Talking to a “Protective Mother” Who Lost Custody of Children
Due to an Unjust Court Ruling: 10 Comments to Avoid & Why
PART ONE: COMMENTS 10-6
These tips are for family, friends, community supports, professionals and others who are in a position to help or support a “Protective Mother”. It is devastating for a Mother to lose custody of her children—especially in a family court proceeding where she may feel victimized, violated and abused (and there no recourse for justice). Those closest to the Mother often struggle with what to say or how to help. Sometimes comments made to help actually hurt the Mother. Other times, those making comments struggle with their own emotions and/or grief and their actions and behavior causes hurt or harm because they are also struggling or don’t know what to say. Some just don’t believe that a court of law would make a mistake, and believe the Mother must have done something wrong to lose custody. These 10 Comments are commonly reported among Protective Mothers to be hurtful, and traumatic. I am sharing these comments to raise awareness, and offer tips on how to better offer emotional support to Protective Mothers.
What is a “Protective Mom”?: A Protective Mother fights to protect her child(ren) from domestic abuse that occurred in their relationship with an ex spouse/partner. After the Mother escapes the abuse, an abusive ex often uses legal proceedings to intimidate, control, or retaliate against her. Protective Mothers raise concerns about abuse in family court only to lose custody, parenting time and/or rights to her child(ren) due to corruption and systematic failures in family court. Children are then vulnerable to further abuse, and forcibly separated from a fit, loving mother.
These comments are not meant to generalize all custody situations but to explore how domestic violence and controlling behavior does not simply end with the relationship but continues, and even escalates, after the victim has left—and how family members and friends struggle with how to best support the Mother, who is further devastated when an abusive ex gains custody of her children.
10 Comments to Avoid & Why
10. Do Not make a “deal with the devil” to gain access to or contact with the children, who are now in the custody and control of the ex.
An abusive ex may engage the support of a concerned friend or family member—he may lie, manipulate or use the children as pawns to win their trust and gain an “ally”. Why? Once the abuser has won the support of someone closest to the Mother, he will use that person for his own reasons—which may include isolating the mother, gaining an “ally” to fight against the mother, getting information about the mother or otherwise escalating the control and abuse. An abuser will never see these people as a friend or family member, they are just serving his own needs.
Do NOT negotiate with an abuser to gain access or visitation with the children; this may pose a safety risk to both Mother and Child, and may damage her custody case/situation. This includes: Giving emotional, financial or other support to the ex to gain access or visitation with the children. Testifying in court or providing statements to professionals on behalf of the ex. Violating court orders (which often jeopardizes the Mother’s case and/or custody arrangement). Not respecting the wishes or preferences of the Mother. Criticizing, bullying or pressuring the Mother into unsafe situations so you can gain access to the children. Offering support or help to the Mother than taking it away in order to compel her to do what you want. Not being understanding or supportive of a Mother’s custody arrangement or time with her children (putting your needs and wants first). Etc
The Reality: You may feel justified to take these actions because you want to continue your relationship with the children but what you are doing is causing more harm to the family, and showing the children that abuse is acceptable. A child who has been a victim of domestic violence or witnessed it, knows something is not right in the home. A child also knows something is wrong when their Mother is taken away, suddenly and without explanation. To see a loved one make deals and become allies with an abuser enforces to that child that they cannot trust adults, and that coping with abuse involves appeasing the abuser. This will only cause more pain and hurt in the child’s life. Especially if your actions contribute to the child becoming alienated from their Mother, or result in the Court restricting her parenting time.
Instead, take a stand against abuse. Model healthy, appropriate behavior in your words and actions. Be a source of support to Mother and Child. A safe haven. Someone they can trust or rely on.
If you are a friend or family member who is hurting or grieving because an unjust court order forcibly took a child from your life, and gave custody to an abuser, the answer is NOT seeking an alliance with the abuser. There are other ways to maintain the bond that has been broken (although that will be different from the relationship you once shared), and also receive the support you may need. Ideas include: come together as a family, as a community to seek support or comfort in each other. To share special memories. To grieve, and heal. Go to court with the Mother to offer support. Start a fundraiser to help with legal costs. Pray. Seek a support group. Volunteer to fill the void, and use those same energies in a positive way. Find ways within the Court order to maintain contact with the child (regular phone calls, e-mail, letters, spending holidays together, etc.) Most important- do not accept, appease or tolerate abuse.
