Women who bravely flee abuse begin their new lives anticipating danger, and unable to truly feel safe when court ordered parenting time presents further risks to their lives, and that of their children.

Abusers often use access to the children (transitioning from one home to the other, contact made around visitation/parenting time, ongoing communication about parenting issues, etc.) as a means to retaliate against victims.

Abusers are rarely punished for these inappropriate, harmful behaviors–nor are they required to seek help or change their ways. Most family court rulings reward abusive men  with the same “rights”  as loving, non-abusive fathers and act without regard to the safety or well-being of the children involved. These courts blindly believe that abusers deserve to see their children, at any cost; that more harm would come to the children if kept away from the abuser. Nothing could be further from the truth.                        

According to an article from The Leadership Council: “When his victim leaves him, batterers often recognize that the most expedient way to continue to hurt his partner is to assert his legal rights to control her access to their children. By gaining control of the children, an abusive male now has a powerful tool which allows him to continue to stalk, harass and batter an ex-partner even when he has no direct access to her.” (Domestic Violence (DV) by Proxy: Why Terrorist Tactics Employed by Batterers Are Not “PAS” . September 2009).

It is very important for victims of domestic violence, or those who have been threatened by an ex spouse or partner, to establish a safety plan for any contact with the abuser, especially around times when children will be transferred from one home to the other. Also, if you are in a situation where you will be using public transportation for transfers or visits, let the advocate or professionals working with your family know so extra precautions can be made.

Note: Abusive behavior can be disguised! Abusers are adept at conning, charming, and manipulating people to their cause. Also, children may be bribed or threatened not to report concerns; or they may speak out because they feel no one will help them or they assume this behavior is “normal”.  It is very important to document any past concerns or acts of abuse and then to keep note of any current concerns or “red flags”. Once you are able to establish a pattern or unmask the manipulation for what it is, as abuse, you will be in a better position to advocate for your family. Don’t wait for the explosion–get help immediately. If you feel afraid, threatened or notice dramatic changes in your children, get help or professional advise right away. The abuse will only escalate so it is imperative that you act sooner than later.

Common Examples of how Abusers will use Custody or Access to the Children as a Means to Threaten, Harass or Further Intimidate:

* Manipulating Family Court, the Legal System or CPS to intimidate, threaten or gain control (filing frivolous motions or lawsuits, threatening to take the kids, raising false allegations, using the cost of court proceedings to cause financial hardship, minimizing violence in proceedings, falsely accusing mother of mental illness/substance abuse or being generally unfit etc.)

 * Involving Family Court, the Legal System or CPS to force unwanted contact (with the abuser), this is very effective if the victim is afraid she will lose custody or be punished by the court system if she does not comply. Contact may include: marital counseling, family counseling, mediation, co-parenting plans, verbal communication and unsupervised exchange. OR involve instances such as school events, holiday events or religious events where both parents will be present to support the child or participate in an important occasion.

* Threatening to take the children either through the legal system or by kidnapping, running away or hiding in another country or with a family member.

 * Threats of harm–may include the children, the victim, family pets, friends, family, or co-workers. An abuser may also threaten to kill himself, or say things like “I can’t live without you”, “I don’t know what I will do without you” or ” I’m lost without you/I don’t know how I will make it” to imply harm if the victim does not do what they want.

This is a form of emotional abuse that often evokes feelings of fear, confusion, guilt and helplessness. The victim is tormented by thoughts, feelings or messages that come from the abuser, stating they will be responsible or are the cause for the abuser harming someone else or turning to suicide.

 *Denigrating the victim or making false accusations about her.  Or trying to win sympathy by portraying victim as unfit. The abuser may reach out to: daycare staff, school staff, church members, family members, co-workers, friends, neighbors, Family Court, CPS, law enforcement, mediators, counselors, etc with false allegations, degrading remarks about the woman or lies meant to destroy her reputation and character. The abuser may also go online and make similiar derogatory remarks.

