Sunday, June 14, 2009

Heroic Moms

Sometimes heroes are treated as villains. That's what is happening now across the continent to mothers who attempt to protect their children from violent and abusive fathers. These protective mothers are attempting to do the right thing; To make their children's safety the top priority; to teach them that intimidation, violation, and degradation are wrong; and to stand up for their own rights as loving, responsible mothers.

And they do so courageously. They are often dealing with men who have pounded them with their fists, or locked them in rooms, or raped them, or threatened to kill them. Yet these women are brave enough to take the risks involved in seeking freedom for themselves and their children.

Even those protective mothers who have not faced severe physical intimidation need courage, because courthouses are scary places, and family law judges have tremendous power that is rarely curtailed by legislatures or appeals courts. The adversarial system used in courts is the worst possible atmosphere for a traumatized woman, but it is the perfect system for an abusive man; the qualities that most succeed here are aggressiveness, skillful dishonest, and strong self-confidence (or even arrogance), along with the ability and willingness to spend huge amounts of money in order to win. It is difficult for abused woman to defeat her ex-partner in a court system that is designed (though not intentionally) to play to his strengths.

What's more, certain lawyers and court-appointed evaluators have developed theories to discredit protective mothers and their children when they report that they are being harmed by an abusive man. It has become the norm for children of battered women to be forced into extensive unsupervised contact with their battering fathers, or even to be sent into his custody.

We all need to recognize, and admire, the bravery, the survival skills, and the deep concern for her children that an abused woman has to have in order to go up against the abuser in court, month after month and year after year. These women deserve our support, admiration, advocacy, and activism to help them keep their children safe, and to change the gender-biased and sometimes corrupt legal system that is abandoning them and their kids.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Disorder in the Courts: Mothers and Their Allies Take on the Family Court System

This introduction is adapted from a section that I wrote for Disorder in the Courts: Mothers and Their Allies Take on the Family Court System, an e-book available from California NOW.

There is no love deeper, more complete, and more vulnerable than the love that caring parents feel for their children. There is a bond so strong that it can be hard to tell exactly where the parent ends and the child begins, and the line is even harder to draw when our children are very young. Mothers have an additional bond from having carried their children inside of their bodies and having given birth to them, and more than half of mothers have experienced a deepened attachment through breast-feeding their babies. And mothers are, in the great majority of cases, their children’s primary caretakers, especially during their early years. All connections between caring, non-abusive parents and their children are so important as to be almost sacred, but there is usually a particular quality to the mother-child bond. That life-giving and sustaining connection deserves the full support and admiration of communities and nations.

And just as there is a special beauty and importance to relationships between mothers and their children, there is a special and extraordinary cruelty in the abusive man who attempts to break or weaken the mother-child bond, whether by turning children against their mother, by harming the children physically, sexually or psychologically, or by attempting to take custody of the children away from her.

Children need protection from their abusive parents. In the realm of custody litigation which involves abuse, the abusive parent tends to be the father while the protective parent is usually the mother, because most perpetrators of domestic violence and of child sexual abuse are male. We don’t know that much about what happens to protective fathers, since their cases are much less common, but we know that protective mothers frequently encounter a system that is insensitive, ignorant about the dynamics of abuse, and biased against women. In this context, mothers sometimes find themselves being forbidden by the court from protecting their children from a violent, cruel, or sexually abusive father. And this outcome is a tragic one, for children and for their mothers.

On behalf of the hundreds of people across the continent who are currently working for family court justice, I want to communicate to you our caring and solidarity with the challenging road you have ahead of you, as you fight to keep your children safe in body and soul. I want to let you know how critically important we believe that project to be, and how much your children need you to stand up for their rights and their well-being. You deserve admiration, not criticism, for the courageous risks you are taking on their behalf, and for your determination that all of you should have the opportunity to live in freedom and kindness.

Our society is currently giving mothers a powerful and crazy-making mixed message. First, it says to mothers, “If your children’s father is violent or abusive to you or to your children, you should leave him in order to keep your children from being exposed to his behavior.” But then, if the mother does leave, the society many times appears to do an abrupt about-face, and say, “Now that you are spilt up from your abusive partner, you must expose your children to him. Only now you must send them alone with him, without you even being around anymore to keep an eye on whether they are okay.”