This introduction is adapted from a section that I wrote for Disorder in the Courts: Mothers and Their Allies Take on the Family Court System, an e-book available from California NOW.
There is no love deeper, more complete, and more vulnerable than the love that caring parents feel for their children. There is a bond so strong that it can be hard to tell exactly where the parent ends and the child begins, and the line is even harder to draw when our children are very young. Mothers have an additional bond from having carried their children inside of their bodies and having given birth to them, and more than half of mothers have experienced a deepened attachment through breast-feeding their babies. And mothers are, in the great majority of cases, their children’s primary caretakers, especially during their early years. All connections between caring, non-abusive parents and their children are so important as to be almost sacred, but there is usually a particular quality to the mother-child bond. That life-giving and sustaining connection deserves the full support and admiration of communities and nations.
And just as there is a special beauty and importance to relationships between mothers and their children, there is a special and extraordinary cruelty in the abusive man who attempts to break or weaken the mother-child bond, whether by turning children against their mother, by harming the children physically, sexually or psychologically, or by attempting to take custody of the children away from her.
Children need protection from their abusive parents. In the realm of custody litigation which involves abuse, the abusive parent tends to be the father while the protective parent is usually the mother, because most perpetrators of domestic violence and of child sexual abuse are male. We don’t know that much about what happens to protective fathers, since their cases are much less common, but we know that protective mothers frequently encounter a system that is insensitive, ignorant about the dynamics of abuse, and biased against women. In this context, mothers sometimes find themselves being forbidden by the court from protecting their children from a violent, cruel, or sexually abusive father. And this outcome is a tragic one, for children and for their mothers.
On behalf of the hundreds of people across the continent who are currently working for family court justice, I want to communicate to you our caring and solidarity with the challenging road you have ahead of you, as you fight to keep your children safe in body and soul. I want to let you know how critically important we believe that project to be, and how much your children need you to stand up for their rights and their well-being. You deserve admiration, not criticism, for the courageous risks you are taking on their behalf, and for your determination that all of you should have the opportunity to live in freedom and kindness.
Our society is currently giving mothers a powerful and crazy-making mixed message. First, it says to mothers, “If your children’s father is violent or abusive to you or to your children, you should leave him in order to keep your children from being exposed to his behavior.” But then, if the mother does leave, the society many times appears to do an abrupt about-face, and say, “Now that you are spilt up from your abusive partner, you must expose your children to him. Only now you must send them alone with him, without you even being around anymore to keep an eye on whether they are okay.”
What do we want? Do we want mothers to protect their children from abusers, or don’t we?
The sad result of this double-bind is that many mothers who take entirely appropriate steps to protect their children from exposure to abuse are being insulted by court personnel, harshly and unethically criticized and ridiculed in custody evaluations and psychological assessments, and required to send their children into unsupervised contact or even custody with their abusive fathers. And sometimes these rulings are coming in the face of overwhelming evidence that the children have both witnessed abuse and suffered it directly, evidence that would convince any reasonable and unbiased person that the children were in urgent need of protection. Family courts across the US and Canada appear to be guilty day in and day out of reckless endangerment of children.
Fortunately, there are also many women who do succeed in keeping their children safe post-separation. Some manage to persuade judges to grant the mother appropriate right to keep her children safe. Others lost in the early stages but do better later, as the abuser finally starts to show his true colors over time. Some women find that they succeed best by staying out of court, and using other methods to protect their children, such as waiting for the abuser to lose interest and drop out, or moving some distance away so that he will tire. Some women find that what works best is to focus on involving their children in supportive services, connecting them to healthy relatives, and teaching them to think critically and independently, so that they become strong children who see through the abuse and manipulation.
There is no formula that works for everyone. What strategies will work best for you depends on what your local court system is like, how much support you are receiving from friends and relatives, how much internal strength your children have, and how much (or how little) damage the abuser has already succeeded in doing to your relationships with your children. And each abuser is different. Some, for example, can be placated if they feel like they have won, and will gradually drift off, while others will never be satisfied with anything less than completely alienating children from their mother. Lawyers can advise you on court strategy, therapists can share their insight into children’s injuries and healing processes, but ultimately you have to rely most on your own judgment, because you are the only expert on the full complexities of you specific situation.
As you make your way ahead, I hope you will put a high priority on taking good care of yourself. Seek out kind, supportive people who are good listeners. Nurture your friendships and family relationships. Try to step through the stress long enough each day to spend some time showering your children with love if they are with you, and make sure to play with them, not just look after their needs. Notice what you have already done well, as a parent and as an advocate for your children. Give yourself credit for your own strength, and celebrate the fact that your mind is getting free of the abuse, even if your children are not free yet. Cry out your sorrows when you need to, sob into a pillow behind a closed door so you won’t upset your children, but do sob, because your heart needs the cleansing relief of those tears. And then build on your strengths and accomplishments to keep fighting.
I wish the “justice system” dispensed justice, but where it comes to child custody litigation involving abusive fathers, outcomes are mixed at best. With adequate knowledge and planning, and especially if you are among the fortunate mothers who are able to obtain competent legal representation from a lawyer who understands what abusers are like as parents, you may be able to keep your children on the path to healing. If your case goes poorly, there are still ways that you can help your children feel your love and support surrounding them, and give them the strength to survive their father’s destructiveness. But regardless of the outcome you experience personally, you might want to keep the following points in mind:
- The custody system in the US and Canada is broken. You are not the only person who has experienced unhealthy and biased responses, and you are not the crazy, paranoid, vindictive person they may be painting you as.
- Other women need your help to change that system, so that protective mothers start receiving proper respects for their rights and their children’s rights.
Depending on where your own case stands currently, you may have trouble imagining any involvements right now beyond your day-to-day survival, and your efforts to keep your children functioning. But involvement in social change efforts is not necessarily separate from personal healing. Many women have found that when they become active in the protective parents movement, raising their voices loudly for the custody rights of mothers who have been battered or whose children have been sexually abused, their own healing leaps forward. Breaking down personal isolation sometimes goes hand in hand with breaking down political isolation. So I offer suggestions here not only for ways to carry on your own fight, but also for avenues to join forces with other women (and male allies) who are working for social justice, so that protective mothers and their children can stop being torn apart.
I want to express my personal gratitude to you for your efforts to protect your children from abuse, and to raise them into caring, kind, humane values. The whole world benefits when you fight for your children’s rights, and for their freedom. Protective mothers are some of our society’s most invisible and most important heroes, even while they are treated so often, in a bitter irony, as villains.