Abuse is probably the most difficult child custody issue. Unfortunately, abusive relationships tend to cause the highest rate of custody and visitation litigation. If you have been a victim of domestic violence, or if you are a parent trying to protect your child from abuse, you must tread very carefully. Do not ever assume that you will get custody because the father was abusive either to you or to your children. Most abuse is very difficult to prove, and you will likely be accused of trying to undermine your child's relationship with his father for reporting the abuse. If at all possible, consult with an attorney who has significant experience in family law and abuse issues before you do anything.
The following is series of tips to assit protective mothers in navigating the world of the court system, addressing how to avoid the traps that your abusive former partner will set in order to try to make you look like the crazy or unstable person he wants other to believe you are.
Avoiding the trips that might make you look like the unstable parent:
1. Forget Fair
That's right, forget fair. Swallow the pill early and wholly. None of what is happening in your life is fair, and the court will not even the score. Never assume that the judge is going to hear you tell your story and then stand up for you. You can be sure that your children's father (and his attorney) will tell a very different story to the judge, and the judge will not magically know which story is the truth. In the courtroom, it is not about truth, it is about evidence. Do not get caught up with each and every time something happens in your case that is not fair. Save your physical and emotional strength to focus on your strategy.
Sometimes unfair can benefit you in the long run. Most batterers are narcissistic. Given enough rope, they often hang themselves.
Making things right in the system is a different battle than protecting your children. Do not try to fight both battles at the same time–protect your children first. Protecting your children is more important than being right about anything. Even if you do not agree with the rules, sometimes you have to play by them in order to win. Suffer fools if you must, and chalk it upon the "puke meter."
2. Be aware of the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Protective mothers often find themselves in the midst of custody litigation following their own escape from ongoing abuse and control at the hands of the abusive parent. Because of this, the protective mother is oftens uffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while she is dealing with attorneys, custody evaluators, and guardians ad litem, and when she is sitting in the courtroom. The very fact that she is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder can play right into the theory of the universe that the abusive parent wishes to promote.
Because of PTSD, a protective mother is often worn thin and frazzled: physically, emotionally, and cognitively disorganized. She is at the end of her rope and can appear to others to be crazy, just as the batterer repeatedly says she is. Because the batterer is so persistent, the protective mother has often exhausted her usual allies, including her family and friends, and has often been through a few attorneys before her case is through. She has insufficient financial, emotional, and sometimes legal support and appears to others to have few "believers."
A batterer has often conditioned his victim to appear as if she is overreacting. The abuse, even post-divorce litigation abuse, can be so subtle and insidious that its messages and effects are seen and felt only by the victim. They are inherent in the relationship. When the victim tries to point out the abusive tactics to persons outside the relationship, she appears to be overreacting to very minor and/or reasonable action on the part of the abuser. When the abuser then states that the protective parent is hysterical and overreacts to everything, he is believed.
Because the protective parent has lost faith in a system which has failed to protect her child and has allowed the batterer to have ognoing opportunities to further abuse her through litigation, the protective parent often appears angry and frustrated at the court system. The people at the top of the very system which is the subject of her anger and frustration are now charged with evaluating the reasonableness of her anger.
In contrast to the post traumatic protective parent, the batterer will always appear calm, friendly, and helpful. The batterer will always be in control of his words, his gestures, and his expressions.
3. Watch out for land mines.
Your ex will set them and then point his finger at you when you stumble into them, accusing you of "Parental Alienation Syndrom," the creation of Dr. Richard Gardner, which has not been accepted by the American Psychological Association, is not based upon good science, but which rears its head over and over again in custody cases with abusers. An example of this is the "friendly parent trap." The abusive parent makes an unreasonable request designed to catch you being an uncooperative co-parent. If you currently have physical custody, the father will ask for visitation over some period in which he knows you have something special planned with your child, or he will ask for something that you know isn ot best for your child, like bringing your child back from visitation at an unreasonably late hour on a school night. If he currently hasp hysical custody, he will ask you to forefit an important visit or create a situation where it becomes terribly inconvenient for you to exercise yourvisit. He anticipates that you will react in an angry and uncooperative manner which he will use as an example in court of how you create interparental friction. How you react to these set ups is extremely important and should be discussed with your attorney before you give any response, whatsoever, to the set up. If you are put on the spot and asked for an immediate response, your response should be calmly, "I need some think to think about whether or not that idea is what is best for our child(ren." Discuss with your attorney whether it is a point on which you should give in (and show how exceedingly reasonable you are to his capricious demands), or whether you should counter with a calm, "No, I do not htink it would be best for our son to go to poker night at Hooters this Wednesday night, but he would love to go bowling after school on Wednesday, if you would like to take him." when you decline unreasonable requests, always make a reasonable counter offer, and do it in writing. His traps depend on your having a strong emotional reaction to his actions. If you react calmly, from a position of strength, the traps will fail. You may need an expert witness to testify about the fact that "Parental Alientation Syndrome" is bad science and is not accepted within the scientific community.
