“Why are mothers who are the victims of domestic violence losing custody of their children to the courts …? Do children need a relationship with their fathers even when their fathers have been abusive to them in the past? If so, what does that relationship look like?” -Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States of America, to the National Summit on the Intersection of Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment, June 2009.
That’s an important and disturbing question. Children are being forced by family courts to remain in abusive homes, a violation of their human rights. Mother’s Day is two weeks away, but for many women in the United States, around 58,000 or more a year, there’s nothing happy about this day at all.
Why doesn’t she just leave?
When women seek to leave an abusive relationship, many times it’s not just their abuser they’re fighting.
Sadly, family members and friends often turn their backs on victims of abuse. They may be fearful of damage to their reputation, family name, or livelihood if the abuser is a relative. Abusers are controlling and that need for control isn’t just limited to their victims. In order to prevent others from testifying to witnessed abuse, the abuser may manipulate, threaten, bribe, or even blackmail the family and friends of his victim.
Victims of domestic violence may be urged to remain in a violent marriage by their religious leaders, as divorce is considered to be an offense that will send your soul to hell. In addition, the patriarchal beliefs of many religions teach and demand submissiveness and obedience from women and children. Men are placed in positions of authority over their families and it is the right and responsibility of the husband to discipline his family. Victims of abuse may be silenced by their religious communities who fear the negative attention or legal repercussions the scandal of abuse would cause if it were discovered that a member of their organization committed the abuse.
Abusers often limit their victim’s access to money, transportation, and a supportive network of family and friends, making leaving seem impossible. Leaving requires careful strategy, and the danger level increases during this time as most victims are more likely to be killed while attempting to end the relationship or just after leaving. And, if the victim is married with children, her abuser will nearly always petition for sole custody, and he’ll win 70% of the time.
-Familiar patterns of abuse simply shift ground to the legal arena where current child custody laws and procedures present opportunities for new tactics of domination and control. (The National Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges, Synergy- The Newsletter of the Resource Center on Domestic Violence Child Protection and Custody, Vol. 4 No. 2, Winter 1999-2000, J. M. Bowermaster. Relocation Restrictions: An Opportunity for Custody Abuse, p.4)
Some abusers use the courts to continue their control over their ex-wives and children by taking advantage of the current trend of courts favoring joint custody or granting sole custody to fathers. Women usually are the primary caretakers of children before and after divorce, and they have profound fears of losing custody, whereas the batterer has little to lose by using custody as a bargaining and power tactic. [Liss & Stahly, 1993; Marks, 1988; Pagelow, 1992]. (Mildred Daley Pagelow, Battered Women A Historical Research Review and Some Common Myths, p. 107)
Mothers are losing custody of their children to their abusers even in cases where family violence is documented with hospital records, convictions, and restraining orders. Family courts have made it easy for batterers to abuse their families, and in this manner the abuse is legal. In many cases, battered women are left bankrupt trying to defend themselves and their children. Upon losing custody of their children, many women have been issued gag orders, which prevents them from discussing their cases.
Many wonder why victims of family violence choose to remain in abusive relationships. Why would these women leave when the courts will take their children and hand them to the abuser who oftentimes, through his control and manipulation of the other parent, retains financial stability and appears to be emotionally stable while the battered woman is left crying, pleading, and making allegations against him which those around her perceive as delusions. Where should she go when the system put in place to help her is helping her abuser instead and profiting from it?
And if it’s this hard for heterosexual abuse victims how much harder is it for those in the LGBT community where silence may still govern their lifestyle? How much harder is it for immigrants or foreign-born victims?
A mother should never fear losing custody of her children after leaving a violent home. No child should be separated from a good mother nor should they have their rights taken from them while others profit from their abuse. It’s a human rights violation of epidemic proportions.
Victim and Survivor Resources
- The Tenth Annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference has been scheduled for May 15 – 17, 2015. For more information visit: http://www.batteredmotherscustodyconference.org/
- If you’re a victim of domestic violence, I urge you to get help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit their website. That number is 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
- If you’re planning to divorce your abuser, educate yourself on the Myths About Custody and Domestic Violence.
- America Bar Domestic Violence Statistics
Leaving and Safety Plans
- Personalized Safety Plan
- Safety Planning Domestic Violence Hotline
- Women’shealth.gov Safety Planning
- Women’sLaw.org Getting Ready To Leave
Leaving With Pets
- Animal Welfare Institue: Safe Havens
- Humane Society: Directory of Safe Havens for Animals Programs
- Ahimsa House.
Victims, remember to always browse the internet in private or incognito mode!