Domestic Violence and the Family Courts: Between Two Courts

This article is a repost from 6/22/11


After years of witnessing the Family Court System’s handling of alleged domestic abuse cases, I’ve come to a conclusion. Many people speculate that the Family Courts are inept at handling domestic abuse cases because they just don’t get it. I’ve started to look at this a little differently. I think they do “get it”. I just think they really haven’t got the resources for dealing with it.

I know of a case where an abusive ex husband had pushed his ex wife for so long that she finally decided she was going to give it back to him. He had harassed and harassed and harassed with numerous phone calls, emails, letters and threats and she decided payback was overdue! She started calling him numerous times and calling his bluffs. She figured, you know what, buddy? You go ahead and take me to court ALL YOU WANT and I will expose you for the abusive son of a bitch you are. He had repeatedly forced her to do things she didn’t want to do, to agree to things she didn’t want to agree to. He would threaten that if she didn’t do as he said, he would take her to court for custody and make sure that she never saw the children again.

For years this paralyzed her into giving in and being abused by him until one day she realized that he didn’t really want the kids. He wouldn’t know what to do with them if he did get custody. So she started calling him and telling him that yes, he should file court papers. If he filed, she just might turn custody over to him or maybe she’d just expose him. He’d just have to try it and find out.

Well, this didn’t sit well with the abuser. How dare she call him??? She’s not supposed to call me!!! I can harass her nonstop, but how dare she do it back!!

He was at his wit’s end! He put his live in girlfriend on it. What a man, huh? The girlfriend then told the woman that she had to stop calling. The woman respected the wishes of the girlfriend (who it later turned out was abused by the man also), but warned that he was not off limits.

After the meltdown, the woman felt much better. Why? Because then she knew that her ex was afraid. He didn’t want custody, nor did he want to be exposed. Best of all, he stopped calling to harass her. As a matter of fact, this was a catalyst for a change of events that turned things around and he never called to harass her again!

Not long after, the woman was served with a motion for a restraining order. The girlfriend had filed it, but both the girlfriend and the ex were trying to get restraining orders. This, the woman thought, was great! I can show the Parenting Consultant that I can’t talk to him anymore! She can’t force us into meeting face to face or talking to each other anymore! Finally!

Just in case, the woman decided to consult with some attorneys, even though she was thinking that she would just represent herself in this matter. All of the Family Court attorneys said, yes, let him have a restraining order. You will be free of him and the Parenting Consultant, too.

The woman had learned to be cautious and so she decided she should consult with a criminal attorney. After all, harassment is a criminal matter. So she went and talked with a criminal attorney. She had barely started telling her story to the attorney before he started filling in the blanks. He knew these abusive types. He had the abuser all figured out before the free consult was over. He had a lot of experience with guys like that.

The criminal attorney advised the woman that the only way she should allow a restraining order against her is if it was going to be reciprocal (she get one against him, too). He was the only attorney who had given her this advice. He was also the only attorney who told her that if there was a restraining order against her it could prevent her from getting certain jobs, if she needed to change jobs. He further told her that if the ex successfully got a restraining order, and she and the ex were at the children’s school or sporting events or anything like that, her ex could call the police and she would have to leave and miss out on that time with her children. For 2 years she would risk not being able to attend any of her children’s special events.

Interesting, isn’t it? How the Family Court attorneys viewed things compared to the criminal attorney? Could it be because the laws in family court are kind of gray areas and in criminal court the laws are more straightforward?

Well, the woman decided to hire the criminal attorney to represent her. The attorney said that he would make the ex look like an idiot. He kept his promise and when the judge in that county found out that there was an on-going family court matter in another county, she was furious! She threw the case out. Funny, this was little disappointing for the woman because she was looking forward to not having to comply with the Parenting Consultant’s requests for meetings!

So where was I going with this story anyway?

Well, I want to point out the difference between the Family Court System and the Criminal Court System. If you are going through a divorce/custody case with an abuser, the problem is that you are stuck in a rather large crack, or crevasse even. It’s messy. They both point to the other guy to fix it.


Criminal Court has some remedies for adult abuse. Family Court really doesn’t. Family Court can solve divorce and custody issues, criminal court cannot. Just as you might tell the police about abuse and harassment, they are limited in what they can do for you. Suppose that you are in Florida and you tell a police officer there about abuse in Minnesota. Is he going to do anything about it? Can he do anything about it? Do they have jurisdiction? What are the parameters? Is there evidence? Can it be proven under the law?  You see, in criminal court things must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Family court, however, has a little leeway on this and that is why criminal courts would want to send it to Family Court to handle everything.

Criminal Court deals with criminal law and they prosecute crimes. Family Court deals with family law, divorce, custody, child support, visitation. They don’t prosecute. You can tell them until you are blue in the face that your ex is abusive, but they cannot prosecute anyone. The only remedies they have are really limited to custody and visitation. Even then, if the victim will not ask the court for sole custody, they can’t just grant it. They can’t. It’s that simple. You are going to have to ask and go before the court to tell the story. Abuse doesn’t
fit into the Family Court system. They can only use the resources and laws they have. They can only use Family Court Statutes.

Think about the courts as specialties, much like in medicine. A gastrointestinal doctor is not going to attempt brain surgery if one of his patients has a brain issue, too. He’s just not going to.  It is not his area of expertise.

Family Court starts with the expectation (perception) that both parents are, have been and should be involved, love the kids, and the kids are safe or you’d have probably left a long time ago. Then there is the problem of the victim not being forth coming early on. It’s humiliating to admit to living as a domestic abuse victim. It’s also hard to make your ex sounds as bad as they are because then (in the victim’s mind) they look like an idiot for having lived that way for so long. Because it takes a victim a while, maybe years, to admit to the abuse or talk about it, and they may think that they no longer have to live with it since they have moved out, usually these cases start off on the wrong (co-parenting) path.

If you are a victim of abuse and especially if your children are being abused by the other parent, you MUST speak out! You must find the right attorney to help you and you must do anything and everything you need to do to get yourself strong because you will be back tracking. You will be asking the Family Court to examine an area that is not their expertise. It will be a long haul, but it can be done!

Oh, and the woman from the story? She went on to WIN sole custody and now she lives in peace with her children. The kids have on OK relationship with their father after he attended anger management classes and joined Alcoholics anonymous. The Parenting Consultant and Guardian ad Litem assigned to the case withdrew since there had been a couple of years without any conflict involving the family. The girlfriend learned the truth in the custody trial, broke up with the man, and now she is also free from abuse, at least as far as we know.

Do not ever give up and never take no for an answer. You can do it. You can get free. You can go on to have an amazing life!

*Photo: Scared Woman Protecting Herself by Ambro

*Center Image: Caught Between 2 Court Systems created by Susan Carpenter


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