[March 31, 2021] It is a common misconception that when women leave their abuser, things get better. Because there is help through police, advocates, or courts, many believe the domestic violence ends. This is not always true. In fact, what usually takes place is this: Abusers find new ways to abuse - often through children.
I left my ex when our child was young. After leaving my ex, I endured harassment, break-ins, assaults and a vile and vindictive character assassination aimed at destroying me – all done at my ex’s hands. These experiences were traumatizing and compounded the PTSD I experienced from the abusive relationship. As time went on, his vendetta became clear to some of the professionals we worked with, and they understood my child and I were in fact victims of his abuse. But it was not enough to stop the abuse.
I originally went to court for a restraining order for myself and our child. I believed wholeheartedly the justice system would protect us. I believed by telling the court system what we had endured, my child would be able to grow up safely. I unconditionally expected R.I. Family Court to uphold the best interest of my child. After my ex realized he would not be able to manipulate his way back into our lives, he filed for divorce. In the divorce, I fought for sole custody because I feared for my child’s safety as well as for myself trying to co-parent with my child’s father.
In Family Court, my abuser’s lies were believed despite the evidence proving he was not the caring and gentle parent he claimed to be. When I’d present such evidence, like how we needed to have police involvement at most custody exchanges to ensure his compliance, or his inappropriate communication on crucial co-parenting issues – like where our child would go to school or how to care for him when he was sick with a fever – the evidence proved to work against me, the non-abusive parent.
Although these are important factors that egregiously affect the life of a child, when I spoke my truth about what took place when trying to co-parent with my abusive ex, I was seen as uncooperative and unwilling to facilitate a relationship between my child and their father. Although the police, advocates, our child’s school personnel and our child’s pediatrician knew the violence our child’s father inflicted, and although he was indicted for neglect numerous times by the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Families, no one could convince the court of this.
His neglect of our child showed up in some of the most obvious forms: My ex wouldn’t dress them properly or change their diaper, so they would have rashes after spending days with their father. My ex would refuse to take them to the doctor when they were sick. The not-so-obvious forms of neglect are the ones that are the most sickening.
My ex would refuse to acknowledge our child’s needs, whether it be by not giving them their prescribed medicine or refusing to help them calm down during custody exchanges from me to my ex. Our child was privy to conversations about “getting rid of” me, told they were not allowed to love Mommy and told that because Mommy was picking them up (even though it was my court-ordered parenting time), they would miss out on some fun activity. This is not only neglect, it is also emotional and psychological abuse.
My ex continued his harassment and abuse in what I consider to be “gray areas” - where one professional’s boundary ends and the other begins.
Gray areas are the places in which abusers choose to “operate” once they know there are eyes on them. It is in gray areas where forms of abuse and manipulation that aren’t considered illegal happen. In other words, abusers like my ex learn to abuse in new ways, taking advantage of the boundary lines of the professionals involved. These new ways of abuse are things my ex can get away with, like behaving erratically in front of police, being high and drunk at custody exchanges, yelling obscenities at me while speaking with officers and holding our child, screaming at police when they intervene - all without consequence. There were many times he has tried to have me arrested for a crime I did not commit. I have been accused of theft, of abusing him mentally, verbally and physically. I have even been accused of attempting to run him over. Still, even to this day, my ex attempts to have me arrested for any number of things he concocts in his mind. This also includes the many restraining orders he has tried to take out against me based on false narratives.
Gray areas include my ex planting seeds in our pediatrician’s head with false accusations that I am physically and emotionally abusive to our child, as well as mentally unstable and suicidal - all of which are untrue. Because of this, I was often hesitant to go to the pediatrician’s office for anything. When I did, I tried to avoid certain doctors at all costs or I would go to an urgent care center instead. I felt pediatricians were suspicious of me and still fear that my child would not be protected if I were to share something personal. My feelings were only exacerbated when I learned one of the doctors expressed support to the courts for my child staying with their father for 80% of the time, without ever discussing anything with me. Their support was based solely on unsubstantiated claims by my ex.
Yet another gray area has come into play in the 50+ times I have been dragged into court by my abuser trying to control everything in our child’s life. Even though multiple specialists agree our child needs therapy, my ex decides to battle me over this. I still don’t have enough professionals who will step in and write letters I can present in court.
The most obvious negative impact on my child is he has not received the necessary treatment he needs. The not-so-obvious negative impact is what has happened to my child’s self-esteem. My child does not understand all that is happening in his life but most certainly feels anxiety, anger, tension and strife. My child has begun internalizing these feelings, which has begun affecting their personality. They used to be very outgoing and loving, and they have become withdrawn and shy with adults outside of the family. With the family, outbursts and defiance have become the norm. It breaks my heart because it never had to be like this. But the courts will not listen.
The misconception we are safe is just that - a misconception. My child and I will not be safe until our abuser is held accountable for ALL his actions - the abuse, neglect and unwillingness to support my child’s mental health in a way that prevents this abuser from continuing to abuse us, yet we are told his involvement in our lives is what is “best” for our child. It seems constant abuse in one form or another is not as important as a father’s right to “parent,” however harmful that parenting may be.
We are withholding the name of the author for safety issues. Many times, survivors are afraid to speak about policy issues because they are afraid not only of the abusers but also of the systems they have to navigate.
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