On a cold day in February, 2009, I filed for divorce from my abusive ex-husband.
Did I intend to file for divorce that day? No. I just wanted legal advice about my rights. The lawyer who advised me listened to my story, for a while, and then he convinced me to file. He told me that it was no longer about being “nice” and that, if I really wanted to end my marriage, there was really no sense in dragging it out. The website of his law office stated, very plainly, that they did deal with domestic abuse issues; That I’d found a lawyer who took domestic abuse seriously, I agreed to file, on the basis that I believed the legal system would give me the protection I needed whilst following through with my plans to escape. When I left the appointment, I felt a mix of emotions, praying I’d done the right thing.
As a victim of abuse, filing for divorce is a daunting task; there are so many unknowns, the main one being whether or not the abuse will escalate. In my case, it certainly did. As soon as he was served with divorce papers, the household dynamic changed. My counselor advised documenting everything he did and warned me that my soon-to-be-ex (STBX) would look for ammunition to use against me in the divorce proceedings. Although I had nothing to hide, it didn’t stop me from feeling more afraid that he would try to twist everything to his advantage. When I filled up three pages of abuse incidents, including evidence of parental alienation, I brought a copy of the documentation to my lawyer, who filed it away for “later”.
The divorce dragged on, due to his uncooperativeness every step of the way. As time passed, it was evident that he wasn’t going to play fair, in any aspect. About year after I filed, our lawyers referred us to mediation. My lawyer recommended mediation on the basis that we would have a better outcome if we could agree on custody, visitation, finances without having to involve the Courts. Although I fully understood and agreed with her recommendation, I knew he wouldn’t agree to mediation because he couldn’t see beyond his hatred of me and, therefore, refused to discuss any aspect of the divorce with me. He thought I deserved absolutely nothing because, in his mind, I made no contribution to the marriage; he didn’t appreciate that my staying home to raise his daughter enabled him go to work ~ and fully concentrate on his career ~ knowing that she was properly cared for. What he failed to realize was that letting a judge decide things wouldn’t necessarily work in his favor. Still, we met with the mediator, separately, to give him background information, based on perspectives, and declare what we wanted and expected as a result of mediation. I told the mediator I was still living in the same house and that I had concerns about the effect mediation would have on my children and me. The mediator took my concerns seriously and agreed to wait until I moved out. It wasn’t long before I received a letter, informing me that he refused to participate in mediation; my heart sank because I knew it would take control away from us and it meant that the divorce proceedings would only drag on for longer.
Ours was a particularly complicated case because I wanted to move back to America, post-divorce, and I had to apply for permission to remove my daughter from the UK jurisdiction. It caused problems with the financial side of things because [the judge overseeing the financial aspects] of our divorce wanted [the judge overseeing the removal case] to decide whether I could leave before deciding how to divide the settlement; [the judge overseeing the removal case] wanted [the judge overseeing the financial case] to give an idea of how much of the settlement I would receive to determine if it was enough to secure a fresh start in the U.S.
When it was time to prepare for the removal hearing, we’d already been to three hearings (it took 3 separate hearings to decide how to move forward in our case) and two years had passed since I first filed for divorce. Everyone involved with the case told me that it was next to impossible to get permission to remove my daughter from the UK jurisdiction. Building a case would take a lot of time and work. I asked my lawyer if the judge would even see the documentation of the abuse and she told me that I couldn’t even mention the abuse. I was incredulous. She told me that, if the judge thought that I was trying to end my daughter’s relationship with her father, he would rule against me. So much for dealing with domestic abuse situations, as advertised on their website! “But what about the fact that I’m protecting her from an abusive situation?” I asked; my lawyer only shook her head and told me that was the way things were.
