In this week’s blog, we share a story submitted on our website by “Valerie” (not her real name). Valerie’s journey through the family court system might sound extreme to some of you, but it’s not. We at The M3ND Project hear so many stories of adult victims of abuse who lose custody of their children to their abusive ex-spouses. Often, the survivor has been cut off of most of or all their finances and is unable to hire quality legal counsel, experts or other consultants to help support them in their fight for custody. Or, the court officer hearing their family law case is not educated about abuse or trauma signs, which may give them an inaccurate impression of the victim. Whatever the reason, far too many victims of abuse face a secondary trauma and potentially great loss coming out of the divorce and custody battles they have to fight.
In retrospect, I can get a sense for how and why my daughter is changing as a person through her many-year ordeal by looking at the conduct of her father over our separation. In the beginning, she was really sad and missing me a lot. Several months went by after her initial abduction when she was permitted to speak to me only four times: on her 12th birthday, the day after my birthday (she called me late because no one could remember precisely when my birthday was), on Thanksgiving, and on Christmas. From seeing and talking with her daily when she was with me to four times over several months (four times in a week would not have been enough for me). Four times. When she talked with me, she wasn’t allowed any privacy unless she locked herself in the bathroom with her dad’s cell phone where she would talk to me until the battery ran out. On New Year’s Day after that first Christmas, she persuaded them (her father and his parents) to let her talk to me once a week on Sundays. Even then, for the first two years, they made her talk to me on speakerphone while being as loud as they could in the background so we couldn’t really hear each other speaking. If I sent her a giftbox, they would open it and go through everything, so I almost never wrote her personal letters or cards.
Before he took her away from me, when she was eleven years old, we cut my daughter’s hair really short to make her look transsexual. By then, he had filed for custody out of state (even though I was told that wasn’t allowed), and I was certain he would stop at nothing to take her away from me. She believed that if she pretended to be trans he would not molest her while she lived with him. She knew I couldn’t come out to visit her because the court order her father got from a judge out-of-state changing custody included a permanent restraining order against me. The basis for the restraining order were not stated; it only promised I would go to jail if I came near her or her father. We read it together before she was taken away, and she was angry about the lies her father wrote in his affidavits. One of them, ironically, was that she had to steal my phone and call him if she wanted to speak to him. (I had never imposed any restrictions on her phone time with her father when she lived with me. They spoke regularly, and never on speakerphone. She played Wizards 101 online with him, as well.)
My daughter knows I’m in Stage 3 renal failure and too sick to travel or take road trips anymore. The year after she was taken, I qualified for permanent disability. The only way she could have seen me in person would have been for her father to bring her here, but the Courts did not order that and he didn’t volunteer to do so (of course). Once he moved her out-of-state, my lawyers dropped our case. Her father, who had left a frightening voicemail right before Thanksgiving in 2014, vowed to have me thrown in jail for “being bad.” He regularly had other members of his family tell her ugly stories about me. Recently, she asked me about one of them. They told her that he divorced me because I was having an affair with my dentist. Her father’s slander campaign against me began probably around the time she was born or even before.
Eight years ago on summer parent time, she called me from her uncle’s house so angry about the blatant falsehoods they were telling her about me that she wanted me to refute them right away. I laughed about the lies. They were so ridiculous that after I set her straight, we laughed about it together, and I promptly set them aside. She later told me that after she got off the phone with me her aunt punished her, saying, “snitches get stitches!” After hearing this, I sued for sole custody for the second time but lost. I can only imagine the rumors spread since then that she will be too frightened to repeat to anyone.
The first time I sued for custody was in 2010. This was on the advice of Texas Child Protective Services. At the time, she had come home from summer parent time and sexually molested another girl on a sleepover for the second year in a row. Her sexual acting out affected her relationships at school too.
Eleven years ago, desperate, I sat in the local law library researching the law, unsuccessfully trying to find precedent for mothers winning custody or child support in court. I now believe that any time this happens, it is an out-of-court settlement precisely to avoid setting precedent for women succeeding in future cases. Many shocking things I came to know about other mothers’ cases I have since then learned about by hearing story after story on Facebook, by speaking with other women, and in other ways.
