If you ask advocates and survivors about their experiences with the legal system, you’re not likely to hear a lot of glowing reviews. When it comes to domestic violence, attorneys and judges are by-and-large not given adequate training. The nuances of domestic violence are often missed—judges can see a charming abuser and assume they’re not a danger to the victim, attorneys can use a survivor’s emotional testimony against her, calling her “unstable” or even unfit to be a mother. All of this can lead to heartbreaking decisions like giving abusers custody of the children, sometimes even forbidding a protective parent from seeing her children at all.
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In reality, the above are the tell-tale signs of power and control. An abuser, in control, holds power over an often desperate and despondent victim of abuse. But without knowing how the cycle of violence presents, those in the judicial system can miss important red flags that would otherwise alert them to abuse.
A Training Manual to Demystify Abuse in Court
A new manual by attorney Elizabeth Liu and former attorney Barry Goldstein is hoping to change that. Both Liu and Goldstein, who is also an editorial advisor to DomesticShelters.org, have spent their careers advocating for domestic violence victims through custody cases, protection order cases and trial court. This March, the second, revised edition of Representing the Domestic Violence Survivor was released, heralded as “a must for every practitioner representing abuse survivors.”
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The $150 book is primarily aimed at attorneys, specifically those representing protective mothers in custody court, but it’s also recommended for judges and domestic violence coalitions and shelters, “as it includes a great deal of useful information on countering many of the tactics abusive husbands employ to mislead and thwart family and custody courts,” says the publisher.
Liu says she hopes the book falls primarily into the hands of attorneys who want to help survivors of domestic violence but who don’t have expertise in the area, or who want to better understand the complexities of the issue.
One example of what the book explains, she says, is how domestic abuse survivors can present in court as compared to how abusers may present.
“Our clients are in trauma—they’re angry, emotional—though I don’t love using that word—and we explain how that comes across to judges. You contrast that with the abuser who comes across as very polished, very caring, loving toward his child, full of remorse over what he’s done.” She says children can sometimes be clearly happy to see their father, leading judges to question how that could be if the father was, indeed abusive.
“That’s very counterintuitive,” says Liu, but says it’s all part of how domestic violence affects children. Sometimes, children may be happy to see a parent they haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes, they may feel pressured to be happy to see them, programmed to be on their best behavior around an abusive parent, or worry that showing fear will upset their mother or other protective parent.
Then, there’s also the emotional let-down that can happen with a protective parent.
“Sometimes children, when with the safe parent, usually the mother, will lose it. All the emotions, all the stress, all the trauma is going to come out. [Judges] may think, ‘Oh this is a bad parent, she can’t control her child.”
Liu says these are misconceptions—common responses to domestic violence in children—that could potentially change court rulings if judges and attorneys were made aware.
“One of the goals of our book is to shine the light on these dynamics,” says the author.
The book also exposes what the authors say are “phony social science theories like parental alienation syndrome,” and debunks the myths that the involvement of an abusive parent in child-raising, even a lethally abusive one, is always better than no involvement at all. (See more misconceptions in “5 Myths About Child Custody and Domestic Violence.”
Important New Chapters Added
Since the first edition came out in 2013, the book has been updated to include information about adverse childhood experiences and how gender bias can compromise judicial decision making, among other topics that Liu says she wishes were more common knowledge among attorneys.
“All attorneys are not trained in domestic violence. I took specific domestic violence classes because I was interested, but it wasn’t something you would learn about automatically, and it wasn’t on the bar.”
Though the #MeToo movement has thankfully increased awareness of abuses in power, says Liu, she’s not sure if that effect has trickled down into custody courts.
“I think things are moving in the right direction, but I think in the field it’s two steps forward, one step back.”
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