I found this incredibly difficult to believe or accept because I knew that, if anything happened to my daughter as a result of the abuse, the first thing anyone would ask was why I failed to protect my daughter. I was trying. Nobody listened. The court guardian (CG) involved in our case criticized me for limiting visitation, despite telling him that there was parental alienation and that my STBX undermined my authority. I explained to him that, when my daughter came back from visitation with her father, she acted out defiantly and it took me the entire week to stop the defiance, before she went to see him again. The CG told me that the judge would want to see increased contact, which meant her staying with him for more than just a day, eventually building up to two weeks. He explained how important it was to “preserve” my daughter’s relationship with her father, declaring the abuse a non-issue. Sorry…but huh?
In April, 2011, we went for what was supposed to be a 2-day hearing for the removal case. Three people had to give evidence: the CG, STBX and me. On the first day, STBX caused a delay by claiming that my daughter called him in the middle of the night, crying and saying how much she missed him. The judge delayed the hearing and ordered the CG to go to her school and re-interview her to confirm she wanted to move to America with me. It was a lot of pressure to put on an 11-year-old girl. Neither of us had been granted custody and left it to her to decide whether she wanted to move. She felt pressured into staying because her father told her that, if she moved with me, she would never see her grandparents again. Additionally, when asked, my daughter said that the phone calls made to her father were nothing like he described. She said they’d happened 6 months before the hearing and she didn’t cry; she had merely told her father she missed him. Was he allowed to get away with delaying the hearing for a whole day, based on an exaggeration? Yes. My legal team even questioned why he had neglected to tell me until the first day of the hearing, while nobody else involved in our case challenged him.
Before I took the stand the following day, my legal team reminded me that I could not mention a single detail about the abuse. So, when it was asked why I had limited my daughter’s contact with her father, I couldn’t be completely truthful about why. Any answer, during cross-exam, that was directly related to the abuse had to be worded carefully to side-step the abuse or I simply had to say “I don’t know.” I didn’t mud-sling. If anything, I maintained my dignity and grace…and, as a result, came across as “naive” and/or stupid because I couldn’t answer the questions properly. Everyone in that courtroom agreed that his legal team brutally bullied me. My lawyer said she’d never seen anyone go through such a harrowing experience before, in all of her years as a lawyer. When STBX took the stand, he was less than kind in his answers and openly admitted that my daughter was well aware that he didn’t like me very much. He called me selfish and unrealistic.
Despite the poor testimony from the CG, despite not being able to answer the questions the way I wanted to, despite STBX’s testimony filled with venom and contempt for me, the judge still granted me permission to remove my daughter from the UK jurisdiction, but with conditions, one of them being “maximized contact” with her father. Before the hearing, I was told that neither of us could appeal the decision but, STBX appealed anyway, just to cause more delays. His lawyer admitted to mine that they were going to do everything possible to change my daughter’s mind about coming with me. And, with maximized contact, they would succeed.
What happened over the next several months was nothing short of diabolical. Parental alienation in its severest form. By the time he was finished, not only didn’t she want to move to the U.S. with me, she didn’t even want to live with me. When I told my lawyer what had happened, he shrugged, as though it was no big deal and, in that moment, I realized that the Court system didn’t care about preserving my daughter’s relationship with her mother. It all felt very dysfunctional to me and, to this day, I feel convinced that their view of me was horribly distorted because of my nationality.
If I could, I would love to go back and talk to the entire legal team that facilitated what happened to our family. And here’s what I would say:
Nearly 3 years ago, the 3-year, 2-month, 18-day long process to divorce my abusive ex-husband finally ended when I received my decree absolute. That it took me that long to obtain a divorce from this man is ridiculous, particularly as he did his level best to be as awkward as possible. Divorce is highly stressful, even when a marriage ends amicably. I told my ex, on many occasions, that I felt it extremely paramount for the two of us to remain friends because we had a child to raise together, regardless of what had taken place between us. Our problems had nothing to do with our daughter; as far as I am concerned, she deserved two parents who considered her well-being more important than one of us exacting revenge on the other. Alas, it wasn’t about what I wanted; he became completely consumed by getting his own back. He was the reason for the acrimonious split and the resulting, unnecessary strain put upon myself and my children has had a lasting impact on all of us.
