In 1980, while working as a hospital social worker, a severely injured battered
woman was admitted to my service. X-rays revealed that she had old fractures
that were poorly healed. This time her husband had beaten her with a chain when
she spoke to a neighbor in the hallway of their apartment building.
My client was a soft-spoken mother of two children who was anxious to make
sure that her children were safe. After an incident in which her husband attempted
to visit her at the hospital we began safety planning to find a place where she could
stay with her children. While my client had family, staying with them was not a
viable option, as her husband knew where they lived. The police had been called to
her home on numerous occasions but until the night when she was brought to the
hospital emergency room he had never been arrested. It was apparent that the
batterer’s abuse had escalated to lethal levels and her doctors did not believe that
she could survive another beating; her ribs had been broken, puncturing her lung.
With my client’s permission, I began to investigate how best to protect her,
calling the prosecutor assigned to her case. I learned that the judge had released
the defendant without bail because he was employed. He had been charged with
attempted assault in the third degree, a misdemeanor. Advocating for my client with
the prosecutor, I argued that if she had been attacked by a stranger the charges
would have included felony assault and advocated that more serious charges were
necessary. However, the prosecutor was not optimistic, believing that my client
would not cooperate, but he reluctantly agreed to investigate further. Finally,
supported by the hospital records, the prosecutor informed me that if my client
would testify before the Grand Jury, the State would bring felony charges. Without
her testimony the case would be dismissed.
Entering the city-wide shelter system did not insure anonymity and so I began
to investigate where my client could safely live with her children after being
discharged from the hospital. I learned that in 1980, there was one domestic violence
shelter in New York City--with a total of four beds—and all were filled. I continued
to call the shelter daily without success.
Later that week, I received a panicked message from my client: her husband
had removed the children from her mother’s apartment. When children’s protective
services were notified we were informed that the fact that he had beaten my client
did not mean that he was not a good father. Over the next forty years I have
continued to hear these same comments about abusive fathers from many judges,
attorneys for the children, and mental health professionals regardless of the extent
of the injuries or the risks involved in continued unsupervised contact.
I spoke to my client daily assuring her that I would continue to try to find
her a safe place to live, and if that failed, her testimony before the Grand Jury
might ensure that his parole would be revoked. But one morning I found her hospital
bed empty and was informed that she had left a few hours earlier without leaving an
address to find her children. She did not testify before the Grand Jury and the
charges were dismissed. I never heard from her again.
This was the moment when I first recognized how we make assumptions about
survivors of domestic violence while failing to provide them with the means to
protect their children. Since the 1980s, law enforcement and the criminal justice
system have made considerable progress in combating domestic violence. Federal and
state funding has resulted in increased services for battered women that include
domestic violence shelters, treatment, and civil legal services. Federal laws have
provided for funding for necessary training of law enforcement and the judiciary
which has improved the criminal justice system’s response. The development of model
courts to address the problems of families impacted by domestic violence, substance
abuse, and mental illness have enhanced the criminal justice response by ensuring
increased resources and attention to these problems. Finally, prosecutions are
enhanced by expert testimony on the impact of domestic violence and the admission of
medical records when women are afraid to testify.
However, battered women today are
still hampered by their inability
to protect their children from further abuse. Many women fear that if they leave the
abusive relationship they could lose custody of their children or that their children
will have significant unsupervised contact with their fathers. Theories have
developed that minimize the risks of separation and veracity of such allegations,
and, as a result, battered women and their children continue to be exposed to
life-threatening trauma, threats, stalking, and abuse. Many mothers who stay in such
relationships have been treated punitively by child protective services, even as they
seek to protect their children.
After completing law school, I began to work in the field of domestic
violence, clerking for a judge and helping to organize the first New York State
model criminal court that handled only cases of domestic violence. I began the
enormous task of researching and learning about domestic violence and trauma.
Later, after leaving the court system, I went on to represent battered women in
custody and divorce litigation, something that I have continued to do to this day.
My interdisciplinary perspective provided the context for my work and research on
abuse and trauma, confirming my understanding that my clients and their children
frequently displayed symptoms of traumatic exposure. Often such exposure is
intensified during litigation, or “traumatic divorce,” when clients are forced to
have ongoing contact with batterers in ways that have endangered their safety and
that of their children.
The history of the treatment of domestic violence survivors in the courts is
part of what Evan Stark refers to as the “long march” for justice. During the seven
years that I worked on this book theories have been updated and new research made
available. Advances in our understanding of trauma, public health, and the legal
responses to domestic violence are often followed by missteps and losses. Even the
terminology has changed as we have shifted from a discussion of domestic violence to
intimate partner violence which can include the elderly and LGBT community.
Today, the family court’s failure to address trauma and the safety concerns
of battered women and their children, is a costly one. The research on the medical
and mental health consequences of long-term exposure to abuse has indicated that the
impact of domestic violence on women and children during traumatic divorce and
separation will haunt us for many years. There are many myths and misconceptions
about domestic violence and human behavior that are all too common in the family
courts and prevent the development of trauma-informed custody and divorce
jurisprudence. It is my hope that this book will help to change the conversation in
the family courts to protect public health and safety.
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