The typical judge, custody evaluator, or divorce mediator, even if he or she has impressive degrees and licenses, has had very little training on domestic abuse, and none at all on abusive men as parents. Instead, court personnel tend to operate on the basis of myth and outdated beliefs, sometimes combined with prejudices against women. Specifically, court personnel and court-appointed evaluators tend to be unaware of the following:
- The well-established profile of abusive men, and the fact that these characteristics can have profound implications for their children.
- The widespread tendency among abusive men to undermine the mother’s authority and damage her relationships with her children.
- The extremely low rate of change in abusive men except among those who participate for an extended period of time in a specialized group for abusers in combination with criminal prosecution.
- The fact that abusive men have far higher rates of physically or sexually abusing children than other men do.
- The fact that being a target of chronic abuse can leave a woman with many emotional difficulties – and sometimes physical ones as well – which she may need time to heal from.
- The tendency of abusive men to abruptly start paying focused attention to their children when they decide to seek custody, and the powerful emotional impact this positive attention can have on children who have been traumatized by the man’s abusiveness, and who simultaneously are starved for his approval.
- The fact that abusive men usually present themselves as likable, calm, reasonable people in court, do not seem in any obvious way abusive, and often play the role of hurt, misunderstood victim.
- The fact that abusive men are unhealthy role models, and that their children grow up with high rates of involvement in domestic violence themselves, and in other kinds of aggressive or anti-social behavior. (For some reason even a man who is physically violent do his partner is not considered a bad role model by most family courts, whereas a drug dealer would be, even though abusers do at least as much damage in society, including causing many deaths.)
- The fact that, for the reasons above, unsupervised or unwanted contact with their woman-abusing fathers impedes children’s recovery.
For more information on all of the above points, see my books When Dad Hurts Mom and The Batterer as Parent (which includes citations to studies).
This lack of information about abuse can be compounded by an active prejudice against women who raise abuse allegations. I train family court personnel all over the U.S., and at each workshop, there are a few judges and evaluators who make comments such as, “I think most abuse allegations come from women trying to get a leg up in the divorce,” and, “Women are just bitter about the break-up so they try to cut the father off from the children.” These statements take infrequent occurrences and use them as an excuse to ignore the most well-documented abuse.
Courts are highly reluctant to curtail fathers’ access to their children. As a number of court employees have said to me over the years, “There are so many fathers out there who abandon their children, and here I have a Dad who wants to be involved, you’re telling me I should discourage him?” As a result, they tend to hold fathers to much lower standards than mothers. Supervised visitation is not often imposed. If used, it usually gets lifted within a few months as long as the father behaves well under supervision, as most abusive men do.
The abusive man can often discern the court’s lack of will to hold him to proper parenting standards, with the sad result that he feels emboldened. I cannot count the number of times women have said to me, “He finally crossed a line where I thought the court would realize how out of hand he is, but they just went ahead and let him get away with it again. It seems like there’s nothing he can’t slide by on.”
Thus in order to persuade the court to take seriously the implications of your ex-partner’s abusiveness, you are forced to work doubly hard to get the court unstuck from its well-worn path. To increase your chances of succeeding in court:
- Be as concrete and specific as you can be about why your partner’s behavioral history causes you to be concerned for your children, because court personnel will often be failing to make the appropriate connections, and will insist that you are really just thinking about yourself.
- Come up with as many objective sources as possible of evidence of your ex-partner’s abusiveness, such as police reports, medical records, letters from school teachers and other professionals, letters from people who witnessed important events, and other documents that can help you avoid being in a situation where court personnel say, “Well, it’s just your word against his.”
- Bend over backward to present yourself as friendly and non-vindictive in hopes of overcoming the anti-female stereotypes that often reign in court houses (even among female judges and evaluators). Hide your anger, no matter how justified it is, because court employees are harshly discrediting toward mothers who show bitterness or raise their voices, though these tones are generally accepted from fathers.