My case is proof that justice is not black and white. Every case has many variables to which a black and white law system can’t be applied. The decisions made were not in my family’s best interest, regardless of what anyone in the legal system thinks. The bottom line is, your decisions were not informed ones because you didn’t have all the facts. My children and I were abused. Daily. There were no visible marks on us because the abuse was limited to emotional, verbal, psychological, financial. I documented incidents in great detail because it was the only way I could articulate what was going on; I submitted the document to my lawyer, but it never found its way to Court because I was told that it would look like I was trying to end my daughter’s relationship with her father. We parents in abusive situations can’t win; if we try to protect our children by limiting contact with the abusive parent, we are criticized for it (as I was)…and if the abusive parent harms the children, society and the law look to the co-parent and ask us WHY we didn’t do something to prevent such a thing happening. What are we supposed to do? The legal system can’t have it both ways. So much emphasis is placed on child safety, but abusive parents aren’t considered harmful, why?
Abusive parents have far too many rights, as far as I’m concerned. Children are not as resilient as we give them credit for. As for the role my abusive ex-husband played in our dysfunctional household, consider this:
- He controlled everything. And I mean everything.
- He had an emotional affair while I was pregnant with our daughter (I intercepted one of the [obscene] messages sent by the woman involved.)
- He ignored my pleas to fix things throughout our marriage, even to the point of tearing up a letter I wrote without reading it.
- He kept me sleep deprived for 13 years, while we were married.
- He kept me isolated from everyone.
- He denied me the freedom to practice my religion, while expecting me to accept his.
- He criticized everything about me, including the things I had no control over (my height, nationality, religion, physical appearance, mannerisms).
- He made me feel guilty for feeling hurt, angry or upset by something he did on purpose and usually ridiculed me when I acted out of frustration because he wouldn’t resolve conflicts between us.
- He made me feel sexually promiscuous, if I gave into HIS advances; when I mentioned my male friends by name, he would ask me, “Have you had sex with him, too?”
That’s a fraction of what he did to me, during the course of our marriage. He was the one who contaminated our household with dysfunctional practices. He was responsible for the break-up of our marriage. While I was far from perfect, I still gave 1000% to trying to fix things before the damage was irreversible but he wanted no part of it. So…I ask you: If someone chooses to act so irresponsibly without regard for the damage or impact it has on one’s spouse or children, why should that person have the same rights and privileges as the spouse who tried extremely hard to make it work? If he was the one mostly responsible for the eventual destruction of the family, why does the Court still view his relationship with his child(ren) worth preserving? Children have the right to a household that’s free from abuse and dysfunction. Children have the right to two parents who put their well-being above any harmful agenda or intent to use them as pawns to exact revenge on the other parent.
I would imagine it isn’t often that you see the results of your decisions, so I’m here to tell you about ours. Ready? After your decision to grant me permission to remove my daughter from the UK jurisdiction was handed down, STBX appealed, knowing that he wasn’t allowed to do so. He knew the appeal wouldn’t go anywhere, but that’s not why he did it; his primary goal was to cause a delay so that he would have a chance to convince our daughter that she didn’t want to leave the UK and alienate her from me in the process. During one of the “maximized contact” visits, he spent an entire evening interrogating her about why she wanted to move to the U.S. with me. She called me, in tears, to tell me that he told her she was “mentally ill, just like her mother” for wanting to move with me. This relationship between a man and his daughter is worth preserving? What sort of man makes his own daughter question her mental health, simply because she wants to do something he doesn’t agree with?
