Mothers who reported abuse say Utah’s family court system is failing their kids 

Jan 29, 2024, 10:46 PM | Updated: Jan 30, 2024, 3:45 pm

PROVO – One Utah County mother says it wasn’t until after her divorce – and out of concern for her youngest child – that she felt safe telling police about the times she says her ex-husband flew into a rage and choked her and her teenager.  

Another says she was worried about her kids’ safety when she told deputies that her former husband seemed intoxicated and cocked a handgun when she went downstairs to retrieve their young child.   

The two moms told the KSL Investigators they now feel like they’re the ones on trial while they fight to keep custody of their children in Utah’s family court system. 

In both cases, the ex-husband suing for custody of the kids contends the mother is harming their children by alienating them from the father. 

“I think that a child’s best interest is actually third in the consideration and the parents come first,” mom Shaynie Hunter said. “I don’t think that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but I think that’s the outcome of what ends up happening.” 

Hunter, of Elk Ridge, and Tatum Merrill, of Lehi, are joining other parents in Utah and beyond who say the family court system isn’t giving evidence of domestic violence due weight and is placing kids in the care of dangerous parents.   

They say it leaves children vulnerable and the parents reporting physical or sexual abuse – usually mothers – at risk of losing custody altogether.  

“The whole point is justice and to heal, to make it better,” Merrill said of the courts. “So, when you have a system that does the opposite and makes it worse, what kind of a message is that sending?” 

A ‘legal weapon’ 

In custody battles, the theory of parental alienation – that one parent is trying to turn the kids against the other – is commonly raised in response to claims of abuse, said David Corwin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah’s medical school.  

He says this can improperly discount other reasons a child may try to avoid a parent, including abuse or neglect. 

“It’s very useful as a legal weapon,” Corwin told KSL. “Many judges, I think, find it easier to believe that parents would be malicious and would lie and try to get their kids to make false claims.” 

Dr. David Corwin, former president of American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children says theories of parental alienation can improperly discount other reasons a child may try to avoid a parent, including abuse or neglect. (Josh Szymanik, KSL-TV)

There’s no question that some parents badmouth the other spouse, especially in a contentious divorce, Corwin said, but that’s not the only explanation of why a child might reject a parent. He said other potential reasons must be vetted.   

A report from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council calls parental alienation a “pseudo-concept” and recommends states limit its use in family law cases. 

“The tendency to dismiss the history of domestic violence and abuse in custody cases extends to cases where mothers and/or children themselves have brought forward credible allegations of physical or sexual abuse,” the report states.  

And a different analysis funded by the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed ten years of family court cases, finding the theory has had a powerful impact. It determined that when mothers raise allegations of abuse, their odds of losing custody nearly double, from 26% when fathers don’t claim alienation up to 50% when they do.  

“Mothers accused of alienation have to go into pretzel bends to subject their children to someone they think is dangerous,” said Joan Meier, the paper’s author and director of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School. 

A push for reform  

State Sen. Mike Mckell, R-Spanish Fork, said he’s concerned about these cases.    

“We’ve got a kind of a creative group down here that are that are using the legal system to kind of perpetuate abuse on some of these women that have been abused,” McKell said.  

Outside of his job as a lawmaker, Mckell’s an attorney at the same law firm as Hunter. After hearing about her experience and those of other parents, he’s sponsoring a reform bill named for Om Gandhi, the 16-year-old Utah boy shot by his father last year after a decadelong custody case. 

The measure — “Om’s Law” — would demand that a child’s safety be the no 1. priority and that judges consider evidence of abuse in custody decisions. It would also require the courts to explore more training for judges and commissioners on the nuances of domestic violence.  

Harms to children 

Attorney Ron Wilkinson represents both Shaynie Hunter and Tatum Merrill’s ex-husbands. He declined to talk in specifics about their ongoing cases but said a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  

“I’m certainly not trying to use junk science, and I don’t think the court would accept junk science,” Wilkinson said. “I’m using descriptive words to describe an event that we believe is occurring, where one parent is not supporting the relationship with another parent.” 

He says this sort of behavior, whether it be alienation, diminishing or not supporting a child’s relationship with the other parent, is harmful.  

“You could have an abusive parent on one hand and an alienating parent on the other hand,” Wilkinson said. “Both of those are going to cause damage to a child.”  

Asked which is worse, Wilkinson replied, “I don’t know. I think for every situation, it may be different.”  

Wilkinson said he’s served as a guardian ad litem, an attorney appointed to look after the best interest of kids. In that role, he said he’s heard from children that certain comments from adults were harder to cope with than a slap or other instance of abuse.  

Shaynie’s son Trey Hunter, now 19, told KSL it was his choice to stop spending time with his father years ago, and that he did so against his mom’s advice.  

“I was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of this. I don’t want to deal with this anymore,’” Trey Hunter said.   

Wilkinson argued in an October court hearing that Shaynie Hunter was to blame.  

“The older two children are estranged from him, we believe due to the actions of the mother,” Wilkinson said, according to audio of the hearing. 

Allegations of abuse  

Both mothers say they still have concerns about their kids’ safety.  

