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Section 4
Child Custody Challenges

Questions 4 | Test | Table of Contents

The children of two women who had moved out and were in the process of divorce both suffered significant harm. An excerpt from one woman’s interview reveals how children may be caught in custody arrangements. Both parents in this relationship have graduate degrees.

“When Robert came here one day to try to get me to come back, David (her son) and Jane were here and he started crying and he got down on his hands and knees. And David came running up — David’s only 3 years old — pushed him away, and said, ‘Don’t hurt Mommy. Don’t hurt Mommy. Don’t you dare touch Mommy.’ And Robert said: ‘See what you’ve done to them? You’ve got them believing that I beat you.’ Oh, God, I felt like killing him ... The oldest one (Jane) blocks it out. David’s very protective of me, extremely protective, to the point of when I go out on a date (I’m dating someone now) he’s very clingy. He wants to know if I have enough money. He wants me to call him if I have a problem. And he also watches at the window as we walk away. It’s really sad.”

What about the custody arrangement?
“I want my children with me full time. I was feeling sorry for Robert. He wanted the children halftime, so we originally started a week apiece. One week my house, one week his. We were in the same school district, same bus. The kids have the same class. So I thought that was OK. But then he wanted them at his house because his house was bigger so he said he could provide more for them than I could.

And I said ‘Bullshit, I can provide just as much as you can. What makes you think that you’re any better than I am? And what makes you think that you’re a better parent than I am?’ I gave him this big struggle. Now it’s a month apiece. I must say that David calls me at least five times a day, at least, when he’s at his father’s. And it’s very hard for me. I think, I’m just waiting for the right time. His girlfriend is moving in. She’s in Washington in another PhD program. And I think once she moves in for good, she’s not going to want to have those kids around.”

This woman’s child, David, expressed his feelings through art. The message that this mother gets from her child’s art is sorrow over a broken family. She said about one drawing: “David says I’m the one in red. Interesting, I’m the only one without a smile, and note the position of the hand (reaching out to strike) on the gentleman with the tie!” The evidence from this affluent family supports what every social worker and child health worker knows from clinical experience: that education, financial security, and social status are weak hedges against the damage that can be done to children if violence between the parents is observed and children are used as bartering points.

The evidence is similar in a poorer family.
In this case, the woman was almost beaten to death during her seventh month of pregnancy. When the father came to the hospital during her confinement to see the newborn infant, this woman was understandably reluctant to allow visitation. The husband’s lawyer made a case for the father’s affection for his child. The woman’s lawyer advised her that she could jeopardize her case for child custody if she refused him visitation rights with the newborn.

However, as the woman said: “What do you mean he cares about the baby? He just about killed both of us.” Finally after several weeks of legal negotiations, a visitation agreement was worked out for all the children. Each visit, however, was fraught with tension for mother as well as children. The mother complained that the father did not feed the children or change the infant’s diapers. The oldest child, age 5, said simply: “He makes me cry.” Also, in a most blatant display of using a child in parental battles, he said to the child:

“Tell your mother I don’t want her anymore ... I want her to die” (although he continued to test every avenue through relatives and a pastor to persuade his wife to come back). “Say to your mother, ‘I don’t love you.’ Tell your mother she’s got money and I don’t have any, to give me some.” (This mother was being supported on Aid to Families with Dependent Children — AFDC.)

Legal Entitlement
This father may have been more desperate than most since he was prevented from contacting her by a Restraining Order (relatives served as intermediates when he came to visit the children). Yet, although he had abused the older child, he was still legally entitled to visit the children. This woman’s situation was even more complicated because of a legal entanglement concerning her marriage certificate. This case suggests that the efforts of child advocates to influence divorce and custody decisions to assure the welfare of children are by no means sufficient. This father’s treatment of the children suggests that he might not have visited them at all if he had not entertained the hope of getting his wife back through this mechanism. While he did not openly express hostility about the mother to the children at the beginning of the separation, as his hope for her return dwindled, his visits became increasingly irregular and his barbs at the mother through the children more pointed and vicious.

The mother’s options
The mother’s options, however, were limited legally. Unless the father was physically abusive toward the children, even though he had a history of such abuse, the mother could not prevent him from seeing the children. To do so would damage her legal chances of obtaining exclusive custody at the final divorce hearing. Meanwhile, as the legal wheels slowly turned, the children were slowly but surely exposed to the effects of continuing venom passed back and forth between the parents. The mother was explicitly advised by her lawyer and by the researcher when appropriate not to discuss negative things about the children’s father in their presence, nor to question them in a way that would leave the child in a conflicted position, except to ascertain discreetly if any physical abuse had occurred. This was another of those instances where I felt an ethical obligation to depart from the research role and intervene for the sake of the children. After this man’s divorce from his previous wife he never visited the three children of that marriage, although they were not far away. His former wife and the woman in this study met periodically in order to provide the half-siblings from these two marriages an opportunity to visit one another. The two women were also friendly and exchanged stories about the similar pattern of abuse in each of their marriages.

