I have a personal experience of domestic violence. I am just putting that out there so that people know that I know what I am talking about. I understand domestic violence from your perspective. I lived it. I escaped it. I moved beyond it, and I went through trying to prove it in Family Court. I learned a lot from it and that is why I want to help you learn from my experience. The goal here is to help others understand where it is going to be beneficial to you in Family Court and where it is not.
Let me first caution you that if you are in an abusive relationship, tell someone about it. Find someone you trust, a family member, or a friend, and tell them. Do not be ashamed or afraid to do so. It is the first step toward a better life. If you don’t have someone in your life that you can go to, find a domestic violence organization such as the Domestic Abuse Project, the Battered Women’s Coalition, Cornerstone, Sojourner Project, Alexandra House, The National Domestic Violence Hotline, or do you own search to find an organization near you. They will help you.
My second caution is to know that the above listed organizations will help you and encourage you to tell your abuse story to court authorities. That is important. I just caution you to know when it will help you and when it will hurt you so that you who should hear it and how to tell it in a way that really will help you. Knowledge is power. Domestic Violence groups want to help you, but they may not always know how best to apply it in the Family Court situation.
My third caution is that if you are going through a divorce from an abuser, tell your attorney as early in the process as possible. I know it is hard to do because of the shame involved, but this is important for your children’s sake. You have put your children first all these years so you need to be brave just a little longer and put it all out there. Ask for help from an advocate so that you can be your bravest now. It is very important.
My fourth caution is to make sure your attorney understands abuse and when to apply it to your case. Not all of them do. They have to use it for maximum effect. If they don’t, they are going to talk you into making some really bad choices, and sign on for things that are not in your best interests, for example, a Parenting Consultant or Coordinator. If your attorney is not presenting your case correctly, find one who will. The Domestic Violence groups should know attorneys who get it. I also review pleadings to see if an attorney is presenting that aspect of your case for your best interests. If your attorney would consult with me on domestic violence, I’d be happy to help with strategy, too. While I am not an attorney, I know when and where they can best use this piece of your divorce story, and protect you from getting stuck in a big mess.
When you have a history of domestic violence, you have spent all of your time living under a cloud of worrying about what the abuser wants. You have lived your life trying not to make him or her mad. You know the hell it brings when you make them mad. You are now conditioned to be hypervigilant, always reading the behavior of others in an effort to protect yourself. In Family Court, this hyper-vigilance can be misconstrued as mental illness on your part. For this reason, you need to do Family Court divorce and then be done with it. Get your judgement and decree, and then get out. Do not sign up for any court authority to manage your case. While you may think you need a professional to make decisions because you and your ex will never agree on matters related to the children, you are better off going with professionals who cannot coerce you into situations that will make you relive the abuse daily. Stay away from any professionals who can court order you to do things that will interfere with your parenting, and your healing process, and who may completely misread your actions. Any on-going Family Court actions put you at further risk of abuse, and will not benefit your children. Your best hope for healing and raising healthy children is to seek help from a therapist and/or domestic violence groups. You can move beyond domestic violence in your life, but you will not move past it in the horrific world of Family Court.
The most beneficial times to get your story across in Family Court:
With your attorney, from day one
Domestic Violence is a reason why your attorney should look out for you when trying to settle financial and property matters to ensure that you are not intimidated into giving away too much of what you are entitled to.
Also, many states have custody and parenting time laws in regards to proven domestic violence. While it is an uphill battle to get sole custody in the “group think” of family court, a world where everyone is equal and parents should share custody 50-50, there will never be a better time to go for sole custody and keep your family out of the court clutches than in your original divorce proceedings. Post decree it is nearly impossible to make any changes if you have not made the initial plea. Abusers do not think of their children’s best interest and so it is my opinion that you should not have joint custody with an abuser. That is the reason why many states have laws about this in the first place. However, if you find your lawyer is too wimpy about this issue, and many are, be careful with this. Many people are afraid to use the court as it is intended. This includes lawyers. If in doubt, get a second opinion. We do it with medical care and we should do it with lawyers, too, when it seems that they are not being an advocate for us. Tread carefully, but confidently, when you can prove your claims.
Also make sure to follow your gut instincts. Most domestic abuse victims know that they will never get their ex to work with them on important decisions regarding the children, but legal professionals give you false hope that your ex will change. Haven’t you hoped for this for years? You couldn’t make it happen and neither will they. Trust your gut.
With court professionals, post decree.
This part is tricky business. First off, in my opinion, you should avoid getting a “case manager” type of court professional assigned to your case. These would be Parenting Consultants and Coordinators, but may also be a Guardian ad Litem or something else. These roles are not helpful for Domestic Violence and often increase the hostility and interactions between you and the abuser, turning your life and your children’s lives into a nightmare.