During these “increased” visits, as per your order for maximized contact, he opted for permissive parenting because his sole mission was to ensure that she was defiant when he brought her back to me. And she was. With every visit, I had more difficulty enforcing boundaries and, eventually, she would call him to “rescue” her from her responsibilities with me, without consequences. I lost control of my daughter because her father taught her that she only had to call him to come and collect her when she didn’t “feel like” doing her chores or whatever I expected of her while she was in my home. He stood idly by as she abused me, disrespected me and defied me. Her mind was poisoned against me. Every time I reached out to her, she would abuse me. She spewed the same abuse that she’d heard her father inflict upon me. Hearing his words coming from her mouth was nothing short of heartbreaking. If she came to my house, she expected to get her way and, when she didn’t, all hell broke loose. She lashed out physically, verbally and became extremely destructive of anything she had. She punched a hole in her bedroom door and wrote hate messages on the walls. Being only an inch shorter than me (and a lot stronger), I felt afraid that she would knock me down if she got mad enough. When I asked him to support me, he shrugged and told me it wasn’t his problem. I warned him that he would lose control of her eventually, if he didn’t enforce boundaries; he laughed, saying it would never happen. The same man who stood in your Courtroom, assuring you that he could do a better job taking care of our daughter, managed to estrange her from me in a matter of months.
She moved in with him, 6 months before I left the UK, and there was nothing I could do; it was him and her against me. I wanted to let the Court know about the abuse that my children and I suffered because I felt it was relevant to our case, and because my intent was to protect them from further abuse. His intent had always been to ended her relationship with her mother and that was okay because you “preserved” the father/daughter relationship.
And still, it gets better. In the end, my daughter didn’t come back with me to the U.S. My son wasn’t happy in the UK and refused to eat anything because he was severely depressed and he was losing a dangerous amount of weight. I had health issues (high blood pressure, digestion problems, severe headaches and asthma attacks, all from the stress). After we left the UK in August, 2012, with the understanding that my daughter would visit and/or join us at a later time, things got worse for her. When the new school year started, she gradually dropped out because her father allowed her to. She sought the company of the wrong crowd, which ultimately led to her drinking, smoking, experimenting with drugs, acquiring a lip piercing without parental consent, and generally refusing to stay in the house. Her school didn’t take legal action. The bottom line ~ her father could not get her to go to school or do anything he said. She told me that she used to wander the streets at all hours because she didn’t want to go home. He admitted that he had lost control, after a period of refusing to talk to me. Despite everything, I offered to help him, but he didn’t accept my help. He called social services, to involve a social worker, because he told me that he didn’t want to look after her. She attempted suicide twice before he passed away, once after. After her second hospital stay, she was told by her father that she wouldn’t be allowed to return home because he was putting her into foster care. For some unknown reason, he changed his mind and, following an overnight stay at her aunt’s house, my daughter went back to her father’s house. The day after her return, my daughter experienced the trauma of witnessing her father dying, without the awareness of what was happening. He had undiagnosed cancer because of his refusal to see a doctor or tell anyone about any symptoms he might have had. He referred to me as selfish, during the removal hearing, but he wouldn’t endure a single moment of discomfort during routine physical examinations to ensure he maintained good health for his daughter’s sake. This is indicative of the fact that he rarely put the needs of his family before his own. His thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions always came first, even at the detriment of those around him. If it wasn’t important to him, it wasn’t important.
After her father passed away, she attempted suicide again and, following her third hospital stay, her paternal grandparents and aunt told her she wasn’t allowed home (these are the same people he claimed, at the Court hearing, that she had a “great relationship” with and who would help him look after her). During an extensive conversation with my daughter, about her father’s death and the aftermath, she told me that the reason her paternal grandparents didn’t want her in their house was because they didn’t want the “embarrassment” of a possible 4th suicide attempt. This poor girl, who had just lost her father, wasn’t allowed to grieve with her family. I felt that forcing her to transition to life, away from the familiarity of her home, in a new country, school, so soon after her father’s death, would be too much for her to handle. It seemed more beneficial for her to come and live with me, after finishing her school year there, because she needed more time to grieve, gain a bit of closure and become accustomed to the idea of moving abroad. Because her paternal family didn’t look after her, I had to put her into a private foster care arrangement so that I wouldn’t lose my parental rights. Fortunately, a school friend’s mother stepped up to take her in until I was able to get there to bring her back home with me.
