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As many as a quarter to a half of all disputed custody cases in the U.S. involve domestic violence. Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D, New York professor of psychology at Sienna College went through it herself, battling to get custody of her children after escaping an abusive husband, spurring her to found the annual Battered Mother’s Custody Conference soon after.
“I went through hell, but not the hell that some people go through,” she says. “I separated and divorced from an abusive partner and thought it would be easy to get legal protection and get limits on his behavior.” Her ex had abused both her and her children. She says she was fortunate to have a very good attorney and didn’t end up losing her children, but a lot of mothers can’t say the same. “Things have gotten worse since my case, which happened in the late ‘90s. Mothers are accused of lying, of being delusional, having a mental illness … [the legal system] takes all the focus off what the abuser has done. It’s hard for people to believe this happens, but it happens all the time.”
Contrary to popular belief, the courts aren’t always in favor of the mothers in custody cases, says Hannah, even when proof of domestic violence is present. In fact, the American Bar Association says research shows that when abusive parents seek custody of their children, they are successful almost 70 percent of the time. Hannah started the annual conference so mothers would have a place to come together, share resources, network, educate themselves and, most of all, not feel alone. “It’s a wonderful experience of solidarity. Some of these moms are getting their kids back after many years of struggle.”
On the other hand, many aren’t. “Many mothers who are going through the court system because of separation or divorce, who are trying to get legal orders to protect themselves from an abusive ex-partner, often end up having their case turned against them. They may end up losing their children.”
Though she’s never publically spoken out about domestic violence, actress Kelly Rutherford, a speaker at the last Battered Mother’s Custody Conference, is fighting a very public battle for custody of her children, ages 6 and 8. Since her divorce in 2008, when a California judge ordered them to live in Monaco with their father after his visa was revoked, Rutherford has been fighting to get them back to the U.S. Now, courts in the U.S. say they no longer have jurisdiction over the case.
“The court turned things around on her and made her look like a crazy person,” attests Hannah. “Just like so many other moms, she was naïve and thought the court would protect her and her children and the court hasn’t protected her at all. At all. The publicity hasn’t even helped her. It’s absolutely terrible. Those things happen on a smaller scale to so many women.”
Hannah says there are several things women in these situations can do to help optimize their outcome:
- Keep detailed records of how much time you spend with your children and everything you do for your children.
- Keep detailed records of what the abusive partner does not do with his children, as well as any abusive behavior, harassment or similar that involves the children.
- Choose an attorney very carefully; if possible, choose one recommended by another woman who has been represented by that attorney and has had a good outcome.
- Never get emotional in public, especially with the ex-partner and especially not in court. “They will use it against the mother,” says Hannah.
Finally, says Hannah, “never give up fighting for your kids. I’ve seen moms eventually win back contact, or even custody, by persisting and playing their cards right.”
Keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates on conference dates.
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