Abigail Miller* grew up in Oregon. As of two years ago, the 42-year-old had never visited Costa Rica before. She certainly never imagined the country would soon become her permanent home, to little choice of her own. She never imagined once she left the United States, she’d never be able to come back. But as any mother knows, all bets are off when someone hurts your child.
In 2018, Miller fled to the tropical tourist spot, the most visited country in Central America, known for its lush rainforests, pristine beaches, and a bevy of volcanos. But she was hardly there to zipline through the jungle — she wanted to hide. Her estranged boyfriend had been sexually abusing their son, Jack*, since he was 2 and the U.S. court system didn’t believe her or her son, now 8. U.S. courts allowed the boy’s father to continue to have non-supervised visitation rights.
“The more I fought for my son’s rights, the more I was threatened by the U.S. courts that I would lose the custody I had. It was heading that way, which is why I left,” Miller says.
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So Miller took the boy and fled, which U.S. courts don’t exactly consider legal, sought refugee status in Costa Rica, which she was eventually granted, and waited, knowing her ex-boyfriend wouldn’t be far behind.
“Technically, I didn’t kidnap him,” she clarifies, of her son, speaking to DomesticShelters.org from Costa Rica. “I had custody, but I left without permission.”
Miller’s voice is shockingly calm and collected given what she’s endured, and what lies ahead. When she arrived in Costa Rica, which she’d made the split-second decision to flee to because she’d heard it “was big on children’s rights,” she arrived with no money, no solid plan, no place to live, and only a few contacts—friends of friends.
“I had a couple who helped us hide, lent us a car. These people who were struggling themselves said, ‘take this and don’t say no.’” She says she literally threw her and her son at the universe and said, “Please catch us.”
Miller met her now ex-boyfriend when she was 15. He was 17 years her senior. Miller says she found his early attempts to court her strange.
“I don’t think I really realized what was going on at first.” He was a famous British artist, and she wrote his behavior off as par for the course in the art world. “According to him, he sort of decided to fall in love with me when I was 15.”
He pursued Miller for many years, attempting to woo her with money and gifts while sabotaging other relationships she had. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she acquiesced and found herself spending more time with him and his young daughter from another relationship. He wanted Miller to quit school, but she refused, finishing her Master’s degree at 28 and getting a job in New York working in sustainability education. She agreed to move in with him.
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It didn’t take long for the romantic gestures to stop and his abuse to begin.
“He was always yelling at his daughter and putting her down. I would get in the middle and intervene. He was dismissive and condescending to me.” She had her suspicions that he was abusing his daughter, possibly sexually, but says her ex blamed his daughter’s sexualized behavior on the girl’s mother.
“I had no experience with [this behavior], so I just assumed I was wrong,” Miller says.
Still, Miller decided to rescind from her earlier decision to move in together. The couple continued to see each other. She says her ex’s behavior turned “aggressive and violent” soon after.
“It was hard to admit to myself... I never thought of myself as that kind of person, a victim.” She says her ex would blame her for not wanting the relationship to work, and Miller took on that blame. “I’ll work on this,” she thought at the time, and by 2010, the two were living together. Yet, her ex’s abuse only escalated, and Miller moved out again. A year later, she was pregnant.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was filled with dread. He was elated.”
Miller moved back in with her abusive ex at 8 months pregnant. But the terror never ceased.
“I spent time with him and his daughter and my whole family during Christmas. He threatened to kill his daughter. They were chasing each other with knives.” Another time, she says he grabbed her computer away from her and threw it across the room. Then he twisted her wrist and nearly broke it. When she went into labor, he forced himself on her. Yet, after she gave birth to Jack, she says her ex “kind of disappeared. It was really weird.”
Two weeks later, she says he returned and forced himself on her again after she put their son to bed. “He pushed my face into a pillow and the only thing I could think about was not wanting to wake up my son.” After that, she would lock the bedroom door at night. Her ex slept in another room.
When their son was three months, Miller witnessed her ex shaking him. The baby didn’t suffer any serious injuries.
“I knew I needed to leave him but I didn’t have the strength. I had no money, I had nothing and my family was not supportive.” Miller was scared of both her ex and his daughter, now 8, who would often come over in a rage.
She wanted him to kill my son ... she kept telling people.” Miller says she worries her ex’s daughter’s rage arose from the sexual abuse she suspects her ex committed when his daughter was young.
Miller started secretly stashing away money in a savings account after paying off bills and when Jack was 1, she decided to leave.
