Reaching Survivors: Domestic Violence, Gender, and Family Courts

Advocate talking with a parent at the doorAs 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:

  1. Debating whether the construct of parental alienation is valid.
  2. 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.

Reference:

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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  • Michael

    Michael

    February 7th, 2020 at 12:11 PM

    Thank you for this nuanced and inclusive look at domestic violence. I’m a victim of female-on-male domestic violence, and I am constantly disgusted by so-called advocates who demean, ignore, and deny the experiences of men like me.

  • Vinodha

    Vinodha

    February 7th, 2020 at 3:52 PM

    Hello Micheal, I am sorry to hear that your experiences of abuse were not heard or validated by some domestic abuse advocates. All victims of domestic abuse deserve to be heard and supported. I hope you are no longer in the abusive relationship and that you find the resources to heal and grow from the past, and please keep in mind that therapy with a trauma-informed professional can be greatly beneficial to heal from relationship wounds.

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    February 12th, 2020 at 7:33 AM

    This is a great blog post. I would add to it with the view that experts need to understand that PA is not black and white. There are many parents who are ‘guilty’ of alienating discourse, but they are actually trying to parent neutrally, but the behaviour of the other parent makes neutral parenting almost impossible to achieve. PA must be tackled – but we must apply common sense, and the highest levels of skill,

  • Vinodha

    Vinodha

    February 12th, 2020 at 1:13 PM

    Completely agree with you Andrew! The context of the “alienating” behaviors of a parent has to be always considered as you point out. The most obvious one where the behaviors taken without context may seem “alienating” is when a protective parent is trying to keep the children safe from the abusive parent. Unfortunately, some family courts miss even this obvious case and work against the protective parent by labeling their behaviors as “Parental Alienation”. The solution is to always screen for domestic abuse before considering any Parental Alienation claims and the safety of the children has to be the highest priority.

  • JoAnna

    JoAnna

    February 12th, 2020 at 10:57 AM

    A topic near and dear to my heart. Thank you for writing this piece. And thank you for allowing me to broaden my perspective. Taking me a step back forced me to see the forest, not merely the trees. How do we go about getting this information to people that have the power to change the current situation?

  • Robert S

    Robert S

    February 12th, 2020 at 12:21 PM

    PA isn’t my area I’m afraid, however, I really enjoyed this articles content and tone. So good to see someone trying to understand the situation from a male and female perspective.

    I don’t think that there is any doubt, that family courts need an overhaul for all concerned, especially the children involved.

    What I will say though, is that some men will always be on the back foot until there is a change in the law. Why? Because if you are not married to the mother of your child and she refuses to put you on the birth certificate, you have absolutely no parental rights at all as a man. The only way forward is a long and expensive court case.

    In an age where marriage is becoming less common, this is going to be a huge issue for many male victims who would no doubt, love a shot at the family court.

  • JoAnna

    JoAnna

    February 12th, 2020 at 12:57 PM

    An issue near and dear to my heart. Thank you for allowing me to change my perspective on the issue of abuse. Is there a way to share this information with the folks who can make the changes? Who are they?

  • Vinodha

    Vinodha

    February 12th, 2020 at 1:36 PM

    Dear JoAnna, I greatly appreciate your open-mindedness on this issue, and the enthusiasm and drive to make these changes happen. One way to reach the people with the power to make these changes is to meet with your elected local legislators (state senator and assembly person) of your State, either by requesting an appointment with them, or attending one of their town hall meetings. Most states have a “Find your legislator” feature on their state government website where you enter your residential address to find your local representatives. Hope this helps!

  • Sybil

    Sybil

    February 13th, 2020 at 11:04 AM

    Such an important article! I was going to say for anyone in the mental health field or for anyone in the legal field, but the more I think about it, it is an important article for everyone to read. With the statistics of domestic violence being so high, everyone knows someone who is experiencing violence in the home. Every clinician will work with someone affected by domestic violence. In my work, I see the biases suggested in this article play out over and over again. Parents who were abused attempting to protect their children by sharing the abuse in court only to be revictimized and not believed or to see their children live primarily with their abuser. Thank you for this article.

  • Vinodha

    Vinodha

    February 18th, 2020 at 11:18 AM

    Thank you, Sybil, for all your work in increasing awareness on this topic via trainings and advocacy for survivors of domestic abuse.

  • Richard

    Richard

    February 14th, 2020 at 5:19 AM

    As a child custody evaluator, it often falls on us to provide the Court with evidence of DV. Our job is made much more difficult by the fact that too many attorneys use allegations of abuse to gain a custody advantage for their female clients. Family Law attorneys need to remove this strategy from their standard “playbook” so that real abuse will easier to discern.

  • Vinodha

    Vinodha

    February 14th, 2020 at 1:48 PM

    Hello Richard,
    Yes – Family law attorneys definitely should not be falsely claiming domestic abuse. It is, therefore, even more important that child custody evaluators are well trained in the following areas:
    1. The dynamics of domestic violence (e.g., not to focus on isolated allegations of abusive behaviors or incidents, but to look for patterns of power and control by the abuser). The minimal training of 40-hr Domestic Violence Counselor Training should be made mandatory for all Child Custody Evaluators.
    2. Trauma-informed, so that they can identify the symptoms of trauma in DV victims (adults and children).
    3. At least a basic training on Manipulators (and how to identify them).
    I have been shocked by the lack of training of some child custody evaluators (e.g., in the Stanislaus county), which has led to disastrous consequences for the victims of Domestic violence. Every allegation of abuse has to be considered seriously, and evaluators will be able to discern false accusations more easily if well-trained in the relevant areas.

  • Vinodha

    Vinodha

    March 2nd, 2020 at 8:19 AM

    Research shows that the percentage of false allegations of domestic violence is very low, so it is disturbing that there is a preconception that lawyers make false allegations of abuse against men to gain an advantage (sounds like another harmful gender stereotype). Trained professionals can easily identify victims of domestic violence, and most of the time, the victims do not consider themselves as “abused” due to their cognitive dissonance and self-blame, and often need therapy/counseling to become more self-aware and gain a better understanding of their situation.

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