Domestic Violence in the Civil Legal System: Quiet Tragedies
What does domestic violence typically bring to mind? An image of a physically battered and bruised woman. While this is an authentic representation of many of the cases, domestic violence (DV) has several other facets that are often overlooked in the United States and abroad.
[Caveat: Domestic violence exists in all intimate partner relationships, including LGBTQ. For the sake of clarity for this article, however, I am going to remain within the hetero-normative framework.]
Having worked with survivors of DV for the past several years, there is an aspect of this power and control dynamic that frequently passes under the radar that I want to highlight: abuse through the legal system. More than any other of the power and control tactics, this one stymies people not working within the field.
I spent the last year and a half as a legal advocate, helping survivors navigate our complicated legal systems. While I’m not an attorney and did not provide legal advice, my primary roles included going to court as a support person, signing survivors up for legal clinics where they could receive legal advice, and referring them to other agencies that could be helpful throughout the period of litigation. Most importantly, I was a witness to their experiences with the legal system and a sounding board when things went right, and wrong. I followed dozens of survivors through their lengthy and contested cases. I was there to validate their frustrations, and oftentimes shock, of the courts’ rulings.
Frequently, before initiating a divorce or legal separation, I would sit down with survivors and tell them that this is going to be a long haul; such DV divorces can frequently stretch for years. In Washington State the minimum period to wait for divorce is 90 days. I never saw any of my cases resolved in such a short period of time. DV divorces are always contested because of the abusers’ inability and unwillingness to extend themselves towards compromise. At the core, abusers’ sense of entitlement precludes their ability to self-reflect and recognize they have deeply rooted issues of power and control because, no matter what, “It’s her fault.” Abusers don’t think they have a problem.
So how does this look in actual litigation? Around the time of separation, lethality skyrockets to 75%, meaning that when a survivor leaves the relationship, she is at a vastly higher risk of being harmed or killed. Within this framework, it takes substantial courage for survivors to file for divorce, especially when children are involved. The majority of cases I’ve witnessed involved abusive fathers who were mostly absent in their parenting role during the marriage, yet who do a 180 within the court process with claims of dedication to their children and the ultimate request to be the children’s primary parent with sole decision-making rights. These too-good-to-be-true dads are after one thing: to maintain power and control over their partner even when she has left the relationship by taking control of what means most to her – her children.
Part of the myth that keeps unsafe (abusive) parents in the lives of their children is the father who presents to be so dedicated to his kids that he’s willing to fight to the bitter end to get them. In our society, gender norms still permit the absence of dads. So when we see them working so hard to be in their kids’ lives, we want to give them extra kudos which often results in full custody.
Yet as much as the family court system is skewed towards giving abusive fathers’ rights because they show up and say they’re a committed parent, the court system holds survivors, especially mothers, to a double standard. She needs to look the part of a “victim”, prove she’s a fit mother (textbook statements by abusers that survivors are an “unfit” or “unstable” parent are extremely commonplace), and not stay in the relationship too long, otherwise she is charged with not protecting her children. This flies in the face what we know within the DV community: staying in the relationship can be safer than leaving.
Another method of abuse perpetrators use in the legal system is to shatter the survivor’s determination. What does this look like? Repeatedly filing motion after motion to drag the survivor back into court, targeting her resources (time, energy, finances), and ultimately targeting her will to continue to advocate for herself. This latter tactic is strategic and requires patience and calculation on the part of the abuser. It happens all the time in DV divorces.
The public is generally not educated about the overarching themes of DV, as outlined on the power and control wheel. Sadly, many of the most influential players within the court systems are not either, including attorneys, commissioners, judges, parenting evaluators, Guardian ad Litems (GALs), visitation supervisors, etc… These are the people with the power to make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of survivors and their children. When any of these powerful players lack knowledge of DV it has the following effects: poor recommendations resulting in disastrous and long-term decisions that impact the safety of the survivor and their kids. Due to such widespread ignorance, it makes it even harder for survivors of DV, including sexual assault, to come forward and share their experiences and receive justice.
The DV movement has come far in the last 30 years. We’ve transformed what was once considered a “family matter” in the United States into the public sphere and even into an international human rights issue. Indeed, DV is a universal phenomenon that happens in every country around the world. But stopping the cycle of violence requires more education and less tolerance of violence in all its forms. We still need deep, systemic changes.