Imagine you are a mother, a victim of domestic violence, and have successfully severed the relationship in a step toward a life of safety. Yet, court papers arrive in your mailbox and on your front door almost daily for child custody hearings and criminal hearings. For accusations such as trespassing, for the day you brought your children to your abuser’s residence for court-ordered visitation only to be assaulted yet again by your spouse. Accusing you of trespassing was your soon-to-be ex’s legal tactic to rid himself of the assault charge pending against him.
Imagine being arrested for trespassing when you find out that your 5-year-old daughter is not in school, has a 105 fever, is being held in the marital residence with your ex’s girlfriend, and you go to the marital residence and ring doorbell to inquire about your child’s health. Imagine protecting yourself from an abusive spouse only to be dragged into court and accused by the court professionals, such as Guardian ad Litems and judges, as being unstable, a liar, the perpetrator of the abuse, and incapable of caring for and providing a stable socioeconomic environment for the children. Then imagine in the next hearing, being court ordered to sign over your house deed for $0 and to pay child support based on imputed income, not actual income, all to the man who threw you across rooms, called you a psycho b**ch, and threw your head into a wall.
But worse yet, imagine the children, who had never been separated from their mother, then lose access to their mother, except for three hours a week and every other weekend, with no explanation from any of the court professionals. Imagine this happening to three children, ages, 2, 3, and 4, and living with their abusive father for five years as you appeal court case after court case, taking one of your cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be dismissed. Then imagine being ordered by the court to cease attending therapy with your domestic violence counselor and to attend therapy with a general licensed therapist because they do not believe the abuse happened to you.
This is a real story. It happened to one of our protective mothers.
Virginia is for Children is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection and safety of mothers and children who have been affected by domestic violence and child sexual assault and who become involved in family court cases in the Commonwealth. Virginia judges have labeled these cases as “highly contested” custody cases. They are usually heard in the Circuit courts rather than the Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts due to the volatile nature of the proceedings, often involving numerous professional experts, such as custody evaluators, vocational experts, psychologists, numerous attorneys, and physicians. Oftentimes the cases involve gag orders which prevent mothers from discussing the decisions of the court or discussing domestic violence if the court deems that domestic violence was fabricated by the mother or child. Therefore, if a mother speaks out against the injustices in the family courts or speaks about the domestic violence experienced, she could lose access to her children, even if she has been given a few hours a week with them.
The latest research indicates that custody litigation can be a method by which abusers continue to maintain their authority and control over their victims after separation. Therefore, many abused women find themselves revictimized by the family courts and the professionals that become involved by tactics such as suppressing evidence of domestic violence, ignoring evidence of domestic violence, labeling violence as a “lover’s quarrel,” accepting false testimony that the father was just “doing the things she does to me,” and labeling a child’s abuse disclosure as maternal coaching.
More and more research is emerging that the interests of the father are given more weight than the interests of the mothers and children. Research shows that custody evaluators place more weight on maintaining the father/child relationship over domestic violence incidences. Research shows that battered mothers experience corruption, denial of due process, and gender bias in the family courts. Phyllis Chesler reports in Mothers on Trial, that fathers who contest child custody are more likely than their wives to win access to the children, that in 82% of the contested cases, the father won sole custody, and that 59% who won child custody had abused their wives. Molly Dragiewicz, Canadian battered mother’s advocate, asserts that gender bias is prevalent in the family courts today, including disbelief or minimizing women’s reports of abuse, disregarding evidence, punishing the woman for the abuse, unfair financial settlements, or holding mothers to a higher standard than fathers. Dragiewicz also asserts that the men’s rights and fathers’ rights movements have had detrimental effects on the battered women’s movement. Joan Meier, George Washington University Law Dean and Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, was awarded a 3-year grant in 2014 by the National Institute of Justice, to gather evidence regarding how family courts respond to cases of abuse. Her research shows that American courts have fallen into a trend of awarding custody to the abusive parent, even when the other parent warns the judge about the possibility of abuse.
