Sunday, April 15, 2012

What You Need To Know About Divorce if You Have Been in an Abusive Marriage:

Every situation is different, therefore, you need to take into account the specifics of your own circumstances and do what is best, and safest, for you.

1.  If your abuse existed behind closed doors, in order for you to exit out the other side of your divorce intact, you might need to consider bringing up the issue of domestic violence during the divorce process (proceed with caution, however, particularly if this a post-decree trial).  Immediately contact an organization well-versed in the issues of both domestic violence and the family court system for advice and guidance (in Maricopa County, for example, domestic violence advocates with the Family Violence Prevention Center have offices within the family court buildings).  You do not need to go this alone; it can be a very frightening, intimidating process.

2.  If your spouse has lied to you before, do not believe him if he says he wants an amicable divorce.  I know you wish with all your heart you could do this for the sake of your children but remember who you are dealing with.  It may be a set-up for a collaborative divorce in which you sign final divorce papers stating there was no domestic violence during the marriage.  Those papers then become credible ammunition should your ex file a post-decree petition.  To reiterate the importance of this, see #6, below.

3.  NEVER underestimate what the abuser is capable of.

4.  If you are using a mediator, carefully reconsider that choice:
  • Mediators are duty bound to be neutral and, where domestic violence is an issue, they do not give it the level of importance it deserves, downplay it and perhaps ignore it altogether.  When domestic violence is involved, mediators should excuse themselves from your case and advise you to proceed with a family law attorney specializing in domestic violence issues.
  • If you do insist on using a mediator, also bring in a family law attorney.  Do not look at this as an unnecessary, optional expense, consider it crucial to your outcome.  You will have a better chance at establishing an appropriate custody and child support arrangement.  Note that it is common practice for the total costs of a divorce handled outside the courtroom, including attorneys fees, to be split equally between both parties.
  • Mediators do not adequately educate you about the laws in your state regarding domestic violence, child custody, spousal maintenance and child support.
  • Mediators often make egregious errors which will impact you negatively for years to come.  These include financial and custodial issues.  I initially believed my own case was an anomaly, however, every person I spoke with who used a mediator reported similar, if not the same, experience.  You must carefully proof rough drafts and final papers to ensure accuracy.  At roughly $250 per hour for their services, there is no excuse for this lack of competence.
5.  Become familiar with the laws in your state.  In Arizona, for example, if a parent has been found to have committed just one act of domestic violence, they are not to be awarded joint custody.  See (§ 25-403.03 of AZ Law).

6.  Do NOT sign final divorce documents stating there were no domestic violence issues in your marriage.  This will come back to haunt you in Family Court if a post-decree petition is filed.

7.  Do EVERYTHING WITHIN YOUR POWER to stay out of the Family Court System:
  • Do not, for one second, believe that you will have your day in court and that truth, evidence and justice will prevail.  This venue has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth.
  • While the laws may state that all tenets within this system are driven by what is in the "best interests of the children," in practice, the exact opposite occurs.
  • In Family Court, unlike Criminal Court, your abuser can falsely accuse you of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), Parental Alienation, or just Alienation.  Also be prepared for the finger being pointed at you as the abuser, using drugs or any other disingenuous attempt to divert attention away from the facts.
  • You will likely spend all of your time and effort proving that your ex is lying and that you are telling the truth.  It will likely be to no avail - read on:
  • Judges have been given something called "Discretion."  What this means is that they have been handed carte blanche to do whatever they want in their courtrooms.  They do not have to follow the law; they can refuse to look at hard evidence; they can be biased; they can treat you with disrespect, accuse you of lying about abuse and even mock you on the stand; they can deny you your rights to due process.  They can break every rule of the Code of Judicial Conduct and get away with it and they do.  Do all family court judges behave in this manner?  No.  But it is a roll of the dice as to who is assigned to your case and the risks are too great.

8.  If you are unfortunate enough to have been dragged into the front lines of Family Court, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER agree to use any type of court evaluator:
  • Despite having the formidable responsibility to act solely in the children's "best interests," court evaluators do the exact opposite and act entirely in their own best interests.  They are only concerned with enriching themselves financially and will not hesitate to prolong your case in order to perform as much unnecessary, unsolicited work as possible while driving you into financial ruin.
  • Court evaluators have free reign and no cap on the amount of money you must pay them and woe to the person who objects to this.  You will be characterized as uncooperative, fractious and worse.
  • Court evaluators have an enormous amount of influence over your case.  Your case can and will be decided based on whatever they choose to submit to the court.
  • Cronyism is pervasive between these evaluators and Family Court Judges.
  • Astonishingly, in Maricopa County, all an "expert" is required to do to be added to the roster of  Family Court's Behavioral Health Service Providers is put their name on a list.  That's it.  Their qualifications are self-reported and there is no type of verification process or system for oversight.
  • The evaluators are covered by a cloak of judicial immunity.

