Last year, the International Council on Shared Parenting a new organization formed by therapists in the family counseling field, released a report giving their guidelines on what they consider is “in the best interest of children” of divorce regarding custody.
In almost ever case of divorce, it recommends that children spend no less than 30 percent of their time with each parent, even in conflict divorces and that co-parenting be imposed. They base their recommendations on the late 20th century belief that children should be given the opportunity to know each parent well. In fact, they say it is a human right to be protected and regulated by society, not parents. And of course, that sounds pretty good in theory.
The ICSP is made up of mostly fathers, internationally, who are loosing custody to mothers as a matter of course and without evidence. In the U.S., we have already made the shift toward the practice that both mothers and fathers have equal rights to raise and parent their children, despite divorce, and joint custody is the norm in many parts of the country.
Unfortunately, too many people, judges, families, attorneys, are missing the finer points of these types of reports and using such information as a one-size-fits-all rule to move high conflict custody cases through the judicial process as quickly and as cheaply as possible; to solve what seems to be a “he-said-she-said” battle; and as a panacea to end the traumatic phenomena of bickering parents playing tug-a-war with their children.
Can you co-parent with an abuser?
Though these are admirable goals, this approach is compromising the safety of domestic abuse victims over and over around the world and adding to family stress, victim trauma and childhood damage.
Even the ICSP, says up front that under no circumstances should this perspective be used when there is a history of domestic abuse. According to the American News Report, the Council on Shared Parenting goes on to say that in the case of domestic abuse, co-parenting is NOT in the best interest of the children.
“There is a consensus that (co-parenting works in) the majority of children and families, including high conflict families, but not in situations of substantiated family violence and child abuse. There is a consensus that the priority for further research on shared parenting should focus on the intersection of child custody and family violence, including child maltreatment in all its forms, including parental alienation _ the report read.”
Unfortunately, family court and basic custody agreements are ignoring this advice and forcing victims and abusers to “work together” to raise their children and essentially stay together as a “family” despite criminal abuse, all in an effort to be good to kids.
This practice is throwing victims back into the world where their abusers are no longer held accountable and their healing comes to a screeching halt.
And courts are using the logic that these criminals shouldn’t be held accountable for their crimes, because 1. the crime was against the other parent and 2. holding the abuser accountable might harm the children by restricting the parent/child time. Imagine a judge letting a thief out of jail because the judge wants him in his home, alone, raising the children. Really?
I co-parent with my admitted and long-time physical and emotional abuser. Our children are now older and I have lived through hell dealing with this man. I find such court attitudes offensive and hurtful to children and victims and I don’t believe that many abusers, especially without years of domestic abuse therapy, are capable of healthy co-parenting.
Solid co-parenting involves compromise, self-sacrifice, looking at the big picture and a healthy ego that allows one to put other’s needs before your own. Co-parents share respect and love for their family, even after a divorce. In my experience, this does not describe an abuser.
My abuser first physically abused me by strangling me while I sat in a rocking chair nearly 9 months pregnant with our child and continue to physically abuse me, abandon me, lie to me and call me every name in the book with our children in the house, many, many times over the most innocuous arguments and desires. Hardly putting the children first.
How is a victim suppose to have trust and faith that their abuser will suddenly turn over a new leave and co-parent without further abuse and with the best interest of the children in mind? Isn’t that the opposite of what we are telling victims who stay with their abusers with exactly the same mindset?
But, courts, parent coordinators, even family and friends, believe completely, that parents should “grow-up already” and get over it now that they are divorced and the violence and abuse should just end. The trouble with this thinking is that is assumes the first rule of domestic abuse isn’t true. The rule that abuse is NEVER the victim’s fault.
Is abuse the victim’s fault or not?
Vice President Joe Bidden said during a recent conference in Washington, D.C., that abuse is “never, never, never, never the victim’s fault.” So if you believe him, and I do, then it doesn’t matter that an abuser and victim are now divorced. Victims are always in danger when around their abusers, divorce or not. And statistically, so are the children.
