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Beware Family Court:
What Victims and Advocates Should Know

Part 5 - When Family Court Rules Against You

Family court decisions frequently go against domestic violence victims and in favor of the abuser for all the reasons we stated in Part I. These unjust family court decisions against the real victim can range from ordering a restraining order against you instead of against the abuser, to opening child protective service investigations against you, to ordering you to pay for expensive psych evaluations, to ordering excessive visitation rights to the abuser, all the way to what is unquestionably the most heartbreaking decision of all, when family court gives custody of the children to the abuser.

If you are a victim of family violence and family court has ruled against you and in favor of the abuser, you're probably feeling devastated and defeated. It's true, the consequences of family court decisions which go against victims are usually severe. The abuser's grip on the victim is strengthened, there's usually increased risk of more violence against the victim and her children, and the injustice, itself, leaves victims feeling defeated and in despair. But don't give up hope.

It's not time to give up. Here are some things you should know and some things you can do:

* Don't despair. Family court decisions are usually not forever. Unlike criminal court where convictions are rarely overturned, family court decisions are frequently reconsidered and revised. So don't give up hope. Start right away to inform yourself of the steps needed to begin turning the case around.

* Inform yourself right away of all the options for your soonest opportunity to petition family court to reconsider the court orders you feel are unjust. Depending on the circumstances of your case and the rules of your family court system, it may be that all you need is a new piece of evidence to re-open the case. Or you may be able to petition the court in a month or two. Or there may be other strategies available to modify the ruling or to get a reversal. So find out the proceedures, requirements, and the timeframes for getting the court to reconsider the ruling.

Much of this information can be obtained for free from the family court clerk's office, from the family court services office connected to family court, or by talking with a family attorney connected to your local women's shelter. Getting fully informed will not only guide you in preparing the next step, it will also keep you from that horrible feeling that you're doomed forever.

Even if you find out that there's a long time period before the court will reconsider the overall ruling, it's likely there are mechanisms for modifying parts of the ruling before the time period is up. For example, if the court has given custody to the abuser, it's probably going to be a while before the court will reconsider the custody decision, itself. But within that time period you probably can petition the court repeatedly to get increases in your visitation schedule.

* Re-examine the events of abuse to see if there might be the chance of opening or re-opening a criminal case. If you can get your abuser charged in the criminal court system with an old or new criminal act of abuse - or even named as a suspect in a new police investigation - you'll have very strong leverage for turning the family court to your favor. (See next section, Section V: A Rescue from Family Court Hell.)

* Be on the lookout for new offenses being committed by the abuser. Be ready to do what ever you can to get him caught this time in his next bad act.

Remember, abusers rarely stop abusing unless they are stopped by firm action of the law and courts. If family court decided against you and in favor of the abuser, not only is your abuser unrestricted by the court, he's probably feeling a big boost of confidence, and feeling emboldened by the court having taken his side. He's probably feeling more invincible than ever. So, unfortunately, it's very likely that sooner or later your abuser is going to commit new offenses. But, at the same time, these new acts can be used against him in the next family court hearing, or criminal acts that get him arrested.

Be ready! Be ready to document, to make note of witnesses, to write down what they say, to gather evidence, to preserve phone messages, take pictures, to write down dates and times. Be ready to nail him this time.

And if he commits a criminal act, don't hesitate to call police. If he makes threats against you or the children, withholds the children from your visitation rights, drives drunk with the children in the car, breaks things, damages your car, starts stalking you, etc., call police and make a report. And if the officer who responds won't take you seriously, write your statement on a piece of paper and tell the officer you want your statement put into a report. And if the officer still won't take your statement, go into the police station and ask for another officer to make the report. And if you still can't get an officer to make the report, ask for the on-duty sergeant.

This time, don't let the abuser get away with a thing!

* If you have to communicate with the abuser - regarding visitations, child care issues, financial, or other issues - do so as much as possible in writing. And always, always, always, make copies and keep your original. Don't give the abuser any opportunity to lie about whatever arrangements or agreements you and he make. Communicating with the abuser in writing, instead of in phone conversations or in person at child exchanges, will also greatly reduce the opportunites for him to continue his abuse.

* Keep Being Your Children's Mother, even if Family Court has given full Legal Custody to the Abuser. There is nothing more heartbreaking than when family court takes child custody away from a domestic violence victim and gives it to the abuser. And yet this is exactly what happens with alarming frequency.

If this happens to you, do everything legally allowed within the court's orders to continue being your children's mother. Remember, you still are your children's mother, and they still need you very much, in fact, they need you now more than ever. Make as many phone calls to your children as allowed. Write to them often. Don't miss visitations. Keep in touch with your children's school and activities to the maximum allowed. The more creative you can be in keeping up your mothering of your children, the less heartbroken you're going feel. And the much better off they will be, too. And the more likely the court will take notice and make future decisions in your favor.

Also, begin right away to work toward increasing your visitation times and liberties with the children, and to ultimately get the court order reversed.

* Obey the family court orders to the letter, even when those orders are completely unfair. Once family court rules against you, it's near certain the abuser will be on the lookout to use even your slightest violation of a court order against you. In fact, many abusers will try to trick you into a violation. For example, if the court orders specified visitation times, the abuser might call you up all sweet and understanding and offer to have you keep the kids overnight - and then nail you for it. Another common trick is to lure you, one way or another, into connecting with him in violation of your restraining order - and then call the police on you.

So be aware. Always follow court orders to the letter. Jump through all the hoops. And don't let the abuser trick you into violating any aspect of the court order.

* Make good use of your free time to make your life better. If the abuser has gotten full custody of your children, it may be a while before you're able to regain custody. It's very difficult to get past the heartache and make good use of the time you'll have without the children at your side. But try. Try to use the time to set a goal to put something new and positive into your life - to find better housing, to learn a new skill, to find a better job, to make new friends, to get counseling. Try to do something that will make you feel better about yourself. And make a better future for when your children come home to you.

Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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