9.  Seriously consider not using an attorney.  Do as much research on this topic as you can in order to make an informed decision.
  • In Arizona, Fresh Start Women's Resource Center (Fresh Start Family Law Support Services) offers classes on Family Court and for a small fee will help with document preparation.  They do not, however, advise on individual cases.
  • You can also contact the Legal Advocacy Hotline (AZCADV Legal Advocacy Hotline) at the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  Their legal advocate informed me of crucial information that, unfortunately, was too late in the game for my own benefit (see #s 6 and 12), however, it is important to note that my own attorney did not advise me of this option.  Had I been aware of this information in a timely manner my case may have had a different outcome.

10.  If you do have an attorney, you must remain involved in every aspect of your case.  This is your life, but your case is just one of many cases they have.
  • Do not choose an attorney based on location; take convenience out of the equation.  Choose an attorney based on their specialty, experience and reputation. 
  • Read everything that comes in and proof everything that goes out.
  • As with mediators, your attorney may try to convince you that it is very difficult to prove domestic violence in family court and recommend you not bring up the issue.
    • If this is the actual divorce process, I would question this advice and seek the guidance of a domestic violence advocate or agency.
    • If this is a post-decree trial, and you have signed the divorce papers stating there was no domestic violence during the marriage, they may be correct.  However, seek the advice of several advocates before making a decision.
  • Go with your instinct.  If you feel very strongly that certain pieces of evidence should be included and your attorney disagrees, insist they be included.  Likewise, if your attorney wants to go down a road that you believe is not pertinent to your case, insist they stop.  You only have so much time allotted at trial and you would not believe how quickly it flies by.  You need to ensure that every moment is utilized to its fullest capacity.
  • I believe that a family law attorney has an obligation to educate you on all areas pertinent to your case including, but not limited to, applicable laws, what to expect at each pretrial hearing and the trial itself, possible outcomes, the risks of using a court evaluator and Parental Alienation.  You are new to this arena and this is their area of expertise.  These are but a few examples from my own case on the topic of exhibits alone that I was not prepared for:
    • At the start of my trial, the judge asked if we would be willing to file petitions at a later date on the matter of attorneys fees.  Both sides said yes, however, this alone added more than $1,000 in attorneys fees.
    • Again, at the start of trial, the judge asked for submission of any exhibits which substantiated attorneys fees.  As both attorneys scrambled to determine which exhibits to submit, I wonder now why we did not submit all of them - every exhibit was relevant to time billed by my attorney.
    • After countless hours determining which exhibits were most important to submit, followed by submission of required lists and multiple copies of the exhibits themselves, to both the court and opposing counsel, the judge allowed only those exhibits discussed at the trial itself.  All remaining exhibits were dismissed.
11.  Do as much preparation on every topic, question, answer and exhibit so that you are ready and confident at least one week prior to trial.  One week before my own trial, without warning, my brain  turned to jello.  I had done such an enormous amount of work on my own case that I suddenly could not think any more.  You need that last week to prepare emotionally.

12.  Practice Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) prior to going to trial.  You are expected to behave perfectly at trial, as unfair as this is may seem considering all you have been through.  Think only about the questions before you at trial and leave emotion out of your responses.  Opposing counsel will try their hardest to get a rise out of you.  Any sign of anger or sarcasm will accomplish two things:  it  will simultaneously discredit your position and will be held against you.  You must be seen as calm and credible.

13.  It is my understanding that, as your case progresses and you get the distinct feeling that your judge is biased against you during pretrial hearings and telephone conferences, you have the option of a one-time request for a new judge prior to the start of the actual trial.  I have received conflicting reports on this and have been unable to substantiate one way or the other, however, since it is a possibility I wanted to provide the information.

14.  You must become knowledgeable in all of the above to become your own best advocate.

Monday, August 8, 2011

There is a Solution

I believe there is a simple, workable solution to the pernicious state of the Family Court system.  It is inarguable that any type of change will only work on a national level, hence my decision to begin at the top.

