Washington. And the worst part, Shayna said, is that more pinwheels will be added when they plant them again next year.
But right now, despite these numbers, the emphasis on child safety is overlooked when in Upstate New York, there are zero hours of training required to make a “life and death decision,” Shayna said, on behalf of a child in a custody case. Downstate requires six hours of training. “I would undergo more hours of training to work in a fast food restaurant or to work as the cashier at my local supermarket than a court evaluator would to determine the fate of a child,” Shayna said.
Franchetti said she was proud of Shayna, and that her testimony impacted those who heard it.
“She was the only minor who spoke and she had everyone’s hearts and minds and souls by the way she spoke,” Franchetti said. “She was incredibly eloquent and incredibly persuasive and I hope she motivated everyone to action based on what she said.”
It was because of Franchetti’s advocacy, and those who support her like Shayna, that the Blue Ribbon Commission on Forensic Custody Evaluators was launched. “These are mental health professionals that are used in child custody cases very frequently, especially in our area, and there are many problems with them,” Franchetti said, referencing the issues Shayna discussed during her testimony. “At the hearing [on Sept. 9] were a lot of parents. Not one person, by the way, of the [approximately] 20 people who spoke, was in favor of using forensic evaluators because they do not have the proper skills, the proper training and they are making mistakes.”
Domestic violence and child advocates, Franchetti noted, should be conducting the reports used in child custody cases, if done at all.
“I’ll use my case with Kyra as an example: we would have been much better off just going to trial,” Franchetti said. “A lot of these things are factual based. The abuse would have come out at trial. And what abusers are very good at doing is taking these forensic evaluations and throwing in lies, here-say and things that didn’t even happen and throwing them into these reports.”
When asked how she is feeling in finally being able to tell her daughter’s story after years of advocacy in front of federal, state and local officials, Franchetti, choked up by tears, said she wished she did not have to tell the story at all.
To learn more about Kyra’s Champions, visit kyraschampions.org. To learn more about the Blue Ribbon Commission on Forensic Custody, visit ocfs.ny.gov/main/news/article.php?idx=2247.