Continued from the previous article “Star Advertiser Makes The Issue of Domestic Violence Front Page News (Again)”
When Dart Award winner and investigative reporter for the Star Advertiser newspaper, Rob Perez, was writing his seven-part series “Crossing The Line – Abuse in Hawaii Homes” I vividly recall the shock in his voice when he called to share a disturbing trend in comments he was hearing from DV survivors as he gathered information for his series – all were telling him that the abuse they suffered while in the relationship was better then the way they were being treated by the system being out of it.
Just how bad could it be? Let’s pick up with a hypothetical situation of a domestic violence victim with a TRO against her abuser whom she shares children with:
The abuse in the relationship and the threat for more has been established. She’s kept herself and her children safe by fleeing to a shelter and by taking proper legal and corrective action: obtaining a TRO, filing for divorce, enrolling in services for both her and her children, informing all necessary parties of her situation (her school/employment, landlord and neighbors, her children’s school officials) and withdrawing from friends and family for their and her own safety. While all of this is going on, she may be looking very much a victim with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in full effect.
A month or more later, you might not be sure that you’re seeing the same woman in front of you. While still not 100% she’s getting better and stronger; with the help and support that surrounds her, she’s beginning to look at the trauma of what she and her children have been through and with fear no longer her constant companion, she’s now able to reflect upon and recall more of her experience with some memory and clarity (which is a double-edged sword). At some point, the words that have been swirling around her will finally sink in: “NO ONE has the right to treat you the way that you were, especially as the mother of his children.”
When she actually comprehends that message, the result is not a cathartic cry or a soft mourning for the losses – it’s a justifiable rage as she realizes that she was lied to, duped and deceived by the person she loved and trusted the most. While this is truly a therapeutic breakthrough for her healing, the timing seems to unfortunately coincide with her first court appearance. Some survivors will take one glance at their ex and jump back in space and time to become the terrified victim they once were but others – now confident of their truth – will stand proud, strong and defiantly.
Now put yourself in the judge’s position: the file says DOMESTIC VIOLENCE stamped across it but instead of seeing a menacing, hulking brute with a shaking, terrified shell of a woman before you, you see a woman standing tall whose clearly seething at what’s soon to be her ex-spouse whose looking intimidated, remorseful and apologetic. You may very well see a hulking brute and a shaking shell, but you may also see a shaking shell standing across from what appears to be an upstanding, successful, model citizen.
IF the judge and court-related professionals have been trained to accurately recognize domestic violence, s/he will take a protective stance over the victim-survivor and apply laws that were designed to protect victim-survivors and their children over the long-term, but if not, this is another glitch in the systems failure. If domestic violence has not been recognized by the court the rest of the divorce, custody and visitation proceedings will be treated as “normal” where no protective mechanisms will be employed because “none are seen to be needed”. Under this condition, the more a genuine victim fights to prove her DV status the more she will be viewed as “hostile” by the court and the case will be dubbed as a “high conflict” one (which means that both sides are equally fighting against each other IN ABSENCE of violence, abuse or a history of violence/abuse).
Often times where children are involved, the court needs and takes more time before offering final decisions and orders so they order a Custody Evaluator, a Parenting Coordinator, a Guardian Ad Litem, a Psychological Evaluator, a Mediator and/or others to get their expert opinions about what the truth of the case is. Like the judges, the system failure glitch that can occur here is when the identified professionals do not have or have never been trained in assessing for domestic violence.
Since domestic violence and child abuse training are not mandatory course offerings of psychological, social work and law programs there are actually some professionals practicing in the family court arena with little to no training on domestic violence, let alone Post Separation Violence. Shamefully, some of these professionals are not even aware of the domestic violence provisions in Hawaii state statute!
In one DV case I had where the Custody Evaluator (an MSW) was recommending full physical/legal custody to an abuser, I asked her if she had considered HRS 571-46(9) in her evaluation. She looked at me and asked “What’s that?” (In case anyone’s missed my previous articles, it’s our state statute that says abusers shouldn’t get full or joint custody of the children – for reasons that’ll be the subject of another article someday…)
DV victims are sternly told if their abusers break, violate or cross ANY of the court’s orders that they HAVE to report any and all violations or they may be viewed by the court as non-compliant, defiant or as not taking their situation seriously; in that instance, they may lose their TRO or be found in Contempt of Court. Victims are actually excellent rule followers (a survival skill learned along the way) so they will do as they are told: they’ll report any and all court order violations. And herein lies the next glitch: reporting any and all court order violations.
Post separation, abusers will “test the waters” of the court orders that have been put around “their property” (the mother of their child/ren and their children). These boundary breaches start off small until the abuser knows what the response will be (or if no response will occur as a result which gives him “permission” to carry on).
Example: A No Contact Order has been put into effect by the court. In a week’s time, an abuser:
- “accidentally” dials his ex on his cell – he meant to call his fishing buddy, Harold, and forgot to delete her cell phone number from his frequent caller list
- the visitation schedule is so confusing, he didn’t know not to come to Kayla’s soccer practice (even though he’s never gone before)
- he was only trying to be courteous by opening the car door to take the kids out; she always complained before that he never helped in the relationship and here’s “proof positive” that he’s changing
If the victim-survivor is doing as she’s been told, she’s reporting all this as instructed to the police, her attorney and all other court-related professionals involved in her case. (This is just one week – can you imagine being the police officer on duty, the attorney or any of the service providers having to take these reports?)
Where this all becomes a mockery: at some point, the survivor will be given the message that “Enough is enough – I don’t want to hear any more of these ‘violations’ – you’re wasting my time, no one’s been killed so get over it”.
At that point, the survivor has two options: continue reporting any and all violations and risk losing the support she and her children need to remain safe OR shut up and deal with the consequences. If she continues reporting, she’ll no longer be seen as a DV survivor but as a “high conflict litigant”; if she stops reporting and a serious, life-threatening (or life-ending) event occurs, then it becomes HER FAULT for failing to report.
All too often, however, he doesn’t kill her but continues his game of “outsmarting the system” and getting his way setting the stage for a new generation of people who will have no regard or respect for authority, rules, regulations or threatened consequences because these kids already know through experience and observation that the system is all smoke and mirrors. Until the system recognizes and addresses the double-bind, “Catch 22” positions it sets DV victim-survivors up for, survivors will continue to lose faith in the legal system and the casualties of the system’s failure will be felt for years to come.