Legislature fails domestic violence survivors, no path forward for needed reforms

OLYMPIA… Earlier in the 2024 legislative session, Sen. Phil Fortunato, domestic violence survivors and advocates held a news conference outlining stark problems in the state’s family courts. The package of bills aimed to train judges, provide more protections for abuse victims – mostly women and children – and set improved standards for evidence and procedures in family court.

One of the bills, Senate Bill 5879, known as Kayden’s Law, 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 parents with whom they resist contact.

At the time, Democratic leaders were disinterested in advancing Kayden’s Law or other proposals, indicating that legislation in the House was going to be a vehicle to address concerns of domestic violence survivors, but it never happened. This past Tuesday was the final cutoff for bills to receive a floor vote and not only did majority Democrats fail to support any solutions by Fortunato, but their own “reform” bill never came to a vote.

“It’s really incredible that the party that purports to be about protecting women has failed so miserably on this issue,” Fortunato exclaimed. “I was willing to entertain working with the House and Democrats in particular to get the policy done because what’s happening now is frankly disgusting. The state’s family courts are making women with children homeless, plain and simple. While they’re focused on raising taxes or letting criminals out, we have innocent people suffering.”

National experts voiced their support of Fortunato’s efforts.

“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 Danielle Pollack, policy manager of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, who helped author the landmark federal legislation, Kayden’s Law, part of the 2022 Violence Against Women Act. “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.”

The crux of the issue in Fortunato’s family court reform is the tension between granting judges even more discretion and the outcomes for vulnerable people who are unable to appeal dangerous decisions from the bench. While survivors, national experts, and advocates wanted to provide more training and financial resources, professional associations and special interests worked behind the scenes to promote their agenda of more discretion.

“At the end of the day, you have powerful interests in the Legislature that care more about what lawyers want than the safety of our children and victims of domestic abuse,” said Fortunato. “I’m not done fighting on this issue and won’t rest until we get some serious reforms through because everyday tragedies are playing out in family court.”

The parents of Susan Powell, Chuck and Judy Cox, joined the news conference to lend their support to 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 won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the state of Washington 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.”

Fortunato’s other proposals included:

  • Senate Bill 5859 would study the court system to see if it’s working for families and what the impact is of 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.