How do these examples illustrate the children’s suffering?
These examples illustrate some of the most explicit ways in which the children of battered women suffer. In this, they resemble millions of other children whose divorcing parents conduct their marital affairs in a manner that suggests they are abandoning their role as responsible parents as well. The great personal stress experienced during these transition states suggests the need for contemporary rites of passage to assist a battered woman in redefining her new role in the community as a divorced person and single parent. Currently, this process is accomplished largely as an individual matter between her, her husband, and the respective lawyers whose tendency is to handle these cases in the general adversarial framework of law practice. Through contemporary rites of passage, this process would be extended to include other concerned members of the community. Thus the parents’ changed roles and responsibilities could be redefined and publicly supported to reduce the possibilities of parents and children alike becoming scapegoats for a problem that extends beyond the immediate family concerned.

Indirect Effects
Even when divorce and custody issues are resolved and children have been spared the direct impact of violence against their mothers, observation of the women in this study suggests that the indirect effects are everywhere visible. There is, of course, no question that to be free of actual abuse or its constant threat is a great boon to both mother and child.

But as one woman said after months of homelessness with two young children: “It’s the pits. Today I’m number 11 on the emergency housing list. Here I am scrunched in one room, the baby’s clothes in a bag, no room for a crib, and there’s rats here. I’ve lost hope in the housing authority.” The effect of such housing crises on children is bound to endure, though its full dimension may only be revealed in the next generation (Kozol 1988).

Because of the life-threatening nature of the crises it deals with, the battered women’s movement has, of necessity, focused on refuges to protect women and children from immediate danger. As an unintended consequence, less attention has been given to what happens after resolution of the immediate crisis.

Follow-up programs for women and children after they leave shelters are rare or their services quite limited. This situation presents a sober reminder of how very new the battered women’s movement is and of how much work remains to be done. It also underscores the irony of the fact that women and their children, the victims of violence, must struggle to re-stabilize their lives in home and school, while their assailants enjoy the comforts of the marital dwelling.

The experience of these women strongly suggests a need to re­examine the societal approach to victims and perpetrators of violence. Thus, some of the women had left their violent mates several times before their final departure. Either they found the struggles of parenting alone simply too much, or they perceived the difficulties of single parenthood as too insurmountable to even try it. If these factors are combined with the women’s powerful socialization toward responsibility for making a marriage work, it is not difficult to understand why battered women stay as long as they do.

In fact, the women’s fears and anticipation of the struggles of single parenthood and establishing a new household are well-founded. Their sharing of these struggles is not intended to suggest in the least that they would prefer the horrors of living in a violent relationship. Still, the price some women pay for freeing themselves of such violence is very high. The experience of some battered women and their children for months after leaving a violent mate presents poignant evidence of how little the women’s movement has touched the lives of many battered women. More importantly, the long-term effects of violence on the children are yet to be revealed.

- Hoff, Lee Ann, Battered Women as Survivors, Routledge: London, 1990.

Personal Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information about the effects of child custody conflicts. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Lived Experiences of Domestic Violence in Women
and Their Children: A Phenomenological Study

- Lee, P. Y., & Lee, B. O. (2022). Lived Experiences of Domestic Violence in Women and Their Children: A Phenomenological Study. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 10(8), 1556.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Ackerman, M. J., Bow, J. N., & Mathy, N. (2021). Child custody evaluation practices: Where we were, where we are, and where we are going. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 52(4), 406–417.

Golombok, S., Zadeh, S., Freeman, T., Lysons, J., & Foley, S. (2021). Single mothers by choice: Parenting and child adjustment in middle childhood. Journal of Family Psychology, 35(2), 192–202.

Nielsen, L. (2017). Re-examining the research on parental conflict, coparenting, and custody arrangements. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 23(2), 211–231.

Salzer, M. S., Berg, K. L., Kaplan, K., & Brusilovskiy, E. (2021). Custody challenges experienced by parents with serious mental illnesses outside of child protective services proceedings. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 44(2), 197–200.

What has been a consequence of “domestic violence programs’” focus on protecting women and children from immediate danger? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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