This could go on for a long time. Brace yourself.
One of the most painful and bewildering experiences of my life was trying to navigate the family court system after surviving domestic abuse. There is very little help for women who are trying to get their head above water, who still believe that everything that has happened is their fault, who are now isolated and broke, and who have no idea how to even begin petitioning a court.
In the years since, I have tried to help other domestic abuse survivors through the family court system. Mostly, I just sit with them, help with the paperwork, or serve as a witness.
The process of going through family court proceedings for a domestic violence survivor is nothing like it is for a couple getting a “regular” divorce. Giving domestic violence survivors the same lecture or advice you give someone else going through a divorce can be very damaging.
For example, please stop sending divorcing people those memes about “good divorces,” especially that adorable video people sent around in which the little girl lectures her mom about being friends with her dad during their divorce. Twice now, I have had a mom crying on the phone to me over that video. I have had to explain that it does not apply to domestic violence survivors.
There is very little information out there for domestic violence survivors navigating family court, and even less for those of us trying to support them. In an effort to help, I have put together this list of things that survivors should know. What follows is what I wish someone had told me when I was going through all of this. I am not a lawyer or a therapist, so it is based on my observations, my experience, and my opinion.
Somehow, abusers always find the money for a lawyer, but it is usually pretty hard for survivors to get one. The best bet for a survivor is to go through the intake process at the local domestic violence center. They have resources that may be helpful. Next, get in touch with the Women’s Bar Association. If you haven’t found one by your first hearing, tell the judge that you want a lawyer but cannot afford one. Sometimes the judge can help. Be persistent. You are going to probably need to hit up your family and friends at some point.
Document, document, document. If you are even thinking about leaving your spouse and you think that he may be abusive, start documenting. You need to document what you do for the children, if you have any, and what kind of verbal and/or physical abuse is happening and when. You want to keep every single text and email. Even if you think that it is not important, write it down. She who documents wins.
Once you have left, stop talking to him. Keep all communication in writing to as few words as possible. Domestic violence survivors are experts at placating. We have a compulsive need to explain and appease. Even after we leave, we still operate on the mistaken belief that things will go better if we can just make him understand.
The problem is that words rarely work with an abuser, just often enough to keep us spewing them. The rest of the time, the abuser turns our words against us. So if he asks you if he can pick the kids up early, the answer is not: “Sorry, no. We are going over to my mother’s for my nephew’s birthday party. We won’t be back in time for you to get them early.” The answer is simply, “No.”
That is really hard, I know. But “no” is enough. You both need to get used to you exercising your authority.
Choose a court support person. One of the support tasks you will want to put some thought into is who will go with you to court. It needs to be someone who can keep a completely straight face, who will not say a word, and who will not give your abuser or his entourage the stink eye. This is harder than it sounds. A lot harder. Your court support person needs to be able to hold a space for your emotions rather than forcing you to manage their emotions. Do not take a current romantic partner.
If you have children together, have someone with you when you do pick-ups and drop-offs for visitations. Have the person record the exchange just in case. Do not be alone with him if you can help it.
Recognize that he will try to use the legal system to stay engaged and to control you. In other words, this could go on for a long time. Brace yourself. I came to think of my ex as a chronic disease that flared up from time to time.
When it comes to temporary orders and parenting plans, it is important to follow the judge’s instructions to the letter. You should do no more and no less. If the judge says that the abuser is to drop off the kids at your house and the abuser demands that you come and get them, do not do it. Call your lawyer instead. You may think that you are being kind or generous or being the more adult person, but you’re not. You are continuing a dangerous dynamic. In a regular divorce, this would be silly nit-picking. In a divorce with an abuser, it is important to keep the boundaries firm.
Domestic violence survivors who are going through family court are some of the most vulnerable among us. If you are going through it, I hope that you will treat yourself like you are in emotional intensive care. We, as a society, need to be aware of people in this position, and shelter them, particularly from social predators. At the very least, we need to stop making assumptions about other people’s divorces.
Note: I recognize that men, too, are victims of domestic violence. However, I have never personally met or worked with a male victim. My experience is what informs this article so I used male nouns pronouns for batterers and female nouns and pronouns for survivors. I apologize for any pain that this causes male survivors.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.