Imagine Being Court-Ordered to See Your Assailant Every Week...Domestic Abuse and Co-Parenting
As I've written, said, and written again violence against women is only technically illegal. In few places is this more evident than in family court. (I have practiced family law since 2016, with a focus on representing victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. I am also a registered psychotherapist). (Also, as a disclaimer I say "women" because overwhelmingly victims of domestic abuse are women and overwhelmingly perpetrators, even when the victim is male, are men. So, miss me with that "But women too.").
Women in the family law setting are court-ordered to co-parent with their abuser under the guise of the "children's right" to having a relationship with both parents. Unfortunately, the children's right to having a relationship with both parents rapidly and inevitably swallows a woman's right to be free. In co-parenting situations, abusers can text, email, and call their victims. (This can be addressed by limiting communications via a third-party app such as Talking Parents and Civil Communicators). Even when communication is limited to a single channel, the harassment is rampant. And every contact triggers the victim, who has to be reminded of the punches, pushes, slaps, strangulations, and rapes she endured at the hands of her "co-parent." It is insufferable and, more problematic, failure to co-parent with an abuser opens up the victim to sanctions and even jail time. (I recently had a case where my client spent more time in jail for a technical default relating to property than her abuser did for nearly killing her...but come tell me again that violence against women is a "crime").
Victims of abuse also often have to see their abusers at parental exchanges. Again, a lawyer with a minimum of training would be able to request that exchanges take place either at a police station or via a third party (school, sitter, daycare) so that the parents don't have to see each other. However, again, abusers can continue to push the boundaries of these arrangements and force interactions by presenting themselves at the exchanges.
Even when the interactions are limited, abusers will make threats, hold vacation days ransom, gaslight the children, and withhold children when they see fit. Abuse doesn't end when an abusive relationship ends. It just keeps going into the post-decree world, causing decades of damage to victims.
The above examples don't even take into account the numerous court filings, requests for modifications, and contempts that abusers file to keep their "victims in check." Fathers have demanded sole decisionmaking (a hellscape like you've never imagined), demanded to hold their child's passport (to ensure mothers cannot go on vacation with their kids without protracted negotiations and concessions), demanded to hold mothers in contempt for daring to assert any amount of independence (to which they are entitled now that the relationship is over), and of course the classic lowering of child support or withholding of child support ordered. The methods of abuse are as numerous as sadism is creative.
Imagine having to ask the man who strangled you whether you can take your kids to vacation out of state for two weeks?
Imagine having to beg the man who hurled insults at you every time you asked for something for permission to take your kids to the doctor?
Imagine having to hand your children over for the weekend to the man who dragged you across the living room floor?
This is what courts ask of domestic abuse victims, with little to no regard for the tremendous sacrifice they are asking of them. They also do so without recognizing the damage this ongoing forced trauma causes victims.
As a trauma-informed attorney, I used to spend hours on the phone with victims working on the logistics of interacting with a former abusive partner: How does she answer this message? How does she handle this violation? How does she tackle this decision? How does she regain control in this new power landscape? What is power? How does she set new boundaries despite being terrified of doing so? What do healthy boundaries look like? What does it mean to be proactive rather than reactive when interacting with an abuser?
I often told my clients that we needed to keep those conversations short because otherwise their bill would be outrageous. (I also wrote down time to avoid bleeding them). However, it is clear that there have to be more resources which are not a lawyer and not quite a therapist to assist women in navigating the post-decree world.
When I started Trauma-Informed Coaching, this is what I aimed to provide victims and survivors.
However, it is infuriating that such a service is even needed. In a world where women were valued and female suffering was viewed as reprehensible, courts, law enforcement, and laws themselves would do more to actually decrease it.