When And Why You Should Seek Full Custody During Divorce
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January 03, 2016 - Updated April 20, 2017

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When I filed for divorce from my abusive husband, I believed incorrectly that divorce would be the answer to end the volatility in our family and stop the violence.

We were like 90 percent of all divorcing couples in America that agreed to child custody without family court intervention. I asked him for and got full custody of our children and we agreed that my ex would have liberal visitation.

I had spent a lot of time with a therapist and two lawyers prior to divorcing my violent abuser to prepare for what I believed would be the best and safest outcome for our children and myself. Thankfully, my ex didn't contest or even hire an attorney. We lived under that agreement for five years. My ex saw our children every week. Though we cooperated on major issues, I was the parent in charge of their daily decisions. My children were relatively happy, successful and growing up.

But five years later and like the remaining 10 percent of divorcing couples, my ex sought family court intervention and sued me for custody of our teenagers. According the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, the vast majority of divorcing couples innately know that children are deeply hurt by custody suits so neither moves to put the family through that pain. But, abusers, especially when they have money, often turn to litigation as a way to reestablish power and control over their former partners by using the children.

I was a parent that didn't dream of filing suit against the father of my children beyond the initial, simple divorce. Even after my ex filed an eight-month protracted and unsuccessful law suit, I couldn't see myself ever taking that step despite his years of violence that ended our marriage.

However, I believe now more than ever in the advice of many experts who have studied the relationship between domestic abuse, child abuse and the perpetrators who high-jack the legal system. They believe that victims should never co-parent with their abuser and that in fact, abusers are not good parents at all. They also believe that women who are victims of domestic abuse, and society in general, should do all they can to protect children from their abusive parent. Abusers mistreat and exploit their family in so many ways, no parenting plan can really protect children from this chronic harm.

There are so many studies that back up these opinions that I couldn't list them all here. But if you want to see a comprehensive list, please click here. Or you can read the works of author Lundy Bancroft, who has spend the last two decades working with abusers. Or email child abuse advocate Barry Goldstein, who has studied thoroughly how abusers continue to use children as pawns in their moves to abuse their former partners. Or read the work done by the American Bar Association that points out how outrageous victims of abuse are treated in family court and that statistically, a man (21%) is more likely than a women (1%) to introduce false allegations in a custody suit.

Yet, family court professionals around the country haven't gotten this message. Instead, the myths about domestic abuse prevail and women in general are still fighting biases and stereotypes as they face judges, coordinators, mediators, guardians ad litems and attorneys. All the while, children are in real jeopardy.

Children with a domestic abuser for a parent:

  1. Continue to be exposed to domestic abuse after their parents are divorced. According to an anonymous survey I conducted of 100 victims from 27 states and 5 countries, 90 percent said that their abuser continued to abuse them years after divorce. The Leadership Councils research on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, physical assaults continued in 75 percent of cases of divorce for an average of 30 to 40 months after separation;
  2. Will become victims of assaults by their abusive parent about 50 percent of the time. In one study that surveyed 100,000 women who visited domestic abuse shelters around the country, more than 12,000 children were physically assaulted by their fathers and 6,900 were sexually assaulted by their fathers during  unsupervised parenting time;
  3. Are taken away by the court from the parent who has provided all their primary care, love and support and given over to an absentee parent most often when the plaintiff is an abusive father and the victim is the mother trying to protect them;
  4. Are kidnapped by an abusive father. In the study of 100,000 domestic abuse cases, 34 percent of the women reported to shelter workers that their abusive exes threaten to kidnap the children and of those men, 11 percent did.
  5. Are at risk of death. In a 2014 study conducted by USA Today, fathers are more likely to kill children than mothers and when they do, they kill by beating to death or shooting their children. On average, 450 children are killed by a parent every year in the U.S., according to the report.

If you are about to divorce an abuser and you have children, you need to do all you can to get prepared. There is a lot at stake. But despite these sobering statistics, if your soon-to-be-ex decides to contest your custody wish, and you're a woman, then you are in for an uphill fight.

