An upstate domestic violence survivor has accused a family court judge of violating her rights by awarding custody of her teen son to her abusive ex — and she claims other female litigants are facing similar fates, an explosive federal lawsuit alleges.
Author and family child advocate Francesca Amato said Ulster County Family Court Judge Anthony McGinty placed her son with a father, who has a 15-page criminal background and now lives in a “one bedroom cottage with 8 people,” according to a federal lawsuit recently filed in the Northern District of New York.
She provided The Post copies of his criminal rap sheet, which included one felony, and five misdemeanors since 1992.
Yet, the teen remains in the custody of his father and allegedly lives in a dangerous neighborhood, per the complaint.
Amato also alleges that McGinty ignored bruises the father purportedly inflicted on their son in January, according to the federal complaint.
“This [custody swap] was sudden and abrupt and caused and continues to cause both of us extreme suffering and harm,” said Amato, who lives on a five-acre property and was her 13-year-old son’s primary caretaker since birth, except for two instances when McGinty ordered her son to live with his dad.
Amato, who published “Punished 4 Protecting,” further alleges that other mothers and children who fled abuse face similar ordeals in McGinty’s family court.
“Anthony McGinty has a history of court orders that change custody to abusive fathers and remove them from safe, loving caretakers with an extreme gender bias against mothers,” Amato, who is in her early 50s, alleged in the lawsuit.
The Post has spoken to four other female domestic violence victims who have not been allowed to regain full custody of their children, despite pleas to McGinty.
Three, including Amato, are still desperately fighting to steer their children back home while two have decided to quietly settle out of court.
Attorney Joshua Douglass believes Ulster County Family Court had no grounds to remove the children from his clients, Amato, Alana Orr, 39, and Deidre Mayr, 37. His three clients are all domestic violence victims who have agreed to share their traumatic experiences and sensitive medical and court records with the Post.
Domestic violence survivor Alana Orr has a pending 2017 federal lawsuit against McGinty, which previously included plaintiffs Amato, Gina Funk, 47, and social worker Jillian Gordon. The court has only allowed Orr’s case to move forward and McGinty is expected to be deposed on the matter today in Syracuse.
“There is information out there that women who complain that the fathers of their children are abusive have a higher likelihood of losing custody so I believe that the family court system certainly needs significant reform so that we can protect mothers and children who have been traumatized,” Douglass said.
Orr alleges McGinty knew or should have known about the father’s purported history of domestic violence and child abuse before allowing him custodial time with their now 11-year-old daughter in 2016.
“The Defendant Judges seized custody of my child without ever completing a trial, and without ever allowing me the opportunity to be heard,” she said in a letter submitted to the Northern District of New York federal court.
Orr told the Post she severed a volatile relationship with her daughter’s father and, like many abuse victims, continues to suffer from PTSD.
She raised her daughter from 2012 until 2015 and turned to family court in 2013 seeking custody and orders of protections against her ex.
In 2016, Orr claimed in court that the father was abusing their child, which the father disputed, according to her federal complaint. Despite telling authorities about physical, emotional and sexual abuse against the child, Orr alleges that McGinty failed to conduct a proper investigation, the federal complaint states. (Orr also sued another judge in the same complaint but that was later dismissed.)
“The status quo was that I had full and sole custody of my child and thus an ability to protect her,” Orr stated in the letter. “The status quo was interrupted when the defendants violated laws, failed to accommodate me for my PTSD as a domestic violence survivor and crime victim, and conspired to deprive me of my constitutional, fundaments rights and liberties…”
Orr charged in the lawsuit that McGinty dismissed all of her family offense petitions without cause.
“Nothing was done to protect my daughter because McGinty does not want to hear about allegations of abuse or see the evidence,” Orr told the Post. “He wants to silence us.”
In family court, a judge ultimately decides whether allegations are true and the children are represented by law attorneys, usually appointed by the court.
The women told The Post they believe that the children’s attorneys in these cases have failed to adequately represent their kids.
Domestic violence advocates and family law experts said what appears to be playing out in this Ulster County Family courtroom is not that unusual. On a national scale, domestic violence survivors often find themselves on the losing end of high-conflict custody battles. In child custody cases involving domestic abuse, the alleged abuser often weaponizes the court system and uses the child as a pawn.
Domestic violence advocates believe family courts lack specialized domestic violence training and disproportionately favor men over women.
George Washington University Law school professor Joan S. Meier conducted a 2019 study funded by the National Institute of Justice and found that women who report abuse in family court are at increased risk of losing their child.
“More often than not, women who report abuse in family court are not believed and the disbelief is far greater when they report child abuse,” Meier said, adding that her study revealed that mothers who report child abuse lose custody 30 to 50 percent of the time.
