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Physical abuse hurts and can have life-threatening consequences. But for some domestic violence survivors, losing access to their children is infinitely more painful, as well as a way for an abusive ex-partner to continue exerting control and tormenting his victim even after separation.
It’s often referred to as “domestic violence by proxy” and it takes many forms, all aimed at hurting the victim. Common tactics include: threats of harm to children if they display a positive bond with the other parent; destroying favored possessions from the other parent; emotional torture, such as telling the child the other parent hates them, wanted an abortion, and is not coming to get them because they are unloved; coaching children to make false allegations about a parent's behavior; or creating fake documents to defraud the court in order to prevent the other parent from gaining custody.
The problem is gaining some media attention, surprisingly, in Argentina, and for reasons that primarily do not involve domestic violence. There, the law automatically awards custody to mothers when children are under five years of age, leaving some fathers susceptible to manipulation.
Erasing Dad is a documentary that follows six Argentinian dads fighting to gain access to their children after divorce. Only one of the featured fathers was abused during his relationship, and film director Ginger Gentile sees how domestic violence by proxy could be a natural progression for a batterer once he or she no longer has access to physically or emotionally harm the survivor directly.
“Say you’re 12, 14 or 16—whatever—and you depend on your parents for everything and you see one of them being abusive [to the other],” she says. “And then that parent says, ‘I don’t want you to see the other parent anymore,’ well you’re going to go along with that.”
And just as with other types of abuse, Gentile says domestic violence by proxy affects families of all races, educational levels and economic statuses.
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“There’s no demographic,” she says. “I’ve seen it happen to people who live in the slums in Argentina as well as judges, CEOs and celebrities around the world.”
Tamra Judge of the Real Housewives of Orange County is one such celebrity. As an “erased mom” herself, she was intrigued by Gentile’s film. Judge lost custody of her teenage daughter, Sidney, after divorcing Sydney’s father in 2011 and her daughter now refuses to speak to Judge.
And Judge wasn’t the only alienated mother Gentile came across after filming Erasing Dad. In fact, she saw the practice so much that she decided to make a second film called Erasing Family. This film aims to shed light on the impact domestic violence by proxy has on the whole family, including mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents—but mostly the children themselves.
“In Erasing Family, we’re going to focus on the harm that’s done to the children.” Gentile says. “In many cases, it’s the children who are ultimately the victims.”
On the other hand, some domestic violence advocates argue that domestic violence by proxy is a term male abuser use against mothers in court in order to gain custody. When successful, courts grant custody to the abusive parent based on the belief that they are more likely to promote a relationship with the mother. But once abusers have gained control, they attempt to destroy the mother's relationship with her children.
If you suspect your abuser will engage in domestic violence by proxy, know you’re not alone. Talk to a domestic violence advocate or attorney about what you can do to protect yourself and your children. You may also want to read “ Protecting Your Children in the Court System” and “Children Used as Pawns in Court.”
Watch the full-length documentary, Erasing Dad, for free here.
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