“I had proof [her ex] had started a different relationship, so I told him Jack and I would move out of the city and he could visit whenever he wanted. I tried to make it as amicable as possible and he agreed to it. It was a start of freedom.”
For the first time in a long time, Miller wasn’t afraid at night. Unfortunately, her peace didn’t last long.
“He hardly ever came over at first, but then he started coming more and acting aggressively in front of our son, pushing me in the kitchen, yelling at me. I remember our son stepping between us and shaking his finger at his dad.”
When her ex’s new relationship ended, he showed up again, begging Miller for another chance. She refused. That’s when he turned to the courts and filed an order for full custody.
“He said I was trying to kidnap our son and wasn’t allowing him to see him. I was completely naïve to the whole family court system. I had no understanding of how parental alienation syndrome worked and how people used it.”
Miller wasn’t allowed to bring up domestic violence in court because she had no concrete proof to back it up, things like police reports or hospital records, a barrier many survivors of verbal, psychological and sexual abuse face. As a result, her ex was granted non-supervised visitation rights.
It was soon after this that Miller says her ex began to sexually abuse their son when the child was with him. At three years old, he told his mother that his father made him play something horrific called “the penis game.” But since the boy wouldn’t open up to authorities, it was difficult to make a case.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE study, 22 percent of U.S. children are sexually abused before they reach 18. The Meier study found courts typically only believe 15 percent of child sexual abuse reports from protective mothers, and only 2 percent when the father accuses the mother of parental alienation. According to former attorney and advocate Barry Goldwater, the Bala study found mothers make deliberate false reports of abuse less than 2% of the time.
“This means the courts are getting a large majority of sexual abuse cases wrong and the mistakes are tilted toward helping sexual predators and risking children,” says Goldstein. “Courts make these tragic mistakes because they .... fail to use scientific research and rely on experts who are unqualified to [review] domestic violence or child sexual abuse.”
Courts Ignored Complaints
At three, Jack acted out a sexual game with a friend, typically a clear sign of sexual abuse. But a court evaluator chalked up the incident to the boys “playing doctor.” Jack continued to act out inappropriately at school, with teachers reporting sexually themed games, but Miller’s complaints in court fell on deaf ears.
“I’m not sure what’s worse,” says Miller, “seeing how much your child is suffering or the fact that you know that the person you had a child with is doing this. Of all the things I had to survive, this was the absolute worst.”
The boy’s father would retain unsupervised visitation rights for years, despite Jack’s accounts of abuse. Miller was reaching the end of her rope, saying her situation highlights how well abusers know and manipulate their victims’ weaknesses.
“He knew that ... the one pillar of strength I had was my son. He knew I wasn’t going to come back. So [my son] was the one thing he could attack.”
“Just because an abuser is no longer in your home doesn’t mean the abuse stops. It made me wish I had never left because if I had stayed, he would only have abused me. I never understood before why women didn’t leave, but now I do. That’s one of the biggest things people don’t get.”
It would be three more years of trying to fight the system before Miller fled.
The Future Is Uncertain
Google Miller’s real name and a bevy of stories about how she kidnapped her son pop up. Jack was “abducted by his non-custodial mother” one reads. A private investigator is following her. Her son’s father is in Costa Rica as well, and demands to see his son, which he was allowed to do for a brief time, Miller explains.
“He [her ex] was awarded supervised visitation by a family court judge here who has now been found in contempt of violating [Jack’s] human rights. The visitation rights were revoked and there is now a restraining order against his father that prohibits him from seeing Jack.”
For the most part, Miller says Costa Rica’s child services are keeping the two safe. The courts there believe Jack’s accounts of the abuse, says Miller.
Still, there are hurdles to overcome. Jack, now 8, has trust issues with others, has struggled in school, as it means he has to be separated from his mother for a few hours, but pre-pandemic, he was in therapy to help. Miller says she sometimes grieves the loss of the son she had before all this. She’s working on forming a new relationship with him, “where he is now.”
Only recently did Miller start coming to terms with the fact that she can never return to the U.S. or she will be arrested, and her son could be given back to his abusive father.
“It’s just starting to sink in that this is where I have to be. I’ve never had time to grieve. The thing that’s hardest for me about that is my mother. Not being able to take care of her and be near her. Knowing I won’t be able to go to her funeral when she passes.”
Part distraction, part self-care, Millers' next goal is to figure out what she can do to be of service to others. A children’s book, maybe, on childhood trauma. She wants to get involved with the Battered Mother’s Custody Conference from where she is.
“I just need to be a little less broken before I can be of service.”
*Names changed for safety.
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