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NOW court report lacks facts

By Wendy McElroy
web posted July 8, 2002

A "report" just released by the California chapter of NOW on the alleged abuse of women in family courts is fluff without substance.

Nevertheless, a submissive media is eating up the report and rushing to sound tired alarm bells.

"Family Court Report 2002" has the ostentatious trappings of respectable research: 134 pages; four authors, including the President of CANOW; and a self-declared "three years" of research.

What it doesn't have is evidence.

What is the FCR? It is the supporting document behind a call to revamp the family court system to eliminate purported bias against women.

The report is heavily based upon CANOW's call "for individually prepared case histories from constituents" and a "detailed questionnaire" posted on the Internet. ("Constituents" appears to be a synonym for women who approached CANOW with complaints about the family court system.) CANOW's subsequent "historical research" and "review of the often bizarre practices of judges" are based on responses from the questionnaires (p.4).

Moreover, it is the "constituent" and questionnaire data that makes the FCR news complete with a press conference rather than a university project. It is on this data that the FCR lives or dies.

It dies. The FCR has gross methodological errors that render it utterly invalid. The errors include:

A blatant political agenda. FCR opens with the statement, "the present family court system in California" is "crippled, incompetent, and corrupt" and "pathologizing, punishing and discriminating against women."

CANOW's Family Law Task Force has suggested several strategies to reform the courts to "protect" women (p.3). Although CANOW's self-description as a "political action organization" does not invalidate the report, it should raise red flags emblazoned "extra scrutiny required."

The data is self-selecting. FRC's much-touted "nearly 300" questionnaires appear to be all from women who contacted NOW over a three year period to complain about the family court system. This approach virtually ensures that all respondents will be both unhappy with the courts and sympathetic to NOW.

Ask yourself: How many women who thought the family court system was fair or who disagreed with NOW's slant would fill out a 20-page, tedious, time-consuming questionnaire? How many would even find the questionnaire that seems to have been distributed only to CANOW "constituents," or those who visit its site? The FCR is not empirical research: it is advocacy propaganda.

FCR omits crucial information as to how the questionnaire data was processed. For example, was there any means of verifying the information rendered, such as the actual circumstances of the described cases in family court? Without verification, the questionnaires become hearsay or mere testimonials. Moreover, did CANOW control for multiple submissions from the same individual? And where is an explanation of the report's sampling methods, its margin of error...? The data is worthless without such a context.

There is no presentation of data e.g., no real break down of questionnaire responses such as demographics. The "Findings" section (pp. 5-9) presents a set of conclusions about the abuse of women by the family court system but no numbers are attached.

For example, how many of the respondents answered "yes" to whether their ex-husbands or boyfriends had better legal representation? Was it two of the almost 300, or all? The significance of the "yes" answer depends upon such numbers. There is no quantitative analysis.

No information is offered on how many family court cases occurred in the alleged three-year period covered by the report. Do the approximately 300 cases constitute .02 percent, 1 percent or 10 percent of the three-year total? Anything less than three percent is statistically irrelevant and such testimonials if verified would establish only that sometimes injustice occurs.

According to the Judicial Council of California (p.44), in recent years there were over 150,000 filings and over 100,000 dispositions per annum some years were considerably higher. Three hundred selected cases spread over three years is statistically meaningless.

Footnotes are often absent or "weak."

For example, in the capsule history of family law in California, the FCR states that, before a bill changed the law in 1998, "Apparently the existing policy of the state had been to allow a batterer to obtain custody of his children by arguing the [sic] for the court's bias toward [the] 'voluntary' joint physical custody/frequent and continuing contact rule. Frighteningly, research has shown that abusers are highly successful in gaining custody of their children.[note 56]." (p. 25)

This is an extremely serious charge. But the evidence backing it up (note 56) merely cites "AB [Assembly Bill] 200" that is, the "facts" allegedly "found" by the partisan legislators or staffers who wrote the bill itself.

No data was collected from men. However bad the situation is for women in family court, the treatment of men may be much worse. Without a comparative study, there is no way to tell.

An extensive critique of the FCR's sloppiness and/or dishonesty could easily absorb 134 pages itself. But even a cursory examination should be enough to discredit the report. The media has no excuse for passing along propaganda as fact. And the fact is: after three years of research, CANOW offers no data to support its conclusions or demands.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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