4. Take back the power.
The traumatic bonding which occurs between hostages and their keepers also occurs between abusers and their intimate partners. The abuser creates a dependence on him and becomes larger than life and omnipotent in the eyes of his partner or former partner. He can elicit emotions from his partner at will — empathy, anger, guilt (even when the partner is the one who has been wronged), and feelings of powerlessness.
It is helpful to understand how the batterer operates. He uses coercion, power, and control. He has a sense of entitlement with, and ownership of, his partner/former partner and children. He uses manipulations, set ups, and mind games. The abuser projects what he is and what he does onto the subjects of his abuse, and he actually sees himself as the victim. He is a master of minimization of his own bad behaviors, denial, and blame shifting. He will use gaslighting, a technique of manipulating his victim and her surroundings so that she begins to think that maybe he is right, maybe she is crazy. The abuser will do anything to wear down his partner's self worth. He knows that he can elicit an emotionally charged reaction from her, and he depends upon this. You cannot, and the court cannot, change this pattern of manipulative behavior. Your awareness of it, coupled with your awareness of your own reactions to the behavior, can change the cycle. Remember, his scheme relies upon your reacting strongly and emotionally to his behavior.
5. Do the unexpected.
Not responding the way an abuser anticipates takes away his power. If he pushes a hot button, respond with logic and emotional indifference. Go along with his ludicrous demand, or offer a reasonable alternative instead. He will become flustered. Practice being non-reactive. Rather than reacting, keep a fact log of the dates, times, and incidences of his immature and selfish behaviors. That way, rather than making you look crazy, his actions makes him look unstable. He wants to keep you in a constant state of crisis. Remember, what is most immediate is often not the same as what is most important. Stay focused on your long term strategy. Every action does not require a response.
6. Abuser's biggest weapons are also his Achilles' heel.
A batterer's inherent sense of entitlement and omnipotence can lead to carelessness. If he feels that he is above rules and court orders, give him some rope, rather than exhausting yourself in an effort to reign him in. He may just hang himself. Also, he is so accustomed to being able to manipulate your behavior that he will be lost if he is unable to.
His calm, cool and collected demeanor — if you think about it, that behavior is completely inconsistent with someone who is listening to evidence that his child is acting out, disclosing abuse, etc. If he were not the perpetrator, he would normally have some emotional reaction to hearing these things and would want to find out if the child is being abused by anybody. He would want there to be investigations, and he would be cooperating with the authorities.
7. Correct the context.
If your child's father has abused your child, once the abuse comes before the court, the abuser will file a petition for physical custody. He will then have turned the child abuse case into a child custody case. This changes all of the underlying assumptions, clouds the abuse disclosure in suspicion, dilutes the issue of abuse, and changes the focus and treatment. You need to clarify every step of the way that the abuse is not a custody issue. The disclosure of abuse preceded the abuser's campaign for custody.
8. Educate the court.
Expert witness testimony on domestic violence and on child sexual abuse is extremely important, in some cases crucial. If the abuser presents evidence that he "passed" a psycho-sexual evaluation or a lie detector test, you may need an expert on rebuttal to explain why an incest perpetrator can "pass" such an evaluation and/or lie detector test. Make each witness' testimony fit together. Show that each of your actions was a reasonable reaction to the events as they took place. Show why your story makes more sense than his, why your reactions to disclosures of abuse make more sense than his reactions.