Do all that you can to stay out of this situation. Try to negotiate with your abuser if you can and stay out of the courtroom. I know some women who have willing given up child support and alimony in order to keep custody and decision-making for their children. Family court is not a safe haven for abused women.

You will be shocked at how much opposition you will face in the family court system today in your efforts to protect your children from your abuser. Though it is true that many states have laws that say domestic abuse should be an important consideration when deciding custody, most family court professionals don't. The sad reality is that there is very little support readily available for women divorcing abusive husbands. Too often, victims are treated unfairly as liars or over-protective mothers. Too many family court professionals believe that domestic abuse ends after divorce and that abusers can be good enough fathers despite the science that proves otherwise.

Nevertheless, you must prevail in your efforts to protect your children's childhoods. I know that you may be exhausted, beaten down, broke, depressed and feel emotionally spent. You are entitled to all those feelings as a victim of domestic abuse. Abusers spend years wearing down their victims' self-esteem and confusing their common sense. But, that doesn't make them right.

Abusers don't make good parents and children suffer in many direct and indirect ways in our collective denial that perpetrators can compartmentalize abuse. Some victims will give into their abusers' demands for sole custody or majority parent time in order to try to keep the peace or in the belief that their children will be better with the father because of his economic status.

In my survey of 100 victims, nearly 10 percent of respondents said their children spent 70 percent or more of their time with the abuser and in most of those cases, their children are suffering from emotional problems, school truancy, substance abuse, attempted suicides and in even one case, overdose.

Despite the uphill battle in family court, your abuser's relentless use of your children to control you, your financial status, the lack of community services to help and your utter exhaustion, you still need to put all your efforts into protecting your children from domestic abuse after your divorce.

I recommend to any women who contacts me to do everything she can to keep as much control out of the hands of her abuser because he has shown his inability to use it well. Though you face so many people who will judge your efforts harshly, don't give up. Your children need you to prevail again and again.

Here are my tips in the effort to prevent your abuser from using your children as pawns or objects to fulfill their narcissist supply:

Do not buy into the information you are hearing from any professional telling you to get over the abuse of your relationship and move on. Of course, this doesn't mean you should argue with them. But, don't let them cloud your judgment and decisions. Instead, accept that most people don't understand domestic abuse. Seek counsel from those who do.

Do not willingly give up custody or parenting time to your abusive ex. Follow Lundy Bankcroft's advice in his book "When Dad Hurts Mom" that non-abusive parents should work hard to gain as much custody as possible. If you are unable to get 100 percent custody, then try for 90. If you can't get 90 percent, then try for 80, and so on.

Stay prepared for your ex to use the legal system to grab back power and control of your life by using the children as pawns and the family court system as the mechanism. Don't trust fantasies about your ex to guide you about whether you think he will seek custody or not. Abusers are unpredictable by nature and at any time along your child's 18 years of childhood, your ex is allowed to sue you in family court for dozens of reasons. Preparation is the best defense.

If you are facing litigation filed by your ex, here are few things you should know:

  1. Of those domestic abuse victims in my survey who did win sole custody of their children, 73 percent introduced domestic abuse into family court.
  2. Of those victims in my survey who lost at least 70 percent of parenting time to their abuser, 75 percent did not tell the family court about the domestic abuse.

It is common advice from divorce attorneys to keep the domestic abuse you suffered out of the case because of the burden this places on you and of course, your attorney, to prove that it happened. Judges also tend to believe first that you are lying in order to gain position in the case. You may also want to hide this truth because you are ashamed or think that you are protecting your children by doing so. It still needs to come into the case despite these hurdles. You will have to work hard to prove it, too.