9. Comments that the Mother just needs to “move on with your life”, “get over it” or “forgive/make peace” etc
The Reality: For a Mother, her children are an inseparable part of who she is, what her life is—she carried them in your body for nine months and nurtured their life. She nursed them through sickness. Prayed over them. Poured her love, energy and soul into her children. A child can never truly be separated from their mother—she will always carry a part of her children with her. A Mother does not move on, or forget or make peace after the loss of a child. Her world is totally shattered, never to be put together in the same way again. The Mother may experience nightmares, fits of crying, depression, anxiety and physical illness and other physical or emotional symptoms because of the loss and grief. The loss of children due to an unjust court situation is made even worse when the Mother believes her children are not safe, when a dangerous abuser wins custody.
To tell a Mother to just “move on” or “get over it” implies that she needs to accept the abuse and injustice and just go back to life as normal; this is extremely damaging. It is better to just to be honest about what you are thinking and feeling. If you hear a Mother’s story and just don’t know what to say or how to comfort her, admit that you don’t have the answers or you don’t understand or you don’t know what to say; that is understandable.
If you struggle with what to say to a grieving Mother, try another approach. After I lost my children, I had a friend who never had children, and didn’t really know what to say or how to approach the subject of abuse with my ex, and losing custody of my children. He would offer to take me to a coffee shop, where we would hang out playing checkers, or sometimes we just sat at a park, in silence. Knowing I had a friend to just be there gave so much comfort. It was nice to have the presence of a caring friend who didn’t judge or ask questions or pressure me to do anything. When I felt comfortable I would talk. Other times I just needed a distraction.
Just being present, offering a shoulder to cry on, or welcoming a Mother into your are good ways to show support—open displays of support and affection can are as important as words. If you don’t have the words, try giving your support with loving actions or demonstrations of care (and respect her choice whether to participate or not).
8. Comments that it must be nice having “a break from your kids”.
The Reality: See #9. Protective Mothers who are forcibly separated from children due to unjust family court rulings experience considerable trauma and grief—they may not see their children for weeks, months, years and some lose all contact with their children. Other Mothers are subjected to further abuse, intimidation, humiliation and controlling behavior from their abusive ex partner when attempting to see or contact children. It is important to offer emotional support to a Mother based on where she is, do not project your own feelings or ideas onto her—and do not vent your own frustrations about your children onto her. Be there to listen, offer a hug, pray or whatever else the Mother is comfortable with. Let the Mother express what is needed, and respect her boundaries. Most important, understand this is a significant loss, very painful to endure.
7. Comments that involve spiritual or religious advice based on opinion, judgment or assumption. Examples: This is “God’s will”, “If God wants you to have your kids back, He will make a way”, You are being “punished” for a sin or other wrong, “God hates divorce”, and “You are being tested” etc.
It is normal to question why bad things happen in this world—why there is abuse or injustice, why bad things happen to good people. It is normal to wrestle with faith at times, to struggle with thoughts or emotions; especially at times you are struggling with or dealing with situations beyond your control. But it is not okay to vent your frustrations, emotions, or other personal issues onto another person—especially some who is vulnerable, and struggling, like a Protective Mother. When someone is struggling or hurting, they need compassion not judgment, shame or religious clichés. If you cannot offer that support, it is better to be honest, and set a boundary rather than say or do something that will negatively impact someone else. Seek help from a church leader or other community resource as an alternative but be open to what you can help with, or how you are able to give.
Similarly, churches and congregations are supposed to be places of refuge and support for needy people. If you find someone hurting, crying, or reacting poorly to advise you have given, it may be time to examine your message, and what you are offering. If you cannot offer the support that is needed, be honest, and help find another resource. And be open to growth in yourself, and in your church as a whole—which may involve further education, support from another church/organization or working together as a whole to meet a need. You also may want to work with a faith based organization that is working with abuse victims.
6. Comments that, “I knew all along”…Remarks that you knew the relationship was troubled or you could foresee problems, or you would have done things differently. Those who make these remarks usually stayed silent during the course of the relationship and then pounce with comments when it is over, the comments often sound harsh, critical or judgmental.
The Reality: Abusers are often charming and/or manipulative, they know how to win people to their side, it is difficult to predict the outcome. Even after a woman has left the abuse, there may still be a lot of unanswered questions—she may never have the answers.
Part of healing is letting go of “should’s” and being able to feel empowered over your life, your body, your choices in the present. Healing also includes finding healthy ways to deal with mistakes without living in regret or dwelling on the past—which will only make you feel victimized. Domestic Violence agencies and organizations may offer help in the way of classes/education, support groups, family support, counseling and advocacy services to help process what has happened, receive support from professionals, and receive feedback from other woman who have also survived abuse. You are not alone!