As a mental health professional working with survivors of domestic violence, I have witnessed firsthand the failure of family courts to protect women and children from extremely abusive and dangerous men. The abuser may be given shared custody, thereby endangering the lives of the children. In such cases, the dismissal of the woman’s claims of domestic abuse results in their continued control and abuse (emotional, mental, and financial) through the family courts and places them in a position where they are unable to protect their own children.
Violence against women, and their abuse and mistreatment, does have roots in our patriarchal histories. But when advocates for women survivors take on the broad issue of domestic abuse and the failure of family courts in such cases, discussing it solely as a gendered crime of men attacking women, it often results in the unnecessary polarization of advocates and others. It can also instill resistance in those who would otherwise support the cause of family court reform in the handling of domestic abuse cases.
The truth is there are many male survivors of domestic abuse, and both men and women can be perpetrators in different configurations (men abusing women, women abusing men, men abusing men, women abusing women, etc.). I have been surprised by the partisan arguments of some advocates around supporting survivors of domestic abuse based on gender. Both sides (advocates of male survivors on one side and advocates of female survivors on the other) have valid and compelling points supporting their points of view. However, as in most issues, this is not an either-or argument to be won.
Both women and men survivors of domestic abuse matter, and we have to acknowledge that all genders face trials and obstacles due to systemic failures as well as entrenched gender stereotypes and the artifacts of a historically patriarchal system.
Both women and men survivors of domestic abuse matter, and we have to acknowledge that all genders face trials and obstacles due to systemic failures as well as entrenched gender stereotypes and the artifacts of a historically patriarchal system. Advocates must realize that acknowledging our historically patriarchal institutions does not jeopardize male survivors. Additionally, a more inclusive effort to tackle the issue of the failures of the family court in domestic violence cases does not necessarily jeopardize female survivors.
The Need for Training on Domestic Violence and Trauma
Underlying much of the retraumatization of domestic abuse survivors in our legal and judicial systems is the lack of training for professionals on issues of domestic abuse and how trauma manifests in victims. These professionals include psychotherapists, psychologists, physicians, custody evaluators and mediators, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and judges.
Some are well-trained and knowledgeable about these issues but approach the services to be provided as a money-making endeavor. At times, they may even choose to support the abuser in custody cases by distorting the facts, or they may charge exorbitant amounts for their “expert” reports, thereby further exploiting those already vulnerable and traumatized.
Here are some key points on domestic abuse and trauma:
- Domestic abuse revolves around issues of power and control (which may include threats and intimidation), but it does not necessarily include physical violence. Simply focusing on the presence (or absence) of physical injury (although grave and dangerous) misses most of the dynamics surrounding domestic abuse and minimizes the harmful effects of mental, emotional, and financial abuse on the victims.
- Many cases of domestic abuse include psychological abuse known as gaslighting. A victim of gaslighting begins to doubt their own experiences of reality and may even conclude that they are “going crazy.” A manipulative abuser is often quick to use this to their own advantage in the family courts, painting the victim as a “crazy” person who is now making false allegations of abuse.
- In extreme cases of prolonged physical and psychological trauma, the victim may cope using dissociation or other defenses to survive. The victim may therefore not recall details of the abuse and may not have a coherent narrative. They may even continue to protect their abuser or may truly believe that the abuse was their own fault.
Professionals must be trained to listen for the telltale signs of domestic abuse while meeting with the abuser and/or the victim and not to simply take the narratives of either the abuser or the victim as the objective truth. Abusers can be master manipulators who are very adept at coming across as blameless, and they may be quite crafty in blaming their victims. Professionals should also be trained to identify the manipulative tactics of abusers, both with their victims and also in their interactions with the professionals working in or with the family court.
Unfortunately, it is often the extreme cases of domestic violence (which rightly belong to the criminal court) that the family court system may get wrong, with disastrous consequences for all involved, including the loss of lives.
Gender Stereotypes and Biases in Domestic Violence Cases
We all hold biases (conscious and unconscious), and we may not always be aware of how quick we are to believe something that reinforces our biases.
Advocates who push to treat domestic abuse and violence solely as a gendered, male-on-female crime may be partial to studies and statistics that reinforce their own beliefs (confirmation bias) and may dismiss the experiences of male victims as “exceptions” to the rule. Many others are resistant to acknowledge entrenched and historical patriarchal beliefs and behaviors that result in the continued mistreatment of women within closed doors and the dangers of having family court judges with these (unconscious) prejudices and gender stereotypes in positions of power.
Male victims of domestic violence are often shamed or not believed by law enforcement or others when the perpetrators are female due to ingrained gender stereotypes. In family courts, a traumatized female victim is often discredited as being “hysterical” or “irrational” by a manipulative abuser, which plays into the unconscious biases (especially of judges) of a historically patriarchal system.
Addressing High Conflict Custody Cases
High conflict custody cases are those in which the parents are not able to come to any agreement on custody arrangements, and one or both of the parents are often returning to court requesting amendments to the current court orders. The first step is to evaluate all such high conflict cases for the possibility of domestic violence by doing a domestic violence assessment (whether or not there are allegations). Cases that are high conflict but determined not to have any domestic abuse have to be treated very differently from domestic violence cases.
When there is any allegation or sign of domestic abuse, these allegations have to be looked into first (including risk assessment of the abuser) before considering shared custody.
In cases without any allegations or signs of domestic violence, continued custody battles can be detrimental to the children, so parents are often asked to cooperate with each other and learn to co-parent and communicate better to end these battles. Currently the label “high conflict” is used for cases that may or may not involve domestic violence, leading to some confusion among advocates and family court around nomenclature and best practices.
It is important for the family court and professionals to recognize that allegations of parental alienation between parents in high conflict custody battles must be managed and treated in an entirely different way when there is the possibility that one of the parents is a dangerous and manipulative abuser.
Understanding Parental Alienation Allegations
One currently-debated construct is parental alienation, where a parent willfully alienates the children from the other non-abusive parent. This construct is only applicable when the parent being alienated is not abusive. However, abusers have frequently claimed they are the victims of parental alienation to divert attention from domestic violence and abuse, as well as other evidence relevant to the best interests of the child (Meier, 2020).
It is important for the family court and professionals to recognize that allegations of parental alienation between parents in high conflict custody battles must be managed and treated in an entirely different way when there is the possibility that one of the parents is a dangerous and manipulative abuser. In other words, if there is any allegation of domestic violence, these allegations should taken seriously and looked into immediately before considering any other allegation such as parental alienation.
It is important for advocates to differentiate between:
- Debating whether the construct of parental alienation is valid.
- Pointing out how this construct is being exploited by abusers of domestic violence to blame the victims as the perpetrators.
The validity of the construct is independent of whether it is being exploited or not, so education and training around these issues is of importance.
Barry Goldstein, a leading advocate for women survivors of domestic violence, has proposed the Safe Child Act that prioritizes the safety and well-being of children involved in child custody cases. The measures it outlines (but taking a more inclusive approach of male victims) would be a huge step towards protecting the victims of domestic violence.
I hope this article encourages more collaboration and discussion between all survivors of domestic abuse and violence, their advocates, and the professionals who work with them in the fields of law enforcement, mental health and social services, and the legal and judicial systems.
Meier, J. S. (2020, January 7). U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: What do the data show? Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law. doi: 10.1080/09649069.2020.1701941
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