I’m writing a series titled 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.
In Part Two of my story (below), I applied for a restraining order. After meeting with an attorney, completing the paperwork, and dropping it off at the courthouse, I was told to come back in three hours to see if it was approved.
Do Not Give Up
With my cell phone battery and my stomach full, I left the restaurant and walked back to the courthouse. The woman at the front desk told me the paperwork wasn’t ready yet, but it was with the presiding judge. I sat at the tiny table in the office and read a book on my Kindle. Thirty minutes later, the woman called my name. As I’d been waiting, I’d been able to calm my emotions. But the second my name was called, the lump in my throat grew to the size of a grapefruit.
It was approved. My restraining order was approved. I felt a sense of relief that could only be followed by a flow of happy tears. I was going to be safe. Since it was 4:40 p.m., I had 20 minutes before my new attorney’s office closed at 5:00. I ran back to my aunt’s car and brought the paperwork to my new attorney (we’ll call him George in the interests of simplicity and anonymity). Once I gave George the paperwork, we’d hire a state marshal to serve Robert with the restraining order and the divorce petition. It appeared peace, sanity, and safety would be mine. I was going to live my life without fear, threats, and intimidation.
When I arrived at George’s office, he explained some things to me. I’d been granted a temporary restraining order. We’d still have to go in front of a judge and have the order approved for a longer-term (usually one year). We’d also have to begin work on a divorce agreement. The sense of relief I’d felt disappeared. This was going to be an uphill battle. I wasn’t going to be granted safety, sanity, and peace just yet. I had to get ready to fight for it.
My Day(s) in Court
Only 3.8 percent of divorces result in contested custody. I was one of the 3.8 percent. I didn’t want Robert’s money or any of his other assets. I did want my children safe. In the first three months, we’d lived apart, Robert took our son for one three-hour visit. It caused Robert to admit he was having a hard time keeping his composure. He took our daughter for one overnight. Before he took her to school the next morning, he called me and screamed at me in front of her. When I went to pick her up, her teacher told me she’d had a very difficult day (which was unlike her). And that evening, she was glued to my hip.
I became aggravated with him many times. But when we sat down and talked it out, I found out I was aggravated with the system.
Upon filing for divorce, the courts give a 90-day window to see if the parties can come to an agreement. During that time, the parties meet at the courthouse, the litigants talk with their attorneys, the attorneys meet with each other to hammer things out, then report back to the litigants. During our first three such sessions, we agreed to continue the restraining order — without Robert’s admitting to the truth of my allegations — and we agreed to a supervised visitation schedule until we had our proverbial day in court before a judge. For about seven months, that arrangement stood. During those months, we spent countless other days in the courthouse, in pre-trial hearings. And I spent massive amounts of time learning how the system worked. George was a great attorney. He represented me adequately and explained the process to me. I became aggravated with him many times. But when we sat down and talked it out, I found out I was aggravated with the system.
It appeared no matter what type of evidence we’d provide to the court, there was a way Robert and his attorney could counter it. During our custody trial — Robert wanted unsupervised visitation, contrary to the supervised terms in the restraining order — I was on the stand for more than two hours. With questioning from my attorney, I recounted the abuse I’d endured over our 11-year union — with text messages from Robert to verify my claims. I had to listen to the audio from a 911 call I made, scared for my life, locked in a room with our two children. All the while, Robert sat glaring and smirking at me. Those were some of the most difficult moments of my life. Robert countered with 20 minutes on the stand. He said he never did anything I said he did, and he didn’t know why I’d say he did.
Robert was even able to pay a psychiatrist to state — after just two 30-minute supervised sessions with him and our children — that he wasn’t a threat to them. When the psychiatrist was deposed, she didn’t know all the mental health issues that were documented in the files to which Robert had been ordered to give her access. She said there was no proof of my claims of abuse. Since Robert denied them, she couldn’t take them into consideration. She also admitted it was the first time she’d done an evaluation of that type.
We even had the State do a full custody evaluation and prepare a plan to which I consented. Robert didn’t. The judge threw the State’s recommendations out because he felt he knew better.
During this time, Robert’s threats, his intimidation, and his harassment continued — even with the restraining order still in force. When the judge was given evidence of Robert’s transgressions, he deemed it wasn’t enough to hold Robert in contempt of court. Robert would receive a slap on the wrist from his attorney, and he’d stand down for a week or so.
When our marital home was put on the market, I planned to purchase my own house. Where else was I going to go with two children, two dogs, and seven chickens? George requested approval from Robert’s attorney and provided all the details. Robert and his attorney refused to agree. We had to go in front of the judge and ask permission for me to buy a home. It was granted. But was the court appearance necessary?
When I look at my case details online, there are more than 60 line items. It seemed that for fighting for the safety of our children, I was being punished by Robert, in any way he could muster. How dare I fight him and try to live a life free from him? He was a great guy. He was just backed into a corner. The abuse was all my fault, after all. If I’d known how to behave and act around him, he would never have lost his cool.
I was his only trigger. I was his only enemy.