We have made so much progress in criminal court and even in the court of public opinion about who really is responsible for domestic abuse and who should be punished.
But, then we throw that abuser and victim back together, on equal footing, through joint custody and expect that the abuser won’t abuse. Ummm?
In my situation, in the first five years of my divorce I lived under a visitation-full custody agreement that was set up with boundaries and accountability. Though it wasn’t in our agreement, I facilitated weekly visitation between my abuser and our children, included him in all the big stuff and decisions, like birthday parties, special events, access to schools, teachers and sports and total access to our children through technology. He also traveled often, up to 200 nights a year, as a sports writer, and had no real responsibility to be there for our children on any given day. He could change his plans at a moments notice. I not only accept this all, but was the lead to make it happen. Though my abuser spent years beating me up, I didn’t want to prevent my children to know and love their father, if it was possible.
But, I had the ability to set boundaries with a more traditional visitation-custody agreement when I felt threaten and our children had a way to escape if they did. In the end, I believe it is what kept the abuse at a minimum for the first years of our divorce. I would even say that we had found a sort of “family,” which can only happen when fear is not part of the equation.
The trauma of domestic abuse began to fade and heal for all of us. My abuser abused us less, when he realized that abusing us didn’t get him what he wanted but just got a click on the phone or distance from us until he settled down.
However, when our state laws changed and without any warning, my abuser sued me for custody without one piece of evidence.
He did it for the same reason he used to hit me. Because he could.
My kids and I went through eight months of hell and my abuser spent tens of thousands of dollars on both of our legal fees. In the end, the time-sharing (as it is now called) looks just about the same, except now its set in stone and we are required to “co-parent” on all big decisions.
That means college selections, summer work and camp, extra curricular activities and so on must be a joint decision and means that we are required to “work together” in the best interest of our kids. And if we don’t think the other is doing their part, then we can take the other back to court.
But, what drives an abuser to abuse is not the victim or even the circumstance. For starters, because they love a good fight. Court is a great place to fight because its all allowed. My abuser has more than once called for judicial review over some perceived slight and without first sitting down to cooperatively work out a difference with me.
Giving an abuser co-parenting rights is like giving a bank robber a key to the vault. They now have a court-sanctioned right to argue and fight over every little stupid thing and pull out the “its my right” card in the best case and in the worse … an opportunity to scare the crap out of their victims all over again.
In the end, forced co-parenting takes away the one element that gave victims the ability to protect themselves and their children while still keeping the abuser in the “family” _ and that is the ability to set safety boundaries.
My abuser stopped hitting me after divorce. He tried a few times but I called my lawyer one time while he was in mid-rage and told her what was happening. He was shocked but he never tried to be violent after that again. I can only assume he wasn’t willing to pay the consequences he now knew was part of the dynamic.
But, my abuser has never stopped abusing me and continues to use opportunities created by co-parenting to cause trouble.
Abusers abuse. And the tension and stress that abuse causes families is so hard to measure. I will say that after “co-parenting” was instituted in my custody situation, my children have had to juggle much more than before it and have been dragged into it much more as well, including being called into the parent coordinator’s office against their will in one of the most uncomfortable conversations of their lives.
It is admirable goal, as I said, that both parents be in a child’s life. And in a perfect world, imperative. But, no one in this field that I can find believes that co-parenting works in families with an abuser. It is in fact, more damaging and should stop.
Victims of abuse, proven abuse, need to have the ability to say “no,” protect their children and themselves from all forms of abuse, and need the time to heal from the trauma of abuse. It doesn’t happen over night or even in one day in a family courtroom. It is way more deliberate than that.
And until our system realized that it takes evidence, time and understand to unravel a divorce and find out what is really going on, we are still hurting the human rights of the victims.
We need to get it right. The stakes are way too high.
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. Currently, she is the chief executive administrator of a non-profit in North Florida. And Julie is a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband, an NFL sportswriter, 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.
She can be contacted at [email protected]