It began as usual, with a text or a shaky phone call from one of the kids to let their dad know that “something bad” had happened. “Something bad” usually involves a visit from the police and has included a variety of incidents such as a teen being pushed through a plate glass window, his brother needing to be carried to the car after having been put in a MMA-style leg lock, and reports of unsupervised children chasing each other around the backyard with knives.
Last night’s event included neighbors calling the police because of screams they heard from their younger sister being slapped and kicked while lying on the ground. This was her debut as the victim of what I might call a “beat down.” She has been smacked in the face, pushed, scratched, and cussed at, as have her brothers. By their mother.
The scenes are straight out of a responsible parent’s nightmares. No supervision for hours at-a-time, kids being locked out for the day without food, water, a phone, or shelter, and kids appearing at school with mysterious bruises, scratches, and even eyebrows that had been shaved off. These children have recollections of being kicked down stairs, having bowls thrown at their head, and being called every expletive in the book.
Certainly no one would willingly place their child into this situation, knowing the history. The problem is that court orders demand that they must, every other week. These children live the nightmarish reality of being forced to live 50% of their lives in a chaotic and abusive home, and there’s nothing their father can do about it!
These children and their father have reported their situation on numerous occasions to school counselors, teachers, and nurses, school resource officers, city police officers, children’s services, their priest, and any adult who will listen. Most sympathize, take some notes, and tell the kids to remain strong; but, nothing ever changes.
Every time the police respond to an outburst, the mother is able to convince the police that the children were misbehaving, attacking her, or fighting with each other. If the police ask any questions of the children, they are too afraid to answer honestly, or the police reprimand the kids for not listening to their mother. At times, the children have tried to refuse to go to their mother only to be advised by police that their mother had the right to physically force them into her car.
How then, as the other parent, can you ever feel at peace with sending your children to an ex-spouse’s home, knowing that they are not only being victimized, but learning to become violent people through the experience?
Divorce experts write and talk at length about co-parenting peacefully. It is important to be cooperative, not to prevent the kids from seeing the other parent from seeing or having a relationship with them, to set a positive tone, and to not create drama.
For some parents, it’s just not possible to send the kids off to mom or dad’s without significant fears for what their children may be exposed to or how they may be in danger. As much as they may be willing to co-parent, in the true sense of the concept, and follow the rules of the court, how can one strive to achieve a heartwarming success story of raising children post-divorce when violence and fear are a reality?
1. As in many divorce difficulties, I recommend documenting everything as much as you can. Save text messages and voice mails, keep a journal, log in notes on a calendar, or whatever you have to do to record troubling events. Be as detailed as you can in your accounts to include what was said, times, and what outside forces were involved. Also take pictures of injuries or other items of interest.
2. Bear in mind that objective reports carry a lot more weight than opinions or accusations from within the circle of parties involved. If you make a call to children’s services, for instance, as a parent, ex, grandparent, or another person who has a stake in the situation (e.g. revenge, money, custody, and so on), your concerns will be noted, but may go no further. Reports from police, schools, counselors, and other agencies are considered more reputable. This is not to say that any information presented by a friend or family member won’t get the necessary action, so you should still make a report if concerned.
3. Encourage the children involved to share their concerns with teachers, school counselors, coaches, and anyone else who may also be a mandated reporter. Teachers, religious leaders, daycare providers, law enforcement, and others are required to report any behaviors that raise suspicions of neglect or abuse. Some of these professionals may wait until they know the quantity or seriousness of the reports will meet the criteria of children’s services and they may have to also answer to internal policies of their organization about reporting.
4. Understand that children’s services are inundated with reports from all around, including kids themselves. Not every report will raise red flags within their system. As a general rule, they may not contact the family or open an investigation unless the children are in imminent danger at the moment of the call. They are not interested in petty disputes between exes who want to rat on the other for every little thing- but, this does happen! A serious report has to make its way through a sea of false reports and others that don’t meet their criteria.
Children are known to make reports on their caregivers and may describe abuse or neglect that is discovered to be obscured by a child’s anger or frustration about discipline, rules, or not having things at home just as they want. For instance, kids have called to report that their home has no food. When a caseworker investigates, they discover that the cupboards are well-stocked with boxed and canned food and other items, just not the chips and pizza that the child wants to eat! Similarly, kids may report that a parent abused them, then it is learned that all the parent did was grab their arm to try to get them out the door on time!
The problem is that the system is clogged with reports that will waste the investigator’s time, leaving them to ignore cases that do deserve attention, or forcing them to close cases before they really should because their docket of cases is so overloaded.
4. If older children are involved, encourage them to document whatever they can. If it’s possible for them to record audio or video of an incident, that may be the evidence that finally gets the attention of authorities! Otherwise, suggest that they journal or somehow keep track of events. Inform them that when police respond to an event, they have the right to speak to an officer away from those they fear.
My heart goes out to all of you who live in fear for your children. Unfortunately, the system has a lot of improvements that need to be made to ensure the health and safety of children. Until then, hug them tight!