Crimes of Violence

Analysis of high-profile crimes of violence of psychological significance

Josh Powell, Dangerous Men, Child Visitation and Joint Custody Laws

A murder-suicide that could have been prevented


Almost the same moment that the media reported the horrific murder-suicide of suspected wife killer, Josh Powell, and his two sons, the British government announced new legislation to back "shared parenting" and give divorced fathers more rights. The Josh Powell case, although the custody issue was somewhat different, epitomizes the risks involved in catering to the fathers' rights movement.

The key psychological factor relevant to Josh Powell's behavior was the issue of control. From what we learn of his wife's situation before her disappearance two years ago, the wife was threatened and thought she could handle the matter herself. The control issue came to the surface again when the children's grandparents were given custody of the children. This happened because Powell's father, who lived in the home, was arrested for voyeurism and pornography. Then during a supervised visitation, the younger Powell blew them all up. As the grandparents later stated, Powell was controlling with the children, and didn't want anyone else to have them.

Custody and visitation disputes are one of the arenas where victimization of women and children is most likely to occur. Control issues come to a head in fights over the children. The situation is rife for psychological abuse as well as violence.

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The fathers' rights movement includes good fathers who want to play more active roles with their children. Most fathers, however, do not contest the mother's right to custody and work out agreements for their time with the kids. But of those who do, some are men with histories of wife abuse. And in such cases, the mother is at high risk of loss of custody now that the states (since the 1980s) have adopted a more or less gender blind system for awarding custody of small children to fathers in many of the contested cases.

Keep in mind that the man can more often afford to hire a lawyer than the mother. The father more often having a well-paying job, and a new wife or sometimes a mother who can care for the child, may appear to be in a better position to take responsibility than would the ex-wife as a single, working mother. And in domestic violence situations in which police have made dual arrests, the woman is in serious jeopardy of losing custody of her children. Moreover, battering by the husband is often overlooked if the wife has flaws such as a drinking problem or a poor work history.

It is common for courts to rule that the father's violence toward the mother has no effect on the children. And yet, research shows that batterers who use violence against intimate partners also use it against children, and even more so after separation.

The fact that fathers have obtained much more clout in family and divorce court than they ever had previously can be viewed as part of an anti-feminist backlash against the women's equality movement. The reality is that a growing number of abusive men are succeeding in using claims of ‘‘parental alienation'' to gain greater access to the children as well as to their ex-wives.

Fathers with a history of battering are twice as likely to seek the sole physical custody of their children as are nonviolent fathers. Thanks to the Internet, this movement of divorced men and their second wives for new laws favorable to the father is sweeping the United States and much of the western world. Under the guise of supporting more active roles for fathers in the lives of their children, male consciousness-raising groups advocate for legislation to require that divorcing parents have joint custody of their children. Lawyers and judges generally oppose legislation for forced joint custody as conflict-invoking and harmful to children torn between fighting parents.

Josh Powell , although the only suspect in his wife's disappearance, was allowed to have visitation rights in his own home with his children. The grandparents saw several red flags and feared that if crossed, their son-in-law would do something drastic. At the least, a man who is thought to have killed his wife should hardly be regarded to be a fit parent for his children. Think of the O.J. Simpson case. After he was found non-guilty (a verdict which only refers to doubts about the level of proof), he was awarded full custody of his children. Josh Powell, similarly maintained custody of his children and only lost it six months ago because of a pornography investigation. It is time that children be protected from men thought to be dangerous to their wives.

 

Katherine van Wormer, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., is the author or co-author of 14 books on various aspects of human behavior.

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