Fortunato, local and national advocates push family court reforms

Failure to pass Kayden’s Law jeopardizes federal funding and children’s safety

Flanked by victims and advocates at a news conference in Olympia on Thursday, state Sen. Phil Fortunato outlined his vision to reform the state’s failing family courts. Included in the package are bills aimed at training judges, providing more protections for abuse victims – mostly women and children – and setting improved standards for evidence and procedures in family court.

One of the bills, Senate Bill 5879, known as Kayden’s Law, which has a companion bill in the House, would make Washington eligible for substantial federal funding to train judges and restrict unproven, unsafe “reunification” treatments that force children to be with a dangerous parent and/or parent with whom they resist contact.

Fortunato’s other proposals include:

  • Senate Bill 5859 would study the court system to see if it’s working for families and what the impact is for having separate judges involved in various aspects of divorce proceedings;
  • Senate Bill 5861, called the Survivors and Families Empowerment Act, would put in place comprehensive reforms to evidence rules, enforcement of child support, and training for court staff;
  • Senate Bill 5863 would prohibit certain accounts from being reported to credit bureaus that result from a divorce; and
  • Senate Bill 5868 would require the administrative office of the courts to update the family-law handbook annually and would include more resources for people interacting with the system. The book hasn’t been updated since 2015.

“At the end of the day, this is a no-brainer. I understand it’s a short session, but this is one of those kinds of laws that we must do on so many levels,” said Fortunato, R-Auburn. “Not doing these reforms and passing the congressionally enacted Kayden’s Law provisions in Washington state is putting lives at risk and it’s preventable. We can and need to get this across the finish line this year.”

Danielle Pollack, policy manager of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, helped author the landmark federal legislation, Kayden’s Law, part of the 2022 Violence Against Women Act. She joined Fortunato and local advocates to urge a hearing on the proposal, which has been recognized by United Nations experts as a model for protecting women and children in domestic violence situations in the family court context.

To date, Kayden’s Law is not scheduled for a public hearing, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding at risk, and even worse, maintaining the status quo where children are too often being court-ordered into the custody and control of an abuser parent – and then being harmed, and sometimes killed.

“Keeping children safe from family violence is a nonpartisan matter, and the provisions within Kayden’s Law are common-sense solutions to some of the most intransigent problems in family courts,” said Pollack. “I hope that Washington state lawmakers will come together and take this opportunity to be national leaders on the issue, as Colorado has just done, and as many other states around the U.S. are moving toward.”

Survivors of domestic violence and advocates shared their stories and how the proposals would make a meaningful difference in protecting women and children.

The parents of Susan Powell, Chuck and Judy Cox, joined the news conference to lend their support of Kayden’s Law. Their grandchildren and daughter were victims of a tragic domestic violence dispute that resulted in the murder of the children by their abusive father. The Coxes recently won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Washington state for negligence resulting from the kinds of failings in family courts that Fortunato’s proposals would address.

“I believe that had we had something like Kayden’s Law, things would be very different for our family,” said Chuck Cox. “Judges need to be trained properly.”

Local survivor-turned-victims-advocate Dana Tingey has been working with lawmakers and other stakeholders to make Kayden’s Law and other needed reforms a reality. Having helped over 300 victims, Tingey sees firsthand the deficiencies and tragic outcomes. She started High Ground Divorces to coach and support other survivors through the family court maze.

“I lived through family court, and I never would have imagined how bad it is,” Tingey explained. “Most judges and court professionals whose opinion matters in these cases, such as custody evaluators, have no evidence-based training, no idea how to recognize patterns of power and control, no idea who is the abusive party. Add to that, bias and unscientific theories being used to minimize abuse evidence and you have a recipe for disaster. Kayden’s Law could fix so much of what is wrong in our family courts.”

Another survivor and advocate, Shira Cole started the organization People Advancing Youth Equity and Safety (PAYES) to advocate for children in the courts. She said of the efforts, Survivors of domestic violence know very well how dysfunctional family court is. Kayden’s Law focuses light on the troubling tendencies to dismiss allegations of abuse, punish the survivor, and even place children in the custody of an abuser.”

The 2024 legislative session is only 60 days, and the first deadline is fast approaching. Kayden’s Law was referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which must act by Jan. 31 for it to have a chance at passing the Legislature and reaching the governor’s desk.