After leaving an abuser, a survivor may get an order or protection for her security. She may move to a different city or state; she may file for divorce. She might invest in a security system in her new home or get a big dog with an intimidating bark. She may change her email address, her phone number. And, over time, the abuser may have fewer and fewer ways to assert power and control over that person.
Until, that is, they see them in court to decide on a custody arrangement for the children.
“When you’re dealing with someone abusive, and they can’t hit you or control you anymore, they’re going to figure out ways to use the judicial system against you,” says Attorney Thomas Shanahan, who’s seen this scenario play out over and over again in his two decades as a lawyer. Though he started out as a civil rights attorney, “I got involved in the custody cases because it struck me as a fundamental civil right for a parent to be with their child.” He tends to represent mothers, mostly, he says, many of whom are separating from abusive partners. In that time, he’s taken note of the patterns abusers have when they get into court, and he wants to warn other mothers to be aware.
Watch out for the set-up. “There are certain ways abusers will set mothers up outside of court,” says Shanahan. One way is by suggesting, in a seemingly caring manner, that their ex-partner seeks some sort of therapy or treatment for an issue, like depression or alcohol dependency. But once in court, “They’ll suggest to the judge that the mother has issues that makes them unfit.”
That’s not to say, of course, that survivors should avoid seeking counseling or therapy when needed. But it helps to have a domestic violence advocate as an ally to testify the survivor was receiving this help as a way to deal with the aftermath of abuse, and to see a therapist trained specifically in domestic violence issues.
Keep your cool in court. Mothers are very protective of their children, and as such, custody hearings can get emotionally charged. Shanahan warns that judges don’t often sympathize with an overly emotional mother; in fact, it’s often the opposite that will benefit the protective parent. The more composed party will be more likely to be heard.
Shanahan says one mother he represented shared with him her best advice, which was to act like court is a business meeting. “You have to behave in a business-type way, and if you don’t, it’s going to be held against you. You don’t get rewarded for being an overprotective mother in court,” says Shanahan.
Be willing to do your homework. Most mothers believe that the court system is there to protect them, says Shanahan. But being too trusting can lead you into trouble. Do your due diligence, Shanahan warns. “You have to know who your judge is, what his or her predispositions are, what their reputation is and what they like to see in their courtroom, so you can come prepared.”
Before allowing a court-appointed psychologist to talk to your child, as some judges will recommend as a way to assess whether or not domestic violence should be an admissible factor in the judge’s decision, ask the judge to appoint someone outside of the court system. “Some of these psychologists don’t even practice. They just make their living writing reports for the court. They have relationship with the lawyers, judges, and they’re not necessarily neutral.” Shanahan says what he typically does is recommend a psychologist he finds who actually practices and deals specifically with domestic violence.
Do whatever you can to not give up. It’s disheartening, but many child custody cases can continue on for years. But, Shanahan says, in the most brutal of cases, where a protective mother is fighting desperately not to lose custody of her children to her vindictive and abusive ex-partner, Shanahan successfully wins his clients custody 80 percent of the time. The price, however, is daunting.
“It involves years of fighting, documenting everything, sh*tloads of work and, sometimes, hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not unusual to see someone bankrupted by this. But the ones who are able to stay in, prevail.” His suggestion: Find a support group of women who are in the same situation. They often have ideas on how to fundraise to afford mounting court costs, and can also offer moral support. One place to start: The Battered Mother’s Custody Conference, an annual convention of mothers fighting for custody of their children after leaving abuse.