Q: How do I co-parent with an abuser? It’s causing me anxiety and panic attacks. – Theresa B.
A: Co-parenting can be a complicated and stressful situation for any ex-partners, but when one of those partners was abusive, it can take this situation to a whole new level of stress and may present risk factors for the children involved.
Many domestic violence experts advocate that an abusive partner should not receive custody of their children, but all too often, it happens anyway. I’m sorry that it’s happening in your case. There are some things you can do that might help lessen your anxiety some.
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My first suggestion is purchasing and reading books on the topic of child custody. They will go more into depth than I can here. You may also want to consider attending the Battered Mother’s Custody Conference, which is held once a year, to learn from experts and collaborate with other mothers who are facing similar circumstances.
Next, you may consider obtaining a restraining order or an order of protection if you’re still in a relationship with the abuser and post-relationship custody arrangements haven’t already been established. (And make sure you take precautions to also ensure your own safety when or if you seek a protection order, and afterwards.)
Merissa Grayson, lawyer and author of The Business of Co-Parenting for Single Moms and The Business of Co-Parenting for Dads says that, if a protection order or similar is in place, many courts won’t allow for unsupervised visits with that partner. Even without a protection order, when the time comes you can still request from the courts that visits are supervised, which may help to relieve some of your stress.
“It’s important to not hold back and say, ‘I don’t want to bring up the abuse in court,’” says Grayson. “The judge is only going to make [custody] decisions based on what they hear” and read.
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Judge Katherine Tennyson, a unified family court judge in Portland, Oregon, agrees. Her court sees all types of custody disputes, including many that involve a history of domestic abuse. Full disclosure, she says, is vitally important in keeping children out of harm’s way.
“You need to tell someone who can assist you—whether it’s your advocate or your lawyer [about the abuse]. Our decisions, as judges, are only as good as the information we have when we make them. How we get that information is controlled by a tight set of rules.”
To that end, be sure that you are safely and thoroughly documenting the abuse that you or your children are experiencing and, if possible, hire an attorney who has experience in domestic violence cases and dealing with abusive ex-partners as it pertains to child custody. This can go a long way in helping you advocate for yourself and your children.
Family Law Attorney Linda Kerns in Philadelphia says facilitating a formal co-parenting agreement might help ease some of your stress. This agreement may be reached by both parents working through a mediator, or via the judge overseeing the custody case, which Tennyson says is one way to minimize the abuser from exerting his or her power and control over the survivor after a split.
If a mediator is engaged, make sure he or she is one who is also specially trained in dealing with domestic violence in custody cases. An advocate with your local domestic violence shelter may be able to help you further in finding the right mediator. If your mediator does not have experience in domestic violence cases, he or she may do more harm than good when it comes to helping you establish a co-parenting agreement with your abusive partner, who may manipulate this mediator as a way to exert power and control over you, so please be aware of this.
Below, Kerns offers up these three tips for creating a co-parenting agreement:
1. The custody arrangement should be self-executing with no room for ambiguity or interpretation. For instance, if mom is going to have the kids Christmas eve and dad is going to have them Christmas day, specify exact times and instructions on pick-up, including the exact time children will be returned to the other parent. “Anyone looking at the arrangement should know where those children are any date and time of the year,” says Kerns. The specificity will help prevent an abuser from using the children as a form of control.
2. If possible, pick-ups and drop-offs should be at school or daycare, or somewhere that the parents do not encounter each other. This will lessen the possibility of harassment or intimidation by either parent, and make this process less stressful for the children.
3. All communication should be in writing, preferably by email or programs designed for parents that capture all communication. Try an app like Our Family Wizard or Talking Parents. “All communication is done through these apps so it’s as easy as email, but no one can alter it later and there are time stamps to show when someone reviews it,” says Kerns. Phone calls from the other parent while the children are in your custody are another time when the abuser can harass the other parent. Depending on the age of the child, Kerns says consider giving the phone directly to the child when the other parent calls so there is no possibility for harassment. Or, stick to written communications, such as text or email.
Finally, make sure you are reaching out for ongoing support during and after this custody arrangement process, Theresa. You will need a constant and steady support system in case new or further challenges arise regarding your ex and child custody issues. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate or counselor at any time for advice or just a sympathetic ear. Unloading your stressors can go a long way in helping you handle them in a healthy way.
For more tips on handling panic attacks, see the answer to Karen M.’s Ask Amanda question here on that very topic.
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