When she arrived in the U.S., we had a damaged relationship. Before she arrived here, I had counselors in place for her so that we could heal her. What I didn’t realize was that she had self-harming issues. She coped with her depression and anxiety by cutting her arms, legs, torso area because of the low self-esteem. She has been on anti-depressants for over a year now, under the care of a psychiatrist, and was hospitalized on 4 separate occasions in 2014, due to episodes of cutting.
In retrospect, I can pinpoint when everything changed for my daughter ~ after the visitation with her father increased. I felt heartbroken to witness the stark contrast in her personality, mindset, attitude, as compared to the daughter I’d raised from birth to the time she moved out of my house. She had always been a very confident little girl who wasn’t fazed by the idea of performing in the orchestra or in a play in front an audience. She was known for her ability to strike up a conversation with anyone we met. She always did very well in school had a wide network of friends and she was generally happy. Everyone who knew her would always comment on how polite, happy, chatty, talented she was and expressed shock when they observed her hanging with bad crowds, smoking and playing truant.
All of that said, what I would like to know is this: while listening to my ex’s testimony, did it not occur to you to question his abilities as a parent, based on his declaration, under Oath, that he did not like me very much? He even admitted that our daughter knew it. As far as I’m concerned, the Court focused on the wrong aspects of our case. The overall dynamic of our relationship was glaringly obvious: he told you, by admitting his disdain for the mother of his child, that he was not prepared to do what was best for his child. Any parent who has zero respect for their child’s other parent is not going to be a good co-parent. Not once, in my 5-hour testimony (in which I was brutally bullied during the cross-examination) did I badmouth my ex. I always maintained that I wanted to put aside our differences so that he and I could co-parent our daughter as civilly as possible. I believe in both parents presenting a united front because I saw, firsthand, what happens when there is no united front. Her father made it possible for her to play us against each other, without regard for what he was doing ~ paving the way for her to eventually treat him the way she treated me.
My ex was never held accountable for the abuse I suffered, at his hands, during our marriage. I lived in fear of this man, as did my children. I felt amazed that he was the one who stayed in the family home, without any disruption in his life, while I was the one who had to move to a new home, with my children in tow. I was the one who had to start from scratch, with no money, after the difficulties I faced in finding a house, decorating it from top to bottom, and uprooting my children from the home they grew up in. In order to effectively deal with the issue of abuse, we must: 1. provide a realm of safety, within the legal system, where victims can openly admit that it’s going on and receive adequate protection; 2. hold abusive spouses accountable for their actions; 3. recognize that it’s detrimental to maximize visitation between a child and an abusive parent, without proper protective measures.
With all that said, let me give you an update on our current situation. My daughter has been back with me for a year and 7 months and since she and I were reunited, she:
- goes to school everyday, without fail. She is doing well in her classes and has formed some very close friendships.
- no longer smokes, drinks or experiments with drugs.
- attends a religious youth group and has been named one of the leaders to help coordinate activities for the other kids who attend.
- has received her driver’s permit, after successfully passing her driver’s education course.
- has an increasing respect for boundaries and is far less defiant than she was when she first arrived.
- has adapted well to life in a new country, culture, school.
- tells me repeatedly that she is happy and secure, living here with me.
