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When most parents separate from their child’s other parent, they try to amicably reach a decision on parenting time. However, fathers who are domestic abusers are much more likely to dispute custody than other men. They often succeed in their efforts to gain additional unsupervised parenting time or even full custody. Where custody is contested, you, your ex, or the judge may call on a number of people to help with your case. Learn who they are and how they can help—or hinder—your ability to keep your child safe.
Judges prefer (some jurisdictions require) parents who are separating to go through mediation to try to work out arrangements regarding their children and their property, without going to trial. Most mediators are attorneys or social workers who have been trained in separation and divorce issues (with or without legal marriage). Most are not trained in issues of domestic abuse.
Mediation is unlikely to be successful where there has been coercive control and domestic abuse. Abusers will often demand custody of children with whom they have previously spent little time—to spite their ex-partners, and/or to avoid paying child support. At the same time, victim/survivors often feel too intimidated to assert themselves. Victim/survivors may end up surrendering both financial security and time with their children, just to get the process over with, especially if they do not have an assertive lawyer arguing on their behalf.
A tip to make mediation less intimidating: In some states, each party is allowed to sit with their lawyer in a separate room while the mediator goes back and forth. In this way, the victim/survivor does not have to sit in the same room as the abuser. If you do not feel that mediation is working, you have the right to put a stop to it and work on a settlement outside mediation or request a trial.
GALs (Guardians ad litem)
Courts frequently appoint GALs to represent children’s interests in family cases. Guardians ad litem may be attorneys or social workers. In some states, they are not required to have a degree in either field and may even be volunteers. GALs act as factfinders for the court. They often:
- Interview children over four years old and both parents
- Observe each parent spending time with the children
- Review collateral materials such as police, medical, and school records, and letters from friends and family members
In some states, GALs write a report and then their involvement with the case ends. In others, they make verbal recommendations but don’t write reports. Sometimes judges ask GALs to stay involved with cases for years.
GALs are supposed to be independent and unbiased, as they present advantages and disadvantages of various parenting time scenarios. However, GALs are sometimes susceptible to abusers’ charms and lies, or don’t understand the parenting limitations of domestic abusers. Frustratingly, often GALs will document problems associated with domestic abuse and then recommend 50/50 custody regardless. Usually, parents must split any costs associated with hiring a GAL according to their means.
These individuals often (but not always) have a doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology. A custody evaluator will interview parents and their children and will sometimes administer psychological tests with the goal of determining parental fitness. Custody evaluations are most helpful where the mental health of one or both parents is in question or where the child is experiencing developmental delays or psychological challenges.
Unfortunately, most custody/parenting evaluators have no specialized training in domestic abuse and may be unfamiliar with the ways it can make people appear in psychological evaluations. For example, abusers typically lie on the MMPI test (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory; a frequently used but highly problematic personality inventory). Victims might appear “paranoid” when they have to respond to a question such as, “Is someone out to get you?” The evaluator who does not understand the testing implications of domestic abuse, or who may not even know that domestic abuse is present, may reach inaccurate conclusions about the psychological profile of each parent.
Psychological or Psychiatric Evaluators
Sometimes one or both parties in a custody case will raise questions about the other’s general mental health and the court will require one or both parties to undergo testing with a psychologist or psychiatrist. Unfortunately, most psychological evaluators have no training or expertise in domestic abuse and may use tests and ask questions in ways that fail to consider the abuse.
Survivors fleeing abuse and terrified for their children’s well-being may appear scattered, paranoid, and unstable, while some domestic abusers can present a front of calm rationality. All too often, abusers will require and pay for a psychological evaluation of their victim, but the victim won’t have the resources to pay for a psychological evaluation of the abuser. This creates an imbalanced situation where the victim’s mental health is being called into question, but not the abuser’s. This plays right into an abuser’s gaslighting strategy of calling the victim “crazy.”
Domestic Abuse Expert Witnesses
These are people with specialized training and years of experience working with domestic abuse victim-survivors and/or abusers. They might evaluate the alleged victim and/or abuser, write a report, and possibly testify at trial.
This can be especially important in situations where there is no documented evidence of physical assault, or there was no physical assault, or where the abuser is trying to claim that the victim is the primary aggressor. Getting a true picture of domestic abuse can be key to attaining safety for children.
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CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates)
CASAs are volunteers trained to advocate for children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or abandonment. CASAs are appointed by judges to work in individual family cases on behalf of children. A CASA typically spends ten or fifteen hours each month with children inside and outside their homes, and communicating with caretakers and professionals, before writing a report that a judge will use to make decisions about a child’s future.
These coordinators may be appointed by the courts to help co-parents manage their parenting plan, communicate respectfully, and resolve disputes. They may be trained social workers or anyone else, really, who has undergone a short training. They typically have no special understanding of domestic abuse and may overestimate their ability to help parents reach a peaceful resolution.
Parenting coordinators sometimes fall prey to the misguided notion that the custody conflict is actually a dispute between two equally responsible parties, and that by just sitting down together and talking, the problems will disappear. Since parenting coordinators are paid by the hour, they may have an incentive to have as many conversations as possible.
One mother I know thought the parenting coordinator would serve as a buffer between her and her abusive ex-husband. Instead, the coordinator required weekly face-to-face meetings between them. Domestic abuse lawyers sometimes refuse to agree to parenting coordinators or limit their roles severely to avoid these unfortunate situations.
Judges often listen to the recommendations of GALs and custody evaluators. If one or both parents believes the GAL has been biased or unprofessional, they can submit a peer review rebuttal of the GAL/Evaluator report within a specific time period. However, it can be difficult to find and afford experts to write these peer reviews.
Several of the people listed here may become involved in a single case of disputed custody, and they may not agree with each other. The presence of more people does not guarantee a better outcome, but it will increase costs.
Remember, the people who fill each of these roles are human beings with backgrounds and biases that will affect their conclusions. If you do have some say in the matter, try to find professionals recommended by others who have been through experiences that are similar to yours, and examine their web pages to find the right person to determine your child’s best interests
Photo by Yan Krukov for Pexels.
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