What I learned from my research was how complicated the family court and custody laws are and how easy it is for litigants to escape real life situations of abuse by relying on nuances in the laws, especially where the laws differ among the states. One way my ex-husband’s attorney exploited the confusion caused by the UCCJEA was by claiming I was trying to modify custody by filing for child support! (In my state, custody and child support are considered separate issues entirely, and this stymied my lawyers.) If my ex-husband’s lawyer wanted to have a custody trial in Utah two months before a hearing was scheduled in New York to determine jurisdiction, they could. If I was served for an out-of-state hearing in a New York courthouse against state law, my lawyer didn’t seem to care or understand what to do to stop it. My attorney made me go to the hearing in Utah, whereupon I was immediately incarcerated for 5 days without being able to appear at the custody trial I was there for in th first place! The hearing date and order to appear had all been a ruse to get me there. There was no accountability for the judge who falsely imprisoned me because he retired the following year.
Local police staked out my house to seize my daughter having been told I was incarcerated in Utah. Pursuant to the UCCJEA they could say I had “abandoned” my daughter and “Emergency Jurisdiction” could be declared over her. My supposedly-impartial judge had instructed my ex-husband’s lawyer to resolve our custody issues this way, but my daughter could not be found at my home. So three months later, Rochester City Police came with my ex-husband and his lawyer to her school waving a court order, taking her 9 days before the end of her school year! The May 15, 2015 court order said my daughter was allowed to finish her school year. The school principal promised to throw my ex-husband and his lawyer off school grounds, but she was intimidated by police presence! I would have withdrawn my daughter from public school after her father’s first abduction and homeschooled her if I had any idea the school district would not bother to read the court order before releasing my daughter to kidnappers. They didn’t even let her call her own court-appointed child’s attorney before forcibly removing her from school and my care.
At the time we got married in 2002, my husband forced me to give up my career leaving me without income. Utah courts enabled him to exert continuous control over me, allowing him to make his parents and his employer co-conspirators in his financial terrorism over me. If he would have been made to follow the law, the military would have paid me spousal and child support, and he would have had to retain divorce attorneys for both of us. Instead, he left me destitute in Baltimore County living off credit cards while he transferred to Fort Hood. I was left without medical insurance from 2006 to 2010. During a vulnerable time in my late 30’s, I could not afford doctor visits. Meanwhile, my ex-husband put all the military child support payments in his own pocket, enriching himself unjustly during the 7 years I had full custody I struggled to pay our bills on my meager student loans.
This is one example how the legal system was stacked against me from start to finish. In another example, in 2005, my husband had his parents take our daughter from our marital home on Fort Meade, MD. He sued for divorce in Utah less than a month later where the laws served him better! That’s called “Forum Shopping” and “Unconscionable Behavior,” and the Provo Seventh Circuit judge should have denied his application and directed him to bring our daughter back home and file in Maryland, where she was a legal resident. But the judge didn’t.
As far as my daughter, for the first two years after he took her from me, she lived with him at his parents’ house. Now they live together in a townhouse with his Down’s Syndrome cousin whom he cares for. For years, he tried to have her diagnosed with Aspergers because she wouldn’t cry or laugh in front of him and she wouldn’t let him touch her. It could have also been a way for him to receive a larger payment for her from the VA, or so he could convince the courts that she could never be independent of him. When my daughter turned 15, she asked me if she should grow out her hair, which she kept in a crew cut like a boy. I told her yes because she and I both thought her father would let her return home when she was 18. A few months ago, I found out he wants to keep her with him after high school to attend the college up the road that she can walk to from his house.
She never talks about any dreams she has or her goals for her future which she used to love to do with me when we were together. Now, we barely have anything to talk about on the phone. She doesn’t tell me much about her life anymore. At the time of her abduction, she was supposed to start seventh grade at School of the Arts: she had auditioned and gotten accepted into the Drama program, and we were both so excited. Now she’s a senior planning to go to college and study biology. Her father doesn’t let her out of his sight. She keeps her body covered up to the collarbone on the rare occasions we are allowed to video chat. Recently I began to suspect she’s pregnant, but I do not know for sure.
We cannot always tie a pretty bow on these stories. Often, there isn’t a happy ending. But we believe there is always hope for healing on the other side. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, please reach out for help. We encourage you to have a confidential conversation with someone at a local domestic violence agency to help you plan a safe exit for you and your children. Often, they provide free legal services and support to help you to make strong and safe decisions. If you have a story you would like to share, please visit our website and share your story HERE. If you would like to hear more stories from survivors or first responders, you may check them out here. Importantly, if you find our weekly blogs helpful to you, please consider contributing to our efforts through your donation today. HERE.