I have been surprised by the partisan arguments of some domestic violence advocates around supporting survivors of domestic violence based on their gender. Both sides (advocates of male survivors on one side and advocates of female survivors on the other) have valid and compelling points supporting their points of views. However, as in most issues, this is not an either-or argument to be won. Both women and men survivors of domestic violence matter, and we have to acknowledge that both genders face trials and obstacles due to systemic failures as well as entrenched gender stereotypes, and the artifacts of a historically patriarchal system.
In this article, I am discussing the problems and failures that I have encountered as a mental health professional involved in the family courts when dealing with cases involving domestic violence, and therefore, is not meant to be an exhaustive or complete list.
Underlying most of the re-traumatization of survivors of domestic violence in our legal and judicial systems is the lack of training of professionals involved around issues of domestic violence and how trauma manifests in victims. These professionals include psychotherapists, psychologists, physicians, custody evaluators, lawyers, law enforcement officers and judges. Sadly, there are a few who are well trained and knowledgeable in these issues, but approach the services to be provided as a money-making endeavor, and at times choose to support the abuser in custody cases, or charge exorbitant amounts for their “expert” reports, thereby further exploiting those already vulnerable and traumatized.
NEED FOR TRAINING ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND TRAUMA
Some key points on domestic violence and trauma:
Domestic violence revolves around issues of power and control (including threats and intimidation), and does not necessarily include physical violence. Simply focusing on the presence of physical injury (although grave and dangerous) misses most of the dynamics surrounding domestic violence.
Extreme cases of domestic violence include psychological abuse known as “gas-lighting”. A victim of “gas-lighting” begins to doubt their own experiences of reality, and may even conclude that they are “going crazy”. A manipulative abuser is quick to use this to their own advantage, painting the victim as a “crazy” person who is making false allegations of abuse.
In extreme cases of physical and psychological trauma, the victim may cope using dissociation or other defenses to survive. The victim may therefore not recall details of the abuse, or may truly believe that the abuse was the victim’s own fault.
Professionals have to be trained to listen to and hear the tell tale signs of domestic violence or abuse while meeting with the abuser and/or the victim, and simply not take the narratives of either the abuser or the victim as the objective truth. Unfortunately, it is the extreme cases of domestic violence (which rightly belong to the criminal courts, and not family courts) that the family court system gets wrong at times, with disastrous consequences including the loss of lives of children.
One construct that is being debated is “Parental Alienation” where a parent willfully alienates the children from the other parent. Abusers have frequently claimed that they are the victims of parental alienation in order to divert attention from domestic violence and abuse and other evidence relevant to the best interests of the child. It is important for the family court and professionals to recognize that allegations of parental alienation between parents in high conflict custody battles have to be managed and treated in an entirely different way when there is the possibility that one of the parents is a dangerous and manipulative abuser. In other words, if there is any allegation of domestic violence, then these allegations have to be taken very seriously and looked into immediately, before considering any other allegation such as “Parental Alienation”.
I think it is important for advocates to differentiate between
1. Debating whether the construct of “Parental Alienation” is valid, and
2. Pointing out how this construct is being exploited by abusers of domestic violence to blame the victims as the “perpetrators”.
The validity of the construct is independent of whether it is being exploited or not, so education and training around these issues is of importance.
Barry Goldstein has proposed the Safe Child Act that prioritizes the safety and well-being of children involved in child custody cases. I hope that this act is passed as legislation in all 50 states, as it underscores and provides concrete measures to alleviate and solve the problems enumerated here.
HARMFUL GENDER STEREOTYPES
We all hold biases (conscious and unconscious) and we may not always be aware how we are quick to believe something that reinforces our biases. Male victims of domestic violence are often shamed or not believed by law enforcement or others when the perpetrators are female due to ingrained gender stereotypes. In family courts, a traumatized female victim is often discredited as being “hysterical” or “irrational” by a manipulative abuser, which play into the unconscious biases (especially of judges) of a historically patriarchal system.
I hope this article encourages more collaboration and discussion between advocates for all domestic violence survivors and the professionals who work with them in the fields of law enforcement, mental health and social services, legal and judicial systems. I welcome your feedback and comments in the comments section below.