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Beware Family Court:
What Victims and Advocates Should Know

Part 6 - A Rescue from
Family Court Hell

(The names in this story have been changed.)

When Liliana first came to us she couldn't tell us more than a sentence or two of her story before she would be overcome with inconsolable grief. "My baby! My baby!" was all she would say, "He took my baby!" From there the rest of Liliana's story would be drowned out in a torrent of tears. It took a week in the home of loving Latina family before Liliana could even begin to reach out through her grief.

Lilian's husband, we were finally able to understand, had gone into family court and gotten a domestic violence restraining order against her, had obtained full legal custody of their baby, and had gotten Liliana ordered out of the home. After years of suffering her husband's abuse, Liliana, along with her five-year-old son from a previous relationship, was now homeless, pennyless, frightened, and unable to speak English in a foreign land. On top of the awful injustice, Liliana was near paralyzed by the loss of her baby.

Here's how this terrible situation came to be, and the steps we took to turn the case around. In just a matter of weeks we were able to get Liliana full custody of the baby, and a measure of justice, too. The details of the steps taken in Liliana's case aren't necessarily the same steps that will work with other domestic violence victims who find themselves in similar circumstances. But the general principle of action will almost always apply. Where ever there is a violent intimate relationship, there is almost always a long trail of unexplored evidence that, when documented, can be brought forth to expose the truth and obtain justice.

Liliana's husband, Rick, was born and raised here in our county. As a high paid executive in a large corporation he could easily afford sex tourism trips into the third world. It was on one such trip where 49-year-old Rick encountered 21-year-old Liliana, a single mother of a toddler son, living in desperate poverty, and working the streets. Rick bought Liliana for three days of prostitution, and then he offered to pay her way to the states and marry her.

The next stage of violence began within weeks of Liliana's arrival in the US. In the middle of one night when Liliana's son began crying, Rick jumped angrily out of bed, charging toward the boy's bed. "I didn't bargain for this," he roared. As Rick reached down to press his hand over the child's mouth, Liliana jumped up to intervene. Rick turned and grabbed Liliana, threw her back on the bed, tore off her gown, and raped her. Over the years they were together, Rick raped Liliana again and again.

As intolerable as the rapes were, they were still just the punctuation points in a regime of humiliations and violence with which Rick enforced servitude from every moment of Liliana's life. He constantly told her she had no rights, and that she had to obey him. As just one of her daily duties, when Rick arrived home from work, Liliana had to kneel down and take off his shoes. Rick also told Liliana that if she ever called police, the police would just laugh at her. On that point, he wasn't too far from wrong.

Somehow, from some reservoir of courage in her soul, Liliana began to protest and rebel. Rick soon got sick of her, and sick of what he called her 'bastard child'. He began to plot a divorce in which he would use the system to get all. One day he tried to make Liliana sign a paper giving him full custody of the new baby they had together. When she refused to sign, Rick called the police, and told police that Liliana was suicidal and had threatened to kill herself.

Liliana urgently tried to tell police in her limited English that her husband was lying. When police didn't understand her, or didn't want to understand, Liliana begged for an interpreter. Police responded by putting Liliana in handcuffs and carting her off to the local mental hospital. At the mental hospital Liliana had to wait a full day and a half before the mental hospital got her an interpreter. The interpreter the hospital provided for Liliana was the cleaning lady.

Still, Liliana used the opportunity to tell all. But even after listening to her story, the details of which are nothing less than modern day slavery, the doctors merely decided that Liliana wasn't suicidal and sent her home with her husband on the condition they both go to counseling. It was only a couple sessions into the counseling before Rick put an end to it, but not before Liliana had laid out her story out here, too.

The rapes and humiliations continued and so did Liliana's attempts to fight back and run from the house. On one occasion when Liliana scratched Rick's face in an attempt to avoid a rape, Rick again called the police to make a criminal report of his wife's domestic violence. The police obliged. When police found Liliana on the street and Liliana tried to tell her side of the story, police again failed to provide her with a interpreter. Liliana did, however, write out her statement in Spanish. But even though she had written of her attempt to escape sexual assault, police went ahead anyway with their domestic violence crime report, with Liliana named as the suspect perpetrator.

With Liliana now the suspect of a domestic violence crime report, Rick didn't waste a minute. He went straight to family court and requested a restraining order and full legal custody of the baby. Family court granted him both. Liliana and her five year old son were kicked out of the home and into the street.

The inequalities of power in domestic violence relationships, combined with the pervasive sexism of law enforcement, combined with the flaws of family court, doom many women to the same or similar outrageous injustices that came down on Liliana. Here's how we turned it around in Liliana's case.

  • We explained the legal situation to Liliana, and engaged her in going back through her story with us on a search for evidence. Like most other victims, once informed of basic legal points and what to search for in her story, Liliana became very effective in leading us to evidence and in helping us build her case.

    Key to doing this successfully with your client (or with your friend, or yourself) is that you make very clear at the beginning that you're going through the story, not in a therapeutic mode, but in a focused search for evidence. If that isn't made very clear, victims often become confused or hurt by the line of questioning. Or at the very least, when the victim doesn't clearly understand the purpose of going through the story again, you lose the essential partnership of the person who is most capable of spotting the evidence, i.e. the victim herself.

  • Liliana pointed us to the interpreter at the mental hospital, to the counselor she and her husband had seen however briefly, to neighbors and friends she had run to when she was trying get away from her husband's rapes. She gave us names of people whose shoulders she had cried on, and more. We contacted each of these people. Most, though not all, were willing to write and sign brief statements.

  • We gathered up as much of the medical and legal documentation in the case as possible; i.e. the police reports, hospital records, etc.just to make sure we weren't missing anything.

  • With Liliana's statement and the statements of witnesses, police opened a rape investigation against Liliana's husband.

  • We presented family court with copies of statements by witnesses; acquaintances who stated she had run to their home seeking protection, the interpreter, and the counselor who had briefly seen the couple. We wrote a one page cover letter to the court. The letter gave a summary story of the husband's abuse, a summary of the attached evidence, and informed the court of the open criminal investigation against the husband for rape - all condensed onto one page to make sure the judge would actually read it.

  • The above packet stopped the family court in it's tracks, and in a matter of weeks, the court completely reversed itself on the matter of custody, and gave a just and generous settlement to Liliana on the many other issues of the divorce. Liliana now has full legal custody of her baby. And, given her ex-husband's high economic status, she and her children are getting all the remedies and resources they need and deserve.

In some ways Liliana's case was unusually difficult in that her husband had already established a false legal record against her. In addition, he was a powerful business person in the community. In other ways, the case was easier than many, in that once Liliana got going, she was an ace detective on her own case.

But it's worth repeating the main point we want to make by telling Liliana's story. In every domestic violence relationship, there is almost always a trail of unexplored evidence. Engage the victim in a search for this evidence, document it, strategize how best to use it legally, and obtain justice for women.

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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