Here are some other quick tips to help you along the way (if you want to see the research behind this information, please go to my other posts on divorcedmoms.com):

  1. Go into family court with an experienced, excellent divorce attorney, who understands domestic abuse. Statistically, victim women are awarded sole custody more often with an excellent attorney than without one. This is costly and hard to manage, I know. But do everything you can to find the right attorney.
  2. Never go into court with a bad attorney. You must ask your attorney questions and make sure he or she knows what they are doing. If you don't know how to "vet" your attorney, then call your local domestic abuse shelter and ask them for help in figuring it out. Or read the articles you find on this site.
  3. Do not ask for a custody or family evaluation. Again, statistically, these folks are not properly trained to see the nuances of the abuser's power and control efforts or the temporary symptoms of trauma on the abused. They are likely to get this wrong. According to Nancy Erickson, a forensic psychologist who studies this issue, too often the wrong tests are used to expose domestic abuse and therefore batterers can easily score well and victims often score poorly, at least temporarily.
  4. Do not ask for mediation or go into any required mediation without your attorney.
  5. Do everything you can to help your attorney in your case. Do not be a passive observer. Research, read the law, collect documentation and follow your attorney's advice.
  6. Do not willing agree to anything that troubles you or you feel violates the trust your children have in you. When you are asked to do so, leave those negotiated points be the judge's call. You may not be successful in protecting something held dear, but at least you never gave up trying.
  7. Do not make a signal decision that you know is an emotional reaction to the horror of the situation. This is very hard to do because you have been traumatized. But, you need to do everything you can to process the ongoing trauma. It will be incredibly difficult to be or stay emotionally healthy without proper treatment, so consider trauma treatment therapy while you fight this.
  8. Get educated. Thanks to Google, anyone today can learn about the law, domestic abuse, child custody and how to understand the playing field. Give this task as much of your limited free time as you can. Knowing what is happening is the best way to navigate through these turbulent waters.
  9. Do not put your children on the stand. You may think that this is fair, especially if your children are older. But judges do not like this and your children don't either. It is rarely a good idea.
  10. Do present yourself as well dressed, capable and strong. Do not argue with any professional or use divisive language. Never call your ex out in court or speak with unchecked emotion. This is not the time to allow the understandable frustration about your circumstance out. They won't understand and will use it against you.
  11. Never bad-mouth your abuser or claim that you can't make it work with him. Keep your opinions about your ex to yourself.
  12. And of course, never give up. According to a 2001 study legal expert Joan Meier of George Washington University, 36 out of 38 appellate state courts regularly awarded sole or joint custody to alleged and adjudicated abusers but, two thirds of those cases were eventually overturned on appeal.

Also remember that though you may feel isolated and alone, you are not. There are thousands of women right now going through what you are going through. We live in an era of ignorance about the true depths and reach of domestic abuse. It is incredibly unfair and dangerous. You know more than anyone the hell that an abuser causes a family. Those who don't, are clinging to the falsehood that abusers can change or that family violence is a couple's dynamic problem that can be rectified by divorce.

As best you can, carefully, gently and without resentment, help the professionals around you see the truth about abuse. You will want to scream for help. You will feel resentful, but don't let those emotions guide you. Right now, you have too much to tackle. Too much is at stake.


Julie Boyd Cole is a mother of two sons, a journalist, writer and business woman. She has written for the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Yahoo.com among many publications around the country. She is the author of "How to Co-Parent with An Abusive Ex and Keep Your Sanity" available on Amazon.

Currently, she is the chief executive administrator of a non-profit in North Florida. Julie is a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband and today is an advocate helping other victims sort through the trauma of domestic abuse.

Julie also writes for bruisedwoman.com and @bruisedwoman on Twitter about the topic of domestic abuse, co-parenting with an abuser and the emotional damage caused by narcissists and personality disorders.

Surviving domestic violence wasn't easy or the PTSD that followed, but Julie has found a path through the trauma and now encourages all women that they can too. Julie leads YANA support, speaks to church groups, community groups and women made homeless by abuse. She can be contacted at julieboydcole@gmail.com

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