Teen hopes her story will encourage lawmakers to require more domestic violence training for court personnel

Posted at 6:53 PM, Mar 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-10 20:53:03-05

DENVER — It takes courage for a teenager to speak up, especially when she is trying to tell authorities about abuse allegations against her father.

When her parents divorced in 2019, Elina Asensio, then 14, says at first, she and her two siblings split time between her mother and father’s house. Over the months, though, Asensio’s relationship with her father became tense.

“He just started getting more and more aggressive. He got more and more angry over just everyday things. If he had a bad day at work, that was my fault,” Elina said.

As things got worse, Elina says she tried to speak up to her counselors and to the Department of Human Services (DHS) personnel who would come to her house, but they wouldn’t believe her.

“Every single time, they downplayed it in one way or another. They defended my dad and just told me that this was me being defiant,” she said.

One day, things between Elina and her father reached a boiling point.

According to a police report, Elina overslept her alarm for school and her dad got mad at her. He then grabbed her by the necklace and dragged her up a flight of stairs.

“I just looked down after a particularly bad fight, and I see just my neck was stinging. So, I want to I looked in the bathroom, and there's just a long line through my entire neck,” she said. “The only thing I felt was relief that he had finally hurt me enough for someone to believe me.”

The incident resulted in Elina's father being charged with felony child abuse. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.

When families go through tense divorces and child custody disputes, a licensed psychologist or social worker can sometimes be brought in to help make recommendations for where the children should be placed.

“They're called in sometimes in really high conflict, but just really any kind of conflict, domestic relations cases. So, just where parents don't agree on what's in the best interests of their kids,” said Tammy Kuennen, a law professor at the University of Denver Strum College of Law.

The parental responsibility evaluators (PREs) are paid for by the families and evaluate the situation for the court. Hiring these professionals can be very expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars per case.

At the time, Elina's mother, Karin, thought bringing in a PRE would be a good solution.

“My lawyer told me that a PRE would be great because he would see the evidence and make the right decisions. And so I said, 'OK,'” she said.

The family hired Mark Kilmer, brother of actor Val Kilmer. Pretty quickly after their first meeting, both Karin and her daughter started to have their doubts about Kilmer.

A ProPublica investigation found Kilmer faced domestic violence allegations of his own in 2006. His ex-wife filed a restraining order against him, and he was required by the court to give up his guns temporarily.

Kilmer later pleaded guilty to harassment and later temporarily lost decision-making power over his children.

In an interview with ProPublica, Kilmer said he doesn’t believe about 90% of the domestic violence allegations he hears in the cases he works on.

In her interactions with him, Karin says she was questioned by Kilmer about why she stayed with her ex-husband for so long if the conditions were so bad, while Elina says Kilmer downplayed the misdemeanor assault conviction and asked her loaded questions about her father.

Eventually, Kilmer recommended that Elina and her father attend reunification therapy and suggested that her father share decision-making authority over her upbringing.

Karin says she wanted to get Kilmer off her family’s case, but realized how difficult removing a PRE can be.

“This is a person that can tell the judge, 'Take the kids away from her.' So, this complete imbalance of power put me in a place where I was terrified for months and months,” Karin said.

Depending on the family’s financial situation, that means only one of the parents may be able to pay, which Kuennen says can cause a conflict.

“That can cause a problem that can cause some bias. It just causes an ethical dilemma,” Kuennen said. “I just think it's very difficult for professionals not to be swayed somewhat by who is footing the bill.”

The PRE must be approved by the judge who is overseeing the divorce proceedings, so there is oversight. However, Kuennen says the parent without funding can find it difficult to get an evaluator removed from the case.

Beyond that, Kuennen says it can be difficult for court personnel to spot the signs of domestic violence, particularly for a type called coercive control.

In 2021, Colorado legislators passed a law to require court evaluators to obtain additional training on how to spot both domestic violence and child abuse. It also called for courts to better vet PREs and review complaints against them.

“Really, I think the system is a complete change. I think judges, PREs, lawyers need to talk to the kids, and not in a way that they're trying to pit the kids against the parents,” Karin said.

In the aftermath of that ProPublica investigation, Kilmer was suspended from working as a custody evaluator and is now being sued over his involvement in several family court cases, including the Asensios.

This session, lawmakers are debating two more bills to require more training among court personnel and to restrict reunification treatments.

The first, House Bill 23-1108, creates a task force to study the training requirements for judicial personnel when it comes to domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes.

Meanwhile, a second bill, House Bill 23-1178, would align Colorado with the federal Keep Children Safe from Family Violence Act and place requirements and restrictions on the courts when it comes to which experts and evidence could be used in these court proceedings.

Elina testified in favor of HB 23-1178, saying she hopes it will prevent other kids from having a similar experience.

“If I had not met Mark Kilmer, I'd be in a lot better place today,” Elina said. “Kids are stuck with abusers because of poorly trained people in our courts and our mental health system.”

While Kuennen insists that PREs play an important role in the court system and help judges who often have overloaded dockets make vital decisions about child custody placement, she agrees that improvements can be made, such as more education.

“We can provide education and make training available. But people also need to have the will to want to overcome certain biases and want to get the education,” she said.

Kuennen also believes that there should be more transparency into how PREs make their recommendations to judges.

“Without transparency, it's very difficult to be able to assess what facts evaluators are looking at, what they deem relevant, what people are telling them that maybe is being minimized, for example, when it comes to abuse,” she said.

So far, one of the bills has already passed the House and has been introduced in the Senate. The other is awaiting a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.

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