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Domestic Violence, Mental Health and Family Court:
An Advocate’s Guide (Part 1)
In part one of a two part article, Katie Webb, LMSW, Assistant Director at BFL’s Secret Garden program, looks at ways advocates working with victims of interpersonal violence can maneuver the sometimes stressful family court system.
Going to Family Court can be part of the healing journey for victims of domestic violence. Orders of protection, child support, and custody are often part of the process of separating from an abusive partner. Final determination on these topics must often be resolved in the court system.
Court proceedings are stressful. Victims of domestic violence who have a mental health diagnoses face even more hurdles when navigating this daunting system. Additionally, it is widely known that people who have mental illness can be discriminated against in society. Unfortunately the court system does not necessarily offer an exception to this rule.
Following are suggestions for advocates supporting victims of interpersonal violence who are currently involved in or may become involved with family court.
Family Court is an OPTION
Many victims of domestic violence are told they MUST pursue family court action against their abuser. This is not always the case. Below are a few scenarios to consider.
Order of Protection
If the victim is currently in a safe location and the abuser has no knowledge of his/her whereabouts, an order of protection may not be necessary. Filing for an order of protection means that both the victim and the batterer will have to appear together before a judge.
The batterer will have the opportunity to share his/her side of the story in court and to see the victim, both which can be traumatizing.
Custody of Children
Similarly, if a batterer is not actively seeking custody of his/her children and does not know the location of the family, the victim should consult with an attorney to determine whether or not it is in his/her best interest to pursue legal custody.
Pursuing custody gives the batterer the opportunity to see the victim in family court, question the victim (directly or indirectly) about the abuse, attempt to discredit the victim’s character and ability to care for her children, and obtain visitation of the children.
Victim’s who have mental illness can have their illness exploited before a judge in Family Court in an effort to damage their credibility. Any proceeding in Family Court gives a batterer the opportunity to resume the cycle of violence and exert methods of power and control via abuse of the court system. If an advocate or the victim is unsure of whether or not it is in the best interest to engage in family court, consult a non-profit family court agency or attorney.
Sharon, a 45-year-old mother of one, fled abuse and entered a domestic violence shelter with her son in 2010.
Shortly after this, her husband filed for custody in Family Court. Sharon called the Secret Garden hotline and was referred to a social worker for counseling. Her social worker referred her to a civil legal agency in her borough for assistance in Family Court.
Custody cases involve interviews with court appointed specialists to determine each parent’s suitability as a caregiver. Sharon, who suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has difficulty remembering appointments and struggles with high anxiety during interviewing processes.
During sessions with her Secret Garden counselor, Sharon stated that she felt triggered during the child custody interviews when asked to describe her story. This resulted in a worsening of her PTSD symptoms.
Sharon’s attorney and her Secret Garden social worker communicated frequently throughout the child custody process. Her attorney notified the social worker in advance of court dates and interviews, allowing Sharon to schedule sessions immediately before or after each date. Her social worker notified her attorney (with Sharon’s permission) of information which could be relevant to the court proceedings, such as the abuser’s violations of his order of protection.
During counseling sessions Sharon and her counselor developed a tool-kit of relaxation and grounding skills to utilize during court and court-related interviews. When possible, Sharon’s social worker was present in court, to assist Sharon.
Sharon stated the presence of her social worker made an enormous difference in helping her manage her PTSD symptoms, which were often severe while in the court building and in the presence of her abuser.