President Obama reads 10 letters a day from the American public.  Knowing the chances of my letter actually making the cut are remote, yet knowing the chances are nonexistent if I send no letter, I had to at least try.

Following is the letter I sent to President Obama and the First Lady, which proposes a solution.  Please join me in this grass roots effort by writing your own letter to the President.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC  20500

Dear Mr. President and First Lady,

I am writing about the Family Court system.  Thousands of domestic violence victims, both women and children, are failed every day, at every level, in this venue.  The number of children alone is estimated to be 58,000 per year.  The abusive parent (usually the father) is awarded unsupervised visitation, or worse, sole custody, and the protective parent (usually the mother) is vilified.  These children have been verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually abused at the hands of their own fathers.  The mother is left helpless, often in financial ruin.

The system as a whole is a complete and total failure and accomplishes the exact opposite of what it was designed to do.  It cannot be reformed; it cannot be repaired.  A shattered glass cannot be glued back together.  I believe a solution exists which I will outline at the conclusion of my letter, one that could easily be implemented on a national level.

The ripple effect of the detritus left behind by Family Court is inestimable in terms of the continued physical danger and emotional harm to the victims.  Add to this the academic and social impact on the children, the psychological scars all victims bear, the staggering financial costs to the mothers and, on top of that, the cost to society as a whole as the cycle continues and it is clear that drastic changes must be made.

My own experience is not sensational or newsworthy, yet it represents what occurs on a daily basis in Family Courts nationwide.  One of the primary reasons I did not leave my abusive spouse was the oft-repeated threat he would destroy me in court if I ever left him.  It was not an idle threat.  He filed suit a year after the divorce was finalized requesting that child support go down to $0 and that I be incarcerated.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, in particular the eloquent narrative from my then 16-year-old son describing our emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his father, the court evaluator reported there was no domestic violence and, with no supporting data, conversely portrayed me as a liar with an explosive temper.  The Judge demonized me in court, increased parenting time with the father despite both children’s express wishes to live with me exclusively and, astonishingly, ordered me to pay $10,000 of my ex-spouse’s legal fees.  I earn $8.04 per hour and he earns well over $150,000 annually.

Criminals, including foreign nationals, are provided free legal counsel, yet abused women, who have committed no crime, are afforded none.  I was turned away from every agency and advocacy group I contacted.

For those of us who left our abusers believing there is a way out, that there are resources and advocates who will assist us, we discover, with jaw-dropping disbelief, that none of that is true.  We are thrown to the wolves.  There is no such thing as having our “day in court,” because Family Court has nothing to do with the truth, the facts, the evidence or “the best interests of the children.”  It is easy to be skeptical when you hear stories like mine.  I regret to say, until it happened to me, I was one of those skeptics.

Family Court judges and court evaluators should not play any part in these proceedings.  As it is now, Family Court is a surreal netherworld in which judges are granted full discretion and impunity, meaning they are not required to adhere to the laws.  They can break every rule of judicial conduct and they do.  The same holds true for court behavioral health evaluators.  And the victims are left powerless.  Again.

Court behavioral health evaluators are paid directly by the litigants with no limits on the fees they may charge and, as such, no incentive for them to keep costs down, creating a clear conflict of interest.  The evaluator in my case was hired to perform one simple task which should have taken, by any measure, 3 or 4 hours to complete.  Yet she delayed my trial for 6 months while performing a staggering amount of unsolicited, costly work, driving me to financial ruin.  Meanwhile the judge, duty bound to prevent unnecessary delays and costs, did nothing to intervene.

Sadly, there is no cause for celebration when seemingly progressive laws are passed or reforms are adopted for the severe issues prevalent in Family Court because they are wholly ignored.  The system remains unchanged as it has for decades.

I believe the following solution would achieve what Family Court was designed to accomplish and at the same time cost less than the current system:

  • Relieve all Family Court judges of their duties;
  • Relieve all Court Behavioral Health Evaluators of their duties; neither they nor judges should be allowed anywhere near child custody cases;
  • Replace all judges and court evaluators with salaried, verified domestic violence experts, such as those currently working in non-profit organizations, such as the Center for Judicial Excellence, Justice for Children and the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project.

Following the Tucson shootings, on January 12, 2011 you said, “We should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

Mr. President, First Lady, we don’t even come close.