A 2021 pediatrician’s report noted Merrill’s child, now 8, has “significant developmental delays that appear to be exacerbated by negative childhood experiences.” The doctor recommended that a no-contact order between the father and child “should remain in place until the courts determine the specifics of this case.” 

That determination hasn’t happened yet. Chadd Pither is scheduled to go on trial in March for charges of child abuse alleging he choked Merrill’s oldest son in 2018 and again in 2019. He’s pleaded not guilty in the case.  

Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services investigated the same alleged incidents. It found the allegation of physical abuse of the boy to be “supported.” DCFS similarly substantiated findings of “domestic violence-related child abuse” of all three children in the home. 

According to the DCFS report, Pither stated he put the oldest child in a headlock in order to defend himself and said he and Merrill had “been physical in the past” but denied any domestic violence. 

Shaynie Hunter’s ex-husband, Jonathan Scott Hunter, pleaded no contest in 2018 to a reduce charge after prosecutors said he slapped Trey despite a protective order prohibiting this sort of violence. In a separate incident, he was accused of charging at deputies called to the home and leaving a loaded gun in a room with their youngest child. He later had the cases expunged. 

Shaynie Hunter reported to DCFS that in 2021 her ex turned on a clothes dryer with their youngest child inside, causing the boy chronic neck pain. DCFS determined the report was “unsupported,” finding “there was no sufficient evidence to show that the father intended to cause harm.” 

In a statement to KSL provided by his attorney, he denies all allegations made by his ex-wife. 

“I am a father who loves and cherishes our kids,” the statement says. “I am blessed to have had the resources and willpower to keep going when others may have been forced to give up.  And that is why, after seven years, I look forward to having my voice and my full story heard in court, which, I believe, is the proper venue.” 

Extreme outcomes 

Through interviews and examining court records, the KSL Investigators found multiple cases with allegations of abuse on one side and claims of parental alienation on the other. Often, these court cases drag on for years, stalling custody decisions.  

In one example, two siblings in Utah county barricaded themselves in their mother’s house, defying a court order to reunite with their father, who they say sexually abused them.    

Merrill’s case is also an extreme example. Her ex-husband faces criminal charges, but so far, it’s Merrill who’s spent time behind bars. She was ordered to serve five days in jail for contempt of court in their custody case. 

Tatum Merrill hugs a supporter after being released from the Utah County Jail in August 2023. (Ken Fall, KSL-TV)

“She’s been unreasonable and has continued to deny father’s visits,” said 4th District Judge Christine Johnson shortly before ordering the mother to jail. “She’s continued to alienate the child from father.”  

The judge found Merrill violated court orders by inappropriately interfering with parent time for her ex, something Merrill strongly denies.  

Johnson also lifted a requirement that the boy’s time with his father be supervised. The judge did not mention the ongoing criminal case. 

“It’s abusive – mentally abusive – to impose upon the child the acrimony that mother feels for father to try and inject that into the relationship that the child has with his father,” Johnson said from the bench.   

Merrill left her young son with her parents in August before reporting to the Utah County Jail, crying and hugging family members and friends before the metal door to the facility closed behind her.  

“It should be jarring to anybody that we would send this mother to jail for five days,” said her attorney, Jess Couser.    

Merrill and her attorney say the highly unusual outcome was born of a legal mess: inaccuracies throughout three years of court filings, along with vague and conflicting orders between the custody case and the separate criminal proceeding for Pither.    

“The effect of that is that Tatum was sentenced to five days in jail for something she didn’t do,” Couser said. 

For example, Merrill said Johnson ordered during a 2021 court hearing that the boy’s time to celebrate Christmas with his father “be arranged,” but she said the judge didn’t specify which parent should do so. Merrill was eventually held in contempt – at her ex’s urging – after a court commissioner found she violated court orders by failing to set up that visitation.  

Tatum Merrill talks about her experience in an ongoing child custody case. (Josh Szymanik, KSL-TV)

In court filings, Merrill’s attorney said this chain of events is part of a pattern.   

“Father has successfully played a shell game with the court and with Tatum, claiming that orders exist in one place when they don’t and enticing courts to enter vague and incomplete orders based on those misrepresentations,” Merrill’s attorney wrote in court papers. “The result is that Tatum has been sentenced to serve five days in jail for violating orders that did not exist or that were vague to the point of being unenforceable.”    

Wilkinson disagreed, telling KSL, “It isn’t true.”  

He elaborated in a court filing: “Tatum was appropriately held in contempt for interfering with Chadd’s parent time and not abiding by the court’s orders, and she continues to defy the court’s orders to get what she wants, regardless of what is in (the child’s) best interest.”   

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Utah courts said judges and court commissioners aren’t permitted to speak about specific cases.  

Both Merrill and Shaynie Hunter said they want to see Utah adopt the legislative proposal after California and Colorado enacted similar measures.  

“I’m hoping that more people can become educated through my story,” Merrill said.  

McKell, the bill sponsor, agreed.  

“Best-case scenario,” he said, “we’re going to have better guardrails and more transparency.” 

A hearing for the legislative proposal has not yet been set.  

 Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you. 

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Mothers who reported abuse say Utah’s family court system is failing their kids