How to talk to your child about parental abuse

Posted on Oct 12, 2022 by Katie Carter

Cases where we know – or suspect – that there’s abuse happening are some of the worst for about a million different reasons.

If you just take them at face value, there’s the obvious issue that we’re concerned that a child is suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at the hands of their other parent. No matter how you slice it, that’s pretty damaging stuff.

Beyond the surface, though, there are other issues that flare up in abuse cases from a legal point of view that might not be as obvious to a mother who is going through, or preparing to go through, a case where abuse is an issue. For one thing, the courts are somewhat jaded, and they’re really careful when it comes to one coparent’s allegations of abuse against the other. There are lots of reasons that a parent might lie about abuse where their child’s other parent is concerned, whether to get the other parent in trouble, to get all of the time with the child, or for some other reason.

Unfortunately, the courts have seen plenty of litigants weaponize abuse cases by making allegations with virtually no support. Because of this, judges feel they can’t act preemptively where abuse is concerned; they basically have to wait until there’s concrete, provable evidence of the abuse. Judges don’t generally just take children out of the care of their parents based on rumor or something unsubstantiated.

I’ve heard it before. “What, so I have to wait until my kid is abused, or until my kid has visible injuries, or until my child is old enough to testify about the abuse?”

“The abuse is happening now, why can’t the courts protect my kid?”

“I don’t feel safe; I feel like I can’t send my child to court ordered visitation with their other parent! My child is crying, begging, and pleading with me not to send her!”

I’ve heard it all. And I don’t really have perfect answers, except to say that, if you know or suspect that abuse is taking place, you need to start planning your next steps very, very carefully. Everything that you do now will be scrutinized under a microscope, so you’re going to want to make absolutely certain that your I’s are dotted and your t’s are crossed.

While there’s no requirement in Virginia that you have to retain an attorney in a divorce and/or custody case, I really don’t think that there’s any realistic way to expect that you would be able to handle a case where abuse is an issue without an attorney. There are just too many problems or potential pitfalls – not to mention the complexity of the case itself and how difficult it is to present effectively and articulately to the judge, especially if you’re emotionally involved.

That’s not a dig: of COURSE you’re emotionally involved. And that’s not to say that, as attorneys, we don’t get emotionally involved. After all, literally every single one of the attorneys in our firm is a mother. We understand how important your children are to you, and how desperate you must feel if you know or suspect that there’s abuse. We understand that time is of the essence.

But we also understand how important the evidence is, how the judge will look at the information that you provide, the experts that you may need to involve, and ultimately how to present a case that will (hopefully!) get the result that you’re after.

That’s not to say, though, that by working with an attorney you can guarantee success. Abuse cases are notoriously tricky – and it could take awhile for the information to really come to light to a point that the evidence you provide will satisfy the judge and yield the result that you’re after.

Custody, visitation, and child support are modifiable based on a material change in circumstances – so it’s possible that you could find something ordered in your case that is less than favorable, and then have to come back again (and again and again, if necessary) to modify custody and visitation as new evidence comes to light.

Custody can be a really, really long game, and when you go into a case with complex issues, you have to be prepared for that. You also have to be prepared for whatever might be required of you in the meantime, which can be an extreme, extreme level of patience, forbearance, and diligence.

Obviously, if you suspect that your child’s safety is in jeopardy, you have a really strong motivation to fight the good fight, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not tricky, and that there aren’t areas where you can make big mistakes.

One of those things is in how you speak to your child about the abuse, especially if you are making a recording to attempt to show to the judge.

Parental alienation is always going to be a concern in these cases, especially when it comes to really, really young children. They’re not all that trustworthy in terms of the testimony they provide and, worse still, they’re highly suggestible. So, you don’t want to look like you’re planting ideas in their head about what you want them to say.

Recently, we had a client who sent a recording of her talking to her child where she asked whether the dad hit him, whether he should be punished, and whether daddy was ‘bad’. It seems obvious to us that these questions are really leading; that they set up a difficult conflict in the mind of the child. Does he please his mother? Does he tell the truth? Is he even capable of understanding and articulating the truth? Is it something that might have been sort of inappropriate, but looks more inappropriate in the re-telling because of the child’s lack of worldliness and understanding? Ultimately, a lot of things can look abusive or prurient depending on the lens through which you view them.
It’s not that YOU would be in any doubt, but you don’t want the judge or the Guardian ad litem to be in any doubt about what the truth is, or whether abuse has actually taken place.

It’s a tricky place to be in, and, because parental rights are so important, the judge is going to look really carefully at the evidence that you provide in issuing a ruling. You need real evidence – the more concrete the better. You may need to involve a therapist or other group, like CHKD, to assess the child. But you want to make sure that all the steps you’re taking are specific, carefully calculated ones designed to yield success.

Like so many things in divorce and custody cases, it’s really important to carefully gather the information to help make sure that your case is successful. In a case where abuse has been alleged, the stakes are even higher to get things right – and emotions are, obviously, also running equally high.

Make sure that you work with an attorney. Ask questions and get the information that you need. Download our free report about custody cases in Virginia, and request a copy of our free report on abuse cases. For more information or to schedule a consultation, give us a call at 757-425-5200.