In most of these cases, the abusive father’s legal team or Guardian ad Litem for the children claim that the mother is participating in parental alienation, particularly if the children make abuse allegations against the father. Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has been labeled by the American Psychological Association as lacking data, and the organization has expressed concern over the term’s use. PAS originally took hold in American culture from the self-published writings of Richard A. Gardner, MD, who worked extensively with fathers who had been accused of molesting their children. Unfortunately, the term is widely used by Virginia guardian ad litems, custody evaluators, and attorneys to remove custody of children away from battered mothers. The term parental alienation syndrome is pervasively used in Virginia contested custody cases as a means to remove children from loving mothers.
Eileen King, Executive Director of Child Justice, Inc. in Washington, DC, specifically states that she knows of no case in which parental alienation used by the mother has been successful in positive outcomes for mothers and children in child custody cases, yet use of this term wields highly successful results for the fatherhood initiative and fathers’ rights movement. When custody is taken from the mother, due to domestic violence or child abuse allegations, child advocates are referring to this process as maternal deprivation, a form of emotional abuse on both mother and children.
Virginia is for Children is working to educate the community and legislators about the problems that Virginia mothers are experiencing in family courtrooms. Most recently, several Virginia mothers attended the judicial reappointment hearings at the Virginia General Assembly in December 2015 to testify about the biases they have experienced in the family courts by certain judges in the City of Alexandria, the City of Chesapeake and Chesterfield County. These mothers were given 5 minutes to speak about the injustices, but unfortunately, we learned January 21, 2016 that all judges considered for reappointment were re-elected by the Virginia General Assembly. However, we do not see this as a failure, but as a need to continue to create awareness of the treatment of battered mothers and children in family courtrooms throughout the Commonwealth.
All too often, various private professionals become involved in these cases, such as custody evaluators and guardian ad litems, many of whom have no or little training in domestic violence or child sexual assault. We believe there must be a collaborative governance in place for these independent professionals to reach out to local domestic violence, feminist, and children’s rights organizations to ensure that battered mothers and their children are treated fairly and justly by professionals in the community and by family courts. Questions to consider are:
- What steps did the professionals take to collaborate with other organizations to ensure children have adequate access to nurturing parents and safety plans for aggressive parents?
- When a parent alleges domestic abuse against the other parent, what is the professional’s standard procedure for ensuring the safety of the children?
- Does the professional generally believe the alleging parent? Why or why not?
- Does the professional ever consult with domestic violence specific organizations or DV advocates before making recommendations for the custody of children?
- What kinds of collaborative measures does the professional take to ensure battered mothers and children are treated fairly and justly?
Oftentimes guardian ad litems and custody evaluators perform their jobs independently without any oversight or collaboration with domestic violence and child sexual assault experts, thereby making unilateral recommendations that are often far from the latest research for domestic violence and child advocacy. Virginia is for Children aims to encourage the use of collaborative governance in family law cases to better protect battered mothers and children.
Imagine your children had been living with your abusive ex-spouse since they were 2, 3, and 4. Now, they are 7, 8, and 9. They have only seen you every other weekend and for three hours on a weeknight. They aren’t allowed to call or email. They can only wave to you across a room during school assemblies—all because you tried to protect them from the abuse. And you have to ask permission to file another motion with the court to try to see your children for more time before they become adults.
Where is the justice for battered mothers and children? Join with us to advocate for unbiased courts, judges, legal and forensic professionals, as well as collaborative governance of family law cases involving domestic violence and child sexual assault.
For more information about Virginia is for Children, visit the Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kerry O’Brien Smith is Executive Director of Virginia is for Children, a nonprofit organization that promotes the safety and development of children in Virginia by addressing, educating, coordinating, and providing assistance and relief to promote social and legislative reform of organizations serving mothers and children who have been affected by domestic violence and child sexual assault. She holds a Bachelor’s in English Literature and Business from CNU, a Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Political Management at GWU, and is pursuing a PhD in Health and Human Services with specializations in nonprofit management and public service leadership at Capella University. Her dissertation is about the role of collaborative governance on the treatment of battered mothers and their children.
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