The damage caused by these remarks and false statements is virtually impossible to overcome–your reputation and character has not only been assaulted but any attempts to defend yourself will be viewed with disbelief or suspicion. The woman will also be isolated, and unable to communicate with those working with her children/family.

Example: My son needs special education services in school, and the abuser was against this so he told the school officials lies about me including that I took drugs while pregnant and that I am mentally ill (and just saying my son needs help because I really want it for myself). The school was so convinced by these lies that they were reported in my son’s IEP. The school also refused to talk to me, or involve me in my son’s educational plan. It got so bad that when I attempted to contact the school, they reported me to the guardian ad litem! There was no evidence for any of these remarks. In this kind of situation it’s best to seek outside help, and don’t go alone to meetings or contact with the other party–they will likely be brainwashed, confused and defensive and it may take awhile for them to come around, if ever.

* Using the children to send messages or carry out tasks for the abuser.  If this is occuring you may consider seeking additional help or support for the child.

* Manipulating children so they don’t want to spend time with the other parent (bribes, giving scary or negative messages, threats to the children if they go with the other parent, planning fun events with the purpose of causing the child to refuse a visit with the other parent, etc)

* Making negative remarks about the other parent to the children. Initiating the children to make negative remarks. Or initiating the children to ask embarassing or intrusive questions.

* Creating an inconsistent or unpredictable visitation schedule–not showing up, showing up at random times, allowing access to the children (including phone calls) only when he feels like it, changing the transfer location at the last minute, unreasonable requests, asking mother to exchange children in unsafe/isolated/ or out of the way locations etc. If the mother has been denied access to the children or is afraid she will be hurt, she may become so desperate that she gives into the abuser’s unreasonable demands or unpredictable behavior, putting herself at risk.

* Returning children from visits or sending to visits dressed inappropriately for the weather or occasion, missing needed or important items (like medications, school backpack, comfort toy/blanket, etc) or doing something to make the child uncomfortable or unprepared for the visit.

It is very disruptive (this has happened to me) when your child comes to your visit wearing clothing that is dirty, torn, doesn’t fit or isn’t right for the season. At the same time, you may have to wash the child, brush their hair, and provide whatever is needed. You can only do this so many times before you are depleting your resources or just missing out on the activities you had planned. Doing this to a child repeatedly, over time is abuse. I have even heard of parents giving children pop and candy so they will be hyper and out of control during the other parent’s visit.

*Unpredictable, erratic or dangerous behavior at exchanges. The abuser may be adept at acting one way in front of others but when he is alone with the victim, he is completely different. This may include: actual physical attacks, verbal threats, stalking,  threatening gestures. If his behavior is reported, the abuser may makke a  false reports to police/CPS/ or family court to blame the woman for any problems with exchanges and avoid any responsibility for his role in it. This also works to show the mother is “unfriendly” or “uncooperative”. which can seriously jeopardize her ability to gain custody or visitation time in family court.

Please feel free to leave any other examples or stories below.

E.J. Perth, Dec. 2010

Additional Information:

Child Custody and Visitation Decisions in Domestic Violence Cases: Legal Trends, Research Findings, and Recommendations by Daniel G. Saunders P.h.D. (University of Michigan School of Social Work).  Revised October 1998 (Includes Visitation Guidelines): http://new.vawnet.org/category/Main_Doc.php?docid=371
Domestic Violence (DV) by Proxy: Why Terrorist Tactics Employed by Batterers Are Not “PAS” , The Leadership Council, September 2009: http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/DVP.html
Domestic Violence Safety Plan, Aardvarc: http://www.aardvarc.org/dv/plan.shtml
Safety Planning, BPD 411: http://www.bpd411.org/safeplan.html
Safety Planning, The National Domestic Violence Hotline: http://www.thehotline.org/get-help/safety-planning/
Woman Abuse and Child Custody and Access/Ways You Can Help: http://www.womanabuseprevention.com/html/CA_lawyer.htm