Victoria Gribbin, a social worker and former NYPD officer who assists abused women in family court as a disability (ADA) advocate, believes family courts are in much need of reform. She said family courts in New York should apply the stricter Daubert standard when determining the admissibility of expert witnesses instead of current standards which she said are poor.
“In family court, allegations of domestic violence can be easily manipulated by the abuser and turn into he said, she said. Because there is an inherent distrust in women that comes from the patriarchal structure that still exists in the court system, the courts give more credence to what men say,” Gribbin said.
A spokesman for the state’s Office of Court Administration, insisted that Family Courts have to navigate complex, emotionally charged cases and decisions are always guided by the child’s best interests.
“While it is inevitable that not all parties involved will be pleased with the outcome, and every case is unique, there are always multiple factors that must be considered,” court administration spokesman Lucian Chalfen said in response to the women’s allegations.
Deidre Mayr says she was hospitalized after her ex-boyfriend was arrested for brutally assaulting her in 2009.
Mayr had custody of their now 11-year-old-girl and 14-year-old boy until 2016. She continues to fight for custody and while she has repeatedly filed petitions asking for help, she feels she has only been retaliated against and has even been charged with endangering the welfare of a child and other crimes, despite initially raising abuse allegations in court. Douglass is fighting to drop the charges, which he feels have no legal basis.
“I am so scared,” Mayr said. “This is a nightmare I can’t believe is happening. No one is helping my children and I am being punished for speaking out.”
Licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Jillian Gordon once served as an expert family court witness in Amato’s custody case and has provided services to multiple women and children whose cases were overseen by McGinty.
Gordon, whose speciality is trauma, said family court judges often misinterpret the women’s trauma in court and resulting PTSD as evidence of emotional instability.
“They do not understand that an abuse survivor is not going to be all tucked in all the time. When you’re surviving abuse trying to protect your child, you go to family court so the court can protect you and your children and instead they continue to inflict the same abuse,” Gordon fumed.
“I know all these mothers and they are good women who love and care for their children. There is no valid reason they should have lost custody,” Gordon said. She has worked on several high-profile cases, and is currently assisting the siblings of 8-year-old Thomas Valva, who was allegedly killed and abused by his father and his fiancé. Valva’s mother claims her concerns of abuse were not adequately addressed in family court.
It is difficult for these women to face their abuser in family court. Even in these high-conflict cases, the litigants are expected to eventually co-parent successfully but for women who fled toxic relationships, that is very unlikely, according to domestic violence advocates and family law experts.
In Mayr’s case, Douglass said he was shocked when McGinty merely recommended both parties place their children in therapy rather than just ordering it.
Gina Funk fled to a domestic violence shelter in 2014 with her two children because she said the father mistreated her and their two children. She feels the court failed to protect her when she was forced to disclose the shelter and schools the children were attending, her federal lawsuit, which has also been dismissed, claims. Funk was the primary caregiver until 2015 when McGinty granted sole custody to the father and severely restricted Funk’s time with her children to eight hours on Sunday, according to the complaint.
She alleges that this “endangered and compromised the well-being of the Plaintiff minors and deprived Plaintiff Funk of her parental legal rights, regarding the medical, legal, religious and educational decisions of her children,” according to the federal lawsuit that has since been dismissed.
Funk has since decided to drop her case from family court altogether and agreed on a parenting schedule with her children’s father but is still traumatized from the experience.
Another woman who was previously physically and emotionally abused by her ex-partner and whose name is being withheld, showed the Post multiple orders of protection she and her daughters had against their father.
The 46-year-old mother initially had full custody of her girls but slowly the father began requesting more time with them until the court eventually granted him unsupervised visitation. In 2019, the mom rushed her then six-year-old daughter to the doctor, suspecting her ex was sexually abusing her, after spotting blood in her underwear and toilet. In a family court petition she showed the Post, she alleged sexual misconduct.
As a result of the incident, she said she stopped letting him see the girls and he filed motions charging her with violating his visitation.
“There was no way I was going to allow him to see the girls unsupervised after that. The judge didn’t seem to care so I had to do something ” she said.
Months later, McGinty shifted custody to the father. She was not present for the hearing due to a medical emergency, according to medical records she provided.
After the surprise custody order, she claims she left the hospital against medical advice because her ex had been ordered to pick up the children from school and she was aware he had no means of doing so. She raced to the school and grabbed the children with his permission.
The shaken mother said they have each agreed to vacate all their petitions but she is afraid he can still use the courts to seek revenge.
“I’ve had them ever since I picked them up that day but I’m afraid because he keeps threatening to take me back to court,” she said.
When reached by phone, McGinty declined comment and referred to Mr. Chalfen.
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