Before stepping foot into the family court system, my only exposure to the American legal system was traffic court in my birth state of New Jersey. As far as I knew, the American justice system was fair and honorable. But after my family court experience, I’m not willing to call it a justice system. It may have to do with legalities. But it has nothing to do with justice.
I’m writing a series entitled, My Family Court Story, for Family Court Awareness Month, which has been declared November by Tina Swithin from One Mom’s Battle. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Once a survivor decides to leave an abusive relationship, if there are children involved or a marriage, there is another bigger battle to be fought – navigating the family court system while learning how to manage post-separation abuse.
The presumption of innocence is the bedrock of our legal system. But in family court, in cases involving Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), that presumption requires stringent validation. Since most abuse occurs in the home, behind closed doors, with no witnesses, IPV advocates have to evaluate each situation. They have to take measures to verify the abuse and testify in court or have formal depositions presented to presiding family court judges. Proving abuse beyond a reasonable doubt is an unduly onerous burden to place on victims.
I wrote about IPV and judicial reform at the beginning of this year. You can read that article below.
And So It Begins … To End
After months of couples therapy and personal therapy to help process my situation, I concluded my marriage was over. As a result, during our fifth and final couples session when now-ex (we’ll call him Robert in the interests of simplicity and anonymity) proclaimed – as he did in every session and countless times throughout our marriage – we should get a divorce, I agreed. And with that, I was thrust into the American legal system.
Naively, I thought we could sit in front of a neutral third party and mediate the dissolution of our marriage. The week following my acceptance of his proclamation, I scheduled an appointment with an attorney who specialized in mediated marriage dissolutions.
When the meeting began, I dutifully pulled out my laptop to answer all the financial questions she had. I have a bachelor’s degree in Finance, so I was the one who handled the finances in the house. Then came the questions about our children – our three-year-old daughter and our one-year-old son.
Robert inquired about the amount of child support he’d have to pay. He didn’t like the answer he was given. I could sense his temper flaring up. After years of living on the edge, sensing his turbulent mood swings became my sixth sense.
Then questions about child custody came up. We agreed the children would live with me. But Robert didn’t know what he wanted his visitation schedule to be. When the question was posed to me, I said I wanted his visitation to be as often as he’d like it to be. But given his anger and his history of abuse, I wanted his visits to be supervised. The behaviors he’d exhibited during our 11 years together were scary at times. And during the six months leading up to our agreeing to divorce, he was increasingly frightening. If I weren’t there to protect our children during his rages, who would? Was that our three-year-old daughter’s responsibility?
His face began to turn red. The attorney asked him if he would mind stepping outside so she could talk to talk to me privately. He obliged. He stepped out onto the fire escape, paced back and forth, and smoked a cigarette. The attorney told me if I sought supervised visitation, it wasn’t likely we’d be able to dissolve the marriage in mediation. She asked if I felt strongly about my concerns. I said yes. She called Robert back in.
As soon as he came back into her office, he moved his chair. He was no longer facing the attorney’s desk. His chair was now facing directly toward me. I was too scared to look him in the eye. I pointed my gaze down at the laptop. And he began spewing vitriol at me. Then, for his grand exit, he stood up, threw the paperwork he had in his hand to the floor, and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
The attorney looked at me while tears streamed down my face. She strongly suggested I get a restraining order in place immediately. She was afraid for me after what she witnessed. While I sat in her office crying but trying to get myself together, she started calling colleagues until she found one with an opening to see me right away.