There is always a significant amount of risk involved when leaving an abusive relationship, which magnifies exponentially when children are involved. For some, leaving their abuser puts an end to the abuse. For those who share children together, it is a completely different story. In many states, the typical decision around parenting time and decision making responsibilities for parents who decide to split up is that both parents get close to equal parenting time and that both parents share decision making responsibilities equally. Parenting responsibilities include things like where the child goes to school, what medical procedures are done and by whom, what religion the child is taught, and what extracurricular activities the child may participate in. In theory, these types of decisions seem to be in the best interest of the child, allowing both parents to share their influence on raising their children. When domestic violence has been present in the parental relationship, decisions like these allow the abuse to continue.
What is domestic violence all about?
Domestic violence not only includes physical abuse of an intimate partner, but includes many other aspects of a relationship, where power and control are used to manipulate and maintain power over one partner. Other means of abuse are using the children to maintain control, such as threatening to take children away or using the children to relay messages to the other parent; using economic abuse such as not allowing one partner to know about or have access to family income or giving an allowance and expecting receipts for all purchases; using emotional abuse such as putting one partner down, making them feel crazy or making them feel guilty for other’s inappropriate behavior; using threats and coercion to make one partner drop charges or do illegal acts.
Based on the different methods one partner can maintain power and control in a relationship, the two do not have to live together for abuse to be present. For an abused partner to have contact and discussions about how to best raise their child(ren) with their abuser opens them up for continued abuse. In a more mild form, the abusive partner may disagree with decisions about which school the child should go to and use this decision to manipulate the other parent into giving something else that they want; specific parenting days, changes to who provides transportation to whom, etc. The abusive partner may disallow the child to obtain mental health care or counseling (if there is joint decision making, therapists are required to obtain consent from both the parents) so that their objectionable details details are not shared to the therapist. Often, even when domestic violence is not present, parents use their children to relay messages from one parent to the other or speak poorly about the opposite parent in front of their children. When domestic violence exists, the abusive partner may go to extremes, telling lies to their children about the other parent, making the children believe the other parent is crazy, and in extreme cases cause parental alienation syndrome.
Why doesn’t it end?
So, armed with all of this information, why are parents with a domestic violence history given 50-50 decision making responsibilities? Well, although there are statutes that allow judges to bypass the status quo of the 50-50, many times judges require a conviction of domestic violence to use the statute to make their decisions. Again, in theory this makes sense. In practice, based on what we know about domestic violence, it will not protect those that need the most protection. Victims of domestic violence do not report to police or follow through with filing charges for many reasons. They have been threatened and intimidated over and over again, and believe that if they report what is happening to them, the abuse will only get worse (which is true on many occasions). They have also been told that no one will believe them, and many victims experience questioning and disbelief by law enforcement and are asked the difficult question, “Why don’t you just leave?” So, there are a multitude of cases in family court, where domestic violence is present, has maybe been reported, but is not taken into consideration when making parenting time and other critical decisions. And so, the abuse continues.
If you are struggling to co-parent with your abuser, the best thing that you can do is maintain your boundaries, build up your support network, keep a record of everything, and keep your children’s needs at the forefront of your mind. There are agencies that are dedicated to support victims of domestic violence, some that may have legal help if needed. Reach out to a therapist if the situation feels too difficult to handle or if you are unable to maintain the boundaries set in the court order. Although this is a difficult road to travel, you do not need to travel it alone.