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<xTITLE>Report from the Wingspread Conference on Domestic Violence and Family Courts</xTITLE>

Report from the Wingspread Conference on Domestic Violence and Family Courts

by Clare Dalton, Nancy Ver Steegh
April 2008

Thanks to the Association of Conciliation Courts ( for permission to republish this important report.


Although domestic violence is commonly recognized as a serious and widespread problem, there is a surprising lack of agreement about its nature, causes, frequency, and appropriate legal treatment. Researchers and practitioners who work in the field come from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds and have historically viewed domestic violence from different and sometimes competing perspectives. These differences have historically been fueled rather than resolved by research, which has employed a variety of definitions and methodologies, and, unsurprisingly, generated a variety of findings, some flatly contradictory. Acrimonious exchanges among both researchers and practitioners has tended to focus attention on contentious issues and left little room for cooperation.

Given this history, the convening of the Wingspread Conference on Domestic Violence and Family Courts is a remarkable accomplishment in itself. Recognizing that the membership of their respective organizations represented some of the contrasting perspectives described above, leaders from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) began meeting in 2004 with the hope of opening a productive dialogue about domestic violence for the ultimate benefit of children and families. As discussion progressed the two groups sought an invitation from the Johnson Foundation to hold a jointly sponsored working conference on child custody and domestic violence at the Foundation’s Wingspread facility.

The Wingspread Conference on Domestic Violence and Family Courts took place in February of 2007. It brought together a working group of thirty-seven experienced practitioners and researchers to discuss ways to meet more effectively the needs of families experiencing domestic violence. The participants included members of the domestic violence advocacy community; family court judges and administrators; lawyers, mental health, dispute resolution, and other professionals working in the family court system; and academics from the fields of law and social science. Recognizing that much can be accomplished when professional groups communicate effectively and work in concert, the conference organizers planned for a frank and wide-ranging discussion of issues related to current practice, policy, and research. At the most fundamental level, communication about domestic violence has been hindered by the fact that different professional constituencies use that term somewhat differently, and use different language to identify and analyze the range of behaviors encompassed by their particular definitions. As a result people who work in the field receive different and sometimes inconsistent messages about how to help families. Therefore, a major goal for the conference was to begin to develop a common vocabulary for, and a shared understanding of, the ways in which domestic violence manifests, and its implications for families. Other goals for the working conference included an examination of the capacity of the court system to support family safety and wellbeing; identification of ways to improve the case handling process; and consideration of how limited resources might be allocated to and among cases in which domestic violence has been identified or alleged. Given the complex and challenging nature of these aspirations, a final goal was to generate, and seek commitment from conference attendees to support, specific ongoing projects growing out of the conference agenda.

Identification of Key Tensions

Much of the work of the conference involved identification and exploration of the conceptual and practical tensions that have hampered effective work with families in which domestic violence has been identified or alleged. Each tension can be thought of as sometimes representing differences of perspective among the various constituencies involved in that work, based on their particular experiences, roles and priorities, while at other times involving the frank recognition that for all constituencies the work involves conflicting priorities, not all of which can be simultaneously accommodated. Open acknowledgement, discussion and analysis of these tensions further the goals shared by all the conference participants: developing sound public policy; implementing best practices; keeping family members safe; and fostering the wellbeing of children caught up in the family court system and dependent on that system to help shape the environment in which they will grow to adulthood.

The complete report is attached below and can also be accessed here.


Report from Wingspread Conference  (Report from the Wingspread Conference on Domestic Violence and Family Courts.pdf)
Report from Wingspread  (ReportfromWingspread.pdf)


Clare Dalton is a Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern University School of law, where she teaches torts, family law, and the law of domestic violence.  She is the founder and former executive director of Northeastern’s Domestic Violence Institute, which has received funding from multiple sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Justice, for innovative service projects, in partnership with local law enforcement, health, mental health, shelter and other community organizations and agencies.  Her recent articles address the role of family court systems in cases involving domestic violence.  She is the coauthor of Domestic Violence and the Law: Theory and Practice (2nd Ed., Foundation Press, 2008), and of Navigating Custody & Visitation Evaluations in Cases With Domestic Violence: A Judge's Guide (National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 2004, revised 2006).  She is a frequent presenter at national conferences, and in training programs for legal and other professionals working with individuals and families exposed to violence at home.  Professor Dalton earned her B.A. in Jurisprudence from Oxford University, and a Masters in Law from Harvard Law School.

Nancy Ver Steegh is a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, where she teaches family law, domestic violence law and policy, and alternative dispute resolution. Her publications include articles about child custody and domestic violence, mediation and domestic violence, children and domestic violence, and mandatory divorce education. She is the coauthor of two family law books, Work of the Family Lawyer and Family Law: Examples & Explanations. She is a frequent presenter at national conferences and is a member of the board of editors of the Family Law Quarterly and the Family Court Review, as well as serving on the board of directors of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. She has prior experience working as a legal aid lawyer representing victims of domestic violence and she has trained police, prosecutors, and judges nationwide. Professor Ver Steegh earned her J.D. from Washington University School of Law and her M.S.W. from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.