Each day, women across the nation abandon their morals as they share carefully scripted stories with custody evaluators, guardian ad litems, and judges. They don’t want to lie in the courtroom, but they feel there’s no other way to protect their children. Moms dealing with high-conflict exes must create a narrative that doesn’t jeopardize their custody battle.
So they pretend abuse never happened.
These moms conveniently fail to mention hospital visits and police reports that provide a paper trail of their ex’s temper. When a judge asks if there are any concerns about the father’s parenting, many women sadly shake their heads. They hesitate when a guardian ad litem wants to discuss physical, emotional, or sexual abuse toward the children, even if DFS or another agency substantiated the incidents.
It’s just too risky to talk about these things in court.
Society encourages us to leave abusive relationships, comforting us with false hope about the benefits of fleeing. “Protect yourself and your children,” people say, urging women to get away from violent men. “Document everything, and make sure you get police reports. You’ll need it for court.”
But many of these documents never make it to the courtroom. Lawyers often warn women that discussing abuse isn’t wise, even if you can prove it happened. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a stack of police reports, medical bills, DFS reports, and orders of protection. In fact, it’s almost worse for your case if you do.
“My mom lied and hid evidence. She lied to keep him out of jail,” reveals Jessica R., a woman who grew up with an abusive father. Her mother didn’t want to punish Jessica’s father; she just wanted him to stop the abuse.
Tonya L., a Midwestern mom, feels differently. “I’m so frustrated that he keeps getting away with this abuse. All the people who are supposed to protect my kids have done nothing. The guardian ad litem defends his ridiculous actions and acts like I’m just overreacting. I’ve had 3 restraining orders against this guy and he’s got a lengthy criminal record, but nobody is helping my family.”
Another mom hesitates when I ask about her court experience. She’s scared to speak about it online, even anonymously, because she fears retaliation from the judge who handled her case. “I want to share my story to help others, but I can’t right now. It’s not safe. I have to look out for my family.”
Her fears are valid in a world where many women are silenced by gag orders after speaking out about abuse.
Katie is a devoted mom of two who is aware of the struggles many women face in family court. After years of abuse, Katie found the courage to leave her partner and took the kids to a domestic violence center. “I finally had enough of the verbal, mental, and emotional abuse and knew that me and my kids could not live in a place where we were not wanted,” she explains.
Katie took advantage of the shelter’s legal and mental health resources during her stay, and it helped her recover from the abuse. With help from the counseling team, she learned she’s prone to codependency and began to understand why she stayed with her toxic ex. “I know I’m stronger mentally for being able to go,” Katie says of the counseling sessions.
I ask Katie how she feels about mentioning her ex’s abuse in court, and her response doesn’t surprise me. “I’m worried the court will not take into consideration that verbal, mental, and emotional abuse is not provable because there are no physical scars. All I have in my defense are messages via text and Facebook messenger.”
She continues, “I worry that the court will give him more visitation and freedom with the kids. I’m worried that he will be able to say some random thing about not remembering or that I just made it up. I’m worried that even though I have messages directly from him, the court will not review them or he will try to claim that was the old him and say he doesn’t like to talk about anything from the past.”
Katie describes how her ex often gaslighted her and pretended she was lying when she confronted him about his actions. He also threatened to take the children away from her multiple times, claiming he was more stable because he had a better job. She put her career on hold to raise their children.
During arguments, Katie’s ex taunted her mercilessly about her childhood. He often said she had daddy issues and mocked her postpartum depression. When she became upset by his words, he called her weak and said she was overly emotional.
“I filed for an order of protection, but it ultimately got denied because he was able to talk his way out of it and said he didn’t ever remember the things I claimed. So it basically became his word against mine, and even though I had evidence to support my claim, it felt like it was overlooked and made me feel like he was getting away with yet another form of abuse,” she says.
She fears that mentioning his abuse in court again may hurt her during their custody battle, as her ex insists it didn’t happen. Katie is concerned that will make her appear mentally unstable, especially since her ex claims she’ll lose custody if the judge learns about her postpartum depression. She also doesn’t want the stigma of being someone who dates abusive men, as the court may frown upon that.
Another mom, Maria, agrees that women are criticized for having abusive exes. “A guardian ad litem was assigned due to my ex’s abuse. He was found guilty of child abuse involving our oldest. At my intake meeting, the guardian ad litem asked if I always date abusers. I told her that was an unexpected question, and she said she needs to know if I have a habit of putting the kids in danger. I was basically blamed for the abuse he inflicted on them.”
She’s not the only mom who shared a story like this with me.
I tell Latasha M. that I’m also going through custody court and leave it at that. I’ve been advised not to discuss my case in detail with anyone.
Latasha says, “I don’t know the specifics of your situation, but can I give you some advice? If he’s anything like my ex, don’t say a word about his abuse in court. They won’t believe you, and you’ll get called crazy or accused of alienation.”
Her advice reflects a common theme among the women I’ve interviewed. Many of them were accused of parental alienation after reporting child abuse. That was frustrating enough, but those who reported abuse were often subjected to high-priced psychological evaluations as well.
Parental alienation is a controversial theory created by Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist notorious for defending pedophilia. “There is a bit of pedophilia in every one of us,” Gardner claimed. He said that the majority of women who report sexual abuse are lying, thus programming children to hate their loving fathers.
“Children are naturally sexual and may initiate sexual encounters by seducing the adult,” Gardner claimed. He also alleged that sexual abuse is “not necessarily traumatic” and blames mothers for their husbands’ sexual abuse.
Gardner says women must learn to better satisfy their husbands and forgive them when they seek pleasure from children. “Her increased sexuality may lessen the need for her husband to return to their daughter for sexual gratification,” Gardner said, referring to a mother whose husband abused their daughter.
Gardner committed suicide in 2003, but nearly two decades later, his alienation theory remains popular with many judges and guardian ad litems.
“He’s the crazy one. He abused us for years, but then he claimed I was mentally unstable and practicing parental alienation when I finally reported him. I was forced to undergo an all-day psych exam to prove I wasn’t fabricating stories due to mental illness. It was a nightmare. A very expensive nightmare,” Tonya L. tells me.
Luckily, Tonya still has custody of her kids. Some moms aren’t as lucky.
Research from the Department of Justice reveals that accusing moms of parental alienation is the winning ticket for abusive men. A whopping 44% of moms lose custody when exes claim they were alienating the children. Additionally, moms accused of parental alienation after reporting a father’s abuse are twice as likely to lose custodial rights.
It gets worse.
When women branded as parental alienators report sexual abuse, the court only believes 1 out of 51 women. “Women are expected to behave as mothers. But then when they come in and say ‘I’m trying to protect my child,’ then they’re not believed,” Jane Aiken tells the Washington Post. Ms. Aiken is a dean at Wake Forest University’s School of Law who dubs family court a gendered trap for moms who report abuse.
Unfortunately, many lawyers are hesitant to criticize Richard Gardner’s junk science for fear of upsetting their courtroom colleagues. One divorce attorney, who requested I not use her name or location, told me alienation claims are a death sentence for moms. She warns that accused women should take the accusations very seriously and do everything they can to squash them before a custody trial. According to this attorney, those who are unsuccessful often lose custody even if they prove the abuse occurred.
Richard Gardner would be elated.
Note: Some information has been changed to protect the identities of these women who bravely shared their experiences. I would like to clarify that my article reflects the experiences of other women and not necessarily my own situation, as I have chosen not to discuss my custody case publicly.
Also, some parents truly do alienate their exes, but I do not support the theories promoted by Richard Gardner.