If you are involved in a custody battle with your abuser, this article is a must-read. I have included below only the topics and first paragraph of each, click on the topic to read the entire article.
A sophisticated understanding of the mind of the abuser, his style as a parent, and of the tactics that he most commonly employs during separation and divorce, are essential to anyone making custody recommendations or working to design visitation plans that are safe for the children and their mother. Contrary to popular belief, children of batterers can be at just as much risk psychologically, sexually, and even physically after the couple splits up as they were when the family was still together. In fact, many children experience the most damaging victimization from the abuser at this point. A genuine batterer can be difficult to distinguish from one who is unfairly accused, and batterers who will be a grave risk to their children during unsupervised visitation can be hard to separate from those who can visit safely. The insights and expertise of those service providers who have extensive experience working directly with abusers needs to be drawn from, and the level of contribution from victims themselves to policy design also needs to be greatly increased. Custody and visitation battles amidst allegations of domestic violence require policies and interveners (judges, mediators, and Guardians Ad Litem) based in the most detailed knowledge, experience, sensitivity, and integrity. The stakes for children are very high.
This article is drawn largely from the author’s ten years of experience working as a counselor and supervisor in programs for abusive men, involving contact with some 1500 abusers, and hundreds of their victims, over that period. During the first few years of this period I worked almost exclusively with voluntary clients, and during the latter period worked primarily with court-mandated ones. The characteristics of the clients changed remarkably little during that shift. In the late 1980’s, professionals in batterer programs began paying particular attention to the behavior of clients with respect to probate processes, and we began asking victims more questions about the man’s conduct with respect to visitation and custody. Since leaving direct work with batterers, I have served with increasing frequency as a custody evaluator (both as Guardian ad Litem and as Care and Protection Investigator), and have worked closely with child protective services. I also have drawn from numerous published studies, several of which are listed in the back of this article. [I have chosen for reasons of ease to refer to the abuser as “he” and the victim as “she,” but I am aware that there is a small percentage of cases of domestic violence to which this language does not apply.]
Generalizations about batterers have to be made with caution. Batterers come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of education. They have the full range of personality types, from mild and mousy to loud and aggressive. They are difficult to profile psychologically; they frequently fare well in psychological testing, often better than their victims do. People outside of a batterer’s immediate family do not generally perceive him as an abusive person, or even as an especially angry one. They are as likely to be very popular as they are to be “losers,” and they may be visible in their communities for their rofessional success and for their civic involvement. Most friends, family, and associates in a batterer’s life find it jarring when they hear what he has done, and may deny that he is capable of those acts.The partner and children of a batterer will, however, experience generalizable characteristics, though he may conceal these aspects of his attitude and behavior when other people are present:
Batterers naturally strive to turn mediation and GAL processes to their advantage, through the use of various tactics. Perhaps the most common is to adopt the role of a hurt, sensitive man who doesn’t understand how things got so bad and just wants to work it all out “for the good of the children.” He may cry in front of the mediator or GAL and use language that demonstrates considerable insight into his own feelings. He is likely to be skilled at explaining how other people have turned the victim against him, and how she is denying him access to the children as a form of revenge, “even though she knows full well that I would never do anything to hurt them.” He commonly accuses her of having mental health problems, and may state that her family and friends agree with him. The two most common negative characterizations he will use are that she is hysterical and that she is promiscuous. The abuser tends to be comfortable lying, having years of practice, and so can sound believable when making baseless statements. The abuser benefits to the detriment of his children if the court representative fails to look closely at the evidence – or ignores it – because of his charm. He also benefits when professionals believe that they can “just tell” who is lying and who is telling the truth, and so fail to adequately investigate. Because of the effects of trauma, the victim of battering will often seem hostile, disjointed, and agitated, while the abuser appears friendly, articulate, and calm. Evaluators are thus tempted to conclude that the victim is the source of the problems in the relationship.
Allegations of child abuse that arise during custody and visitation conflicts are treated with similar skepticism by court personnel and service providers. A large-scale national study found that the rate of false child sexual abuse allegations does not increase at this time, contrary to popular belief (Thoennes and Tjaden). As with domestic violence allegations, there is no substitute for careful and unbiased examination of the evidence. Batterers who do abuse their children can be convincing at portraying themselves as victims of a deliberate strategy on the part of the victim in order to derail proper investigating. There are two salient reasons why child abuse reports may first arise at separation or divorce. First, children may disclose abuse at this time that is longstanding. The awareness of the custody battle can make the children afraid of being placed in the abuser’s custody, or of being forced to spend increased time with him without the protective presence of the other parent. This fear can lead children to make the frightening leap involved in discussing the abuse. After separation, children may begin spending extended unsupervised time with the abuser for the first time ever, so that the abuse escalates or they fear that it will. Increased visitation may cause panic in a victim of child abuse; a case of mine illustrated this point, with a child disclosing a detailed history of sexual abuse immediately after her visitation with her father was increased from one night every other weekend to two. Finally, children are known to be more likely to disclose abuse in the midst of any disruption or major change in their lives. (See MacFarlane et. al. on the above points.)
Batterers are several times as likely as non-batterers to abuse children, and this risk appears to increase rather than decrease when the couple separates. Multiple studies have shown that 50% to 70% of men who use violence against their intimate partners are physically abusive to their children as well. A batterer is seven times more likely than a non-batterer to frequently beat his children (Straus). A batterer is at least four times more likely than a non-batterer to be an incest perpetrator. (Herman 1991, McCLoskey et. al.) Psychological abuse to the children is almost always present where there is domestic violence; in fact, the abuse towards their primary caretaker is itself a form of emotional abuse of the children, as numerous studies now document. It is true that battered women are also more likely to abuse children than non-battered women are, but unlike with batterers, those levels decline rapidly once the relationship separates(Edleson and Schecter).
Efforts are underway nationally to ease the complexity of assessing risk to children from visitation with batterers by placing batterers into distinct types, based largely on the work of Janet Johnston. For example, a risk assessment distributed nationally by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) draws heavily from Johnston’s work. The types Johnston posits are as follows:
Type A: “Ongoing or Episodic Male Battering”
Type B: “Female-Initiated Violence”
Type C: “Male Controlled Interactive Violence”
Type D: “Separation and Postdivorce Violence”
Type E: “Psychotic and Paranoid Reactions”
Assessing the safety of children with batterers during unsupervised visitation requires careful examination of all available evidence, with as few preconceptions as possible about the credibility of either party. Even a highly skilled service provider cannot “just tell” that an alleged abuser is telling the truth or is not dangerous, even after several hours of interviews and even with the assistance of psychological testing. These can be important sources of information, but careful assessment of the alleged victim’s version of events, comparison with outside sources (to assess credibility), examination of court records, and confrontation of the alleged abuser to assess his reactions are all essential to an evaluation.