Those are the positives and, yes, there are still negatives, which we are still working on. I appreciate that you initially gave me permission to remove my daughter from the UK jurisdiction and, for the record, I did meet the conditions you specified. I would urge you to treat future cases differently than mine by concentrating more on the dynamic between a couple to get an idea of how their co-parenting will be and, also, by focusing on protecting the child(ren) involved, even if it means limiting contact with the abusive parent. Not all parent-child relationships are beneficial; my daughter is living proof of that. Please consider all of the facts, especially those provided by household members who have firsthand knowledge of the situation. If you had looked at the overall history of our divorce proceedings, you would have gotten a better idea of the sort of person my ex was. His unwillingness to cooperate was evident in all aspects and yet, the Court didn’t call him out on any of the delays he caused. Your decisions affect the overall lives of everyone in the families involved and you owe it to each family to know as much as possible about their situation. Remember, you do not have to live with the decisions you make for the families in your courtroom. They do.
In closing, I want to offer some advice on effectiveness in the legal arena. Whether dealing with divorce proceedings or building a case specific to domestic abuse, there are important factors that could make a huge difference in the outcome of your case.
- Find the right lawyer. Utilize free legal consultations until you find the right one. Legal services are costly, so your satisfaction and relationship dynamic is vital. One must-ask question: How does your firm handle domestic abuse situations? You want someone who will highlight the abuse and not sweep it under the rug or be dismissive of it. Your lawyer must believe in and fight for your cause; s/he must accurately articulate your needs and be willing to challenge anything that is not in your best interest. Make sure that you’re being listened to and heard.
- Document, document, document, everything. Include dates, times and as many details as possible, even if you think that something is trivial or insignificant. Documenting everything that happens is the only way to give an accurate account of the abuse. Providing a document will illustrate that there is a pattern, which makes it more difficult for the abuser to “explain away” an action or behavior as a one-time incident.
- Don’t hesitate to get the police involved, if you feel that your safety/well-being is at risk. Police reports are your friend because they illustrate that you felt threatened enough to seek lawful intervention.
- Resist all temptation to mud-sling and let the documentation speak for itself. Dignified silence and grace go a long way; while you’re calm, cool and collected, it’s more likely that your abuser will dig his/her own hole. If you’re asked to testify at a hearing, stick to facts and speak with sincerity.
- Participate in mediation. My lawyer always said that, whatever you can negotiate outside of a Courtroom will be much fairer than allowing a judge to decide for you. Make sure that you’re allowed to articulate your feelings in mediation. Being heard is important but, remember, maintain the same dignity and grace that you would in a Courtroom. You’re in mediation to reach a fair agreement, not to argue.
- Over-deliver whatever you’re asked to submit, if possible, while building your case. If you pay attention to detail and give accurate accounts of what took place, your case will be that much stronger, in the long run.
- Resist the urge to embellish the truth, even just a bit, because you think it’ll make your case sound better. Should you find yourself under Oath, having to answer specific questions, you may find that the truth comes out.
- Always clarify things if your legal team has inaccurate information. Again, if you don’t clarify and, eventually, have to answer specific questions while under Oath, you will come across as dishonest.
- Resist the urge to fight over every piece of property. It’s one thing to insist on keeping things that belong to your side of the family but another to fight over everything, simply out of spite.
- The children are not pieces of property, they’re people, with feelings. Never use the children to get back at the other parent. Alienation is not a word in your family’s vocabulary. Your children will not thank you if you attempt to damage their relationship with their other parent. If you attempt to cause them confusion or guilt about their feelings for their other parent, it will come back and bite you in the ass when they’re old enough to realize what you did. And it won’t be pretty.
- If there is an issue with what happens in Court, talk to your lawyer so that s/he can address the issue immediately or at the next Court hearing.
I took the time to write this article to illustrate what it was like to deal with my abuser in the legal arena. It was a difficult experience, which spanned a little over 3 years. It didn’t have to take that long and my ex’s uncooperativeness backfired in unimaginable ways. The message I want to highlight is that, as difficult as it all was, I got through it. I want others to learn from my mistakes for an improved, smoother legal journey.
Please feel free to contact us about any questions you might have. As always, we’re here to help.