“You will never change what you tolerate.”  ~ Joel Osteen~

Sunday, March 27, 2011

You Will Never Know The Why's Behind What Happened To You and "Why" it Doesn't Matter

Last July, I spoke with Elizabeth Liu, the Harvard-educated Staff Attorney of DVLEAP (DVLEAP - Staff bios), a domestic violence advocacy group based in Washington, DC, begun by Joan Meier, Professor of Law at George Washington University.  I asked Ms. Liu, "What kind of female serves another female and her children up to their abuser?"

I went on to explain that I had searched through the family court system to see if I could uncover any other cases my court evaluator, Julie Skakoon, had been assigned to and, to my utter astonishment, Elizabeth Liu finished my sentence for me: "Don’t tell me, you found her own, personal, high-conflict family court case, didn't you?"  "HOW did you know that I was going to say that?" was my incredulous response.

Ms. Liu explained that, while it is not all that common, she has seen it before.  Elizabeth Liu offered the insight that there are many possible reasons behind Julie Skakoon's behavior as a court evaluator, two of which are:

  • Vengeance over how she herself was treated in the family court process;
  • Countertransference (I have included the following definition from, On Being A child Custody Evaluator:  Professional And Personal Challenges…, Daniel B. Pickar):
    • “…Another source of bias can arise from countertransference reactions the evaluator may have to a parent…countertransference encompasses the therapist’s entire response toward the patient…countertransference can lead to bias in a child custody evaluator when either the…parent or child elicit an unconsciously strong negative…reaction in the evaluator.  Such reactions may distort one’s perception, possibly leading to inappropriate or nonobjective recommendations.”

While I believe it is human nature to want to know what drives a person to act in ways that run counter to every standard of moral and ethical behavior, you will never know what triggered the behaviors on the part of your evaluator and judge.  For your own well-being and serenity, you must let this go.  You must ask yourself these questions:  When all is said and done, would it matter if you knew?  Would you feel any differently?  Do the "Why's" behind the behavior excuse it?

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Few Good Quotes...

"Forgiveness cannot substitute justice."
                                                                              The Pope

"All it takes for evil to flourish is for men (and women)
of good conscience to remain silent."     Dear Abby

Thursday, October 14, 2010

From Failure to Protect: The Crisis in America's Family Courts

Today’s family courts have also been affected by the rise of the Fathers Rights movement. The National Father Resource Center report(s) that 80 percent of mothers’ abuse allegations are false. Although Canadian research from the University of Toronto studying false allegations in U.S. and Canadian custody cases has found that between one and two percent of mothers make false allegations, the fathers’ rights argument has had a powerful impact.

Even for those mothers who can afford it, the battle can take a psychological toll.says psychologist Amy J. Baker.“If attorneys, child care evaluators, and judges were all doing their job, protective mothers wouldn’t have anything to fear.”

It may be ironic that efforts to give fathers more rights in custody cases have increased the odds against victimized mothers and children. “When the pendulum swung to shared custody somewhere in the midst of that (fathers) movement, the safety of children was compromised,” argues Helga Luest, founder of Witness Justice, a group that helps heal victims of violence.

A Complex Web
Custody evaluators can be assigned by the court or hired by one of the parties. The cost, which can run from $5,000 to $20,000. The custody system is beset by charges of cronyism―arising from evaluators’ employee relationship with the court―and incompetence. Advocates charge that evaluators are often poorly trained on how to handle or detect an abuser.

“Many child custody evaluators are not comprehensive (and ) their work is not buttressed by collateral evidence,” says psychologist Eugenia Patru. “Most (evaluators) are not educated enough and just in for the money,” she says.

In the saddest irony of all, attorneys have learned to caution their clients not to reveal abuse allegations in custody cases since research suggests that such allegations can work against mothers fighting for custody.

Moreover, when abuse allegations are raised, judges tend to suppress or not enter the abuse into evidence, making it harder to try these cases at the appellate level. “Family courts don’t adequately deal with abuse by refusing to hear the evidence,” charges Joan Meier, director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project.

“For the moment, abused mothers who are trying to protect their children through the overworked family court system have the cards stacked against them,” says Silberg of the Leadership Council.

Cara Tabachnick is news editor of The Crime Report. Additional reporting by John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice researcher Daonese Johnson-Colon

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What I Hope to Accomplish With This Blog

I am writing this blog because of my own harrowing experience in the Family Court system.  Most of the resources I list here provide information I only discovered after my trial when I tried to make sense out of what exactly happened to me.  My hope, in sharing this pertinent information in one concise, easy-to-navigate location, is that you are able to find assistance which may help with the outcome of your own case.