I have seen many parents push the abuse claims, when they cannot prove it after the fact. As I said, the best time to prove it and use it is during the initial divorce proceeding. Post decree, there is little that can be done about it, especially by the court professional. I have sat in many trainings with professionals who say, “we don’t care about domestic violence”. Personally, they will tell you that they do care and wish there was no such thing, but professionally, there is nothing they can do about it. Nothing. There is no place to report domestic violence of an adult and no one who could do anything about it if there was. What would you expect them to do? You would think that they could, at the very least, keep the abuser away from you, but instead, the frequently force you to come together “for the children”. This shows just how little they care about domestic violence.
Police can act on domestic violence. The problem for you is that they are part of the criminal court system. Criminal courts will address it and can go so far as to put an abuser in jail. Family court has very little in the way of remedies for domestic violence of an adult. Keep that in mind. Not all court systems are the same. Family Court deals with custody, parenting time, and division of property. They do not deal with crime. Something else you need to know is that criminal courts will rarely deal with an issue when you are actively involved with Family Court for that issue. That is a big problem. Family Court sucks all issues into it over other courts. If a crime is committed related to domestic violence, it must be very blatant and beyond a reasonable doubt, to be prosecuted in criminal court. The emotional abuse and harassment of parenting time and legal custody matters typically falls to the Family Court to deal with. In their eyes, with joint custody, the parents have equal rights to the children and as such, are expected to “co-parent”. Rather than protect you from an abuser, the Family Court often brings you more interaction with the abuser because they have an expectation that you and the other parent will work together to raise your children.
What you can hope to achieve in Family Court in regards to domestic violence is direction on how to communicate and facilitate co-parenting. By telling your story, you can hope that a court authority will understand why you want little to do with the abuser, or why you are always worried about things that might happen because you have had to be hyper-vigilant for so many years, but there will not be much else that they can do for you. Many of them will ignore your claims entirely because the violence history is not relative to the role that they are fulfilling to bring about co-parenting. Even when a professional does believe you, you have to take action about it. Nothing comes on its own. You have to be the advocate for your healing and for the well being of your children. Here’s why it is your battle to fight, for example:
Parenting Consultants/Coordinators are like a mini court. You agree to use them to settle parenting disputes instead of going to the court. The Parenting Consultant/Coordinator is now basically the judge of your family to settle disputes about the children. In court, you must file a motion in order for a judge to make a decision. That is how it works. Courts are not just sitting around watching people and waiting for something to happen so they can jump in uninvited and decide an issue. In the Parenting Consultant process, you must ask the PC to make a decision and you should also give them an idea of how you want the matter resolved. This is similar to how you ask a court to decide an issue for you. You lay out the area of disagreement, tell the court how you want to see it decided, and ask the court to decide it. Since a Parenting Consultant is a mini court on their own, you want to approach issues the same way. The difference is that Parenting Consultants don’t have to know or understand the law. They are deciding the law of your family as is spelled out in your court orders, or agreements that the two parents have created over the years. In their role they are also supposed to “assist” the parents in co-parenting.
When you tell a parenting consultant about a history of abuse, you need to take it further than just telling your story. When you tell a court authority a story, they can really just determine if they believe it or not. They could also, I suppose, try to make the abuse stop, but when you tell your PAST story, to them, it has already stopped. Again, there is nothing they can do about something that happened in the past.
I see victims who have learned that domestic violence has an impact on custody and so they continue to tell their story repeatedly, hoping to get some kind of action out of the court authority, whether it is a PC or a judge, but you need to know:
- the difference between criminal court vs family court
- the role of the court professional on your case
- what are the expectations of co-parenting in joint custody
- the differences between sole and joint custody
- the differences between physical custody and legal custody
- how you have to take action for yourself and your children
- what is parenting time vs custody
- constant court interactions interfere with your healing process and that is not in the best interests of your child
In Family Court, the main reason that courts stay involved with a family is out of concern for the children. They care about the conflict because of the effect it has on the children. They don’t necessarily care about you. When a childless couple divorces, there is no continuing involvement from the court. If you are a victim of domestic violence, you need to look out for yourself. You can do this with the help of therapists and advocates who understand what you are going through and what you have been through. If you are going to tell your story in Family Court, it needs to be done strategically. You have to learn to tell your story in terms of making a request for a remedy, but also to balance if that remedy is doable under the parameters of the court orders in your case. I wish I could say with any confidence that you someone you can turn to for help in Family Court, but I can’t. Even when the court authority understands domestic violence, the professional’s role, and the court orders, dictate how they make decisions. It is going to be up to you to explain what it is you are asking for and why. Your history of abuse may come into play if you want separate meetings from the other parent, or if you want to put limits on communication between you and the other parent. It definitely comes into effect if you plan to file for sole custody, however, a Parenting Consultant cannot change custody so you don’t need to try and hammer that home to the PC. You will also need to understand how professionals must try to balance your needs as a victim with joint custody and co-parenting. It is my opinion that you will do better outside of the Family Court system, but when you have to use the system, do so strategically.