A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Unsettling ‘Settlement’: A Domestic Abuse Victim’s Shock at Encountering the Legal System

Post 1 of a three-part series by ‘Still Reforming’

As Christians, we are familiar with the concept of the “letter of the law” versus the “spirit of the law.” Generally speaking, no matter where you live the law is greatly more concerned with the letter than the spirit. Lawyers, judges, and professionals in the legal arena all tend to focus more on what the law actually says than what it may be intended or designed to achieve.

That fact doesn’t help targets of abuse, who live in stifling environments of lies, manipulation, and great deception — to both the target and onlookers. So when it comes to “the Court,” unless there is clear-cut evidence of physical harm or potentional thereof to the target or others, the details of covert abuse are likely not going to be of interest to the Court unless the abuser has broken a specific law. And even if the abuser has broken a specific law, that may not be seen as significant by the Court which is hearing the divorce application, unless the abuser has been prosecuted and found guilty by a criminal court.

This was probably the biggest and most disheartening revelation to me over the past year, during which time I retained attorneys while divorcing my now ex-husband (‘ex’ thanks be to God). Divorce, by the way, is formally referred to as “dissolution of marriage” in the legal system.

This article is based on my experiences in one state in the USA. Readers need to bear in mind that divorce law differs from state to state in the USA, and that other countries’ laws do not necesarily resemble what takes place in the USA.  [Note from Barb: If you are from another country you may wish to read this article on Wikipedia Divorce Law By Country as part of your information gathering, but bear in mind that Wikipedia is not guaranteed to be always accurate.] 

When I entered the fray of the legal arena, I was under the impression that these men to whom I was paying thousands of hard-earned dollars to advocate for me, our child, and our situation, actually cared about all of it. I was sorely mistaken. Not only did I learn the expensive way that they considered themselves more as advisors than advocates, I also learned that I was mistaken in thinking that the standards of yesteryear (in which I was raised) were the same standards today — at least with respect to justice. That was gross naivete on my part.

I don’t bash myself about for that mistake, but I write it here to perhaps jog in readers’ own minds how they might expect the legal system to be based on standards as they knew or would like them to be and how these expectations may very well differ from reality.

In my case, my husband left us (unexpectedly, which was true to his character, being a covert narcisisst) and immediately cut me (and thus our child) from access to his pay though we had been dependent on it for more than a decade. I had been a stay-at-home mom and homeschooling parent for as long, and therefore I presumed that I would be legally reimbursed for routine expenditures for our child and for me even after he left. My attorneys even accepted monthly billing statements from me with an understanding that they would all be submitted for reimbursement to him, but that never happened.

The culture in which I was raised about 50 years ago would not have tolerated that. Therefore, I lived those six months before our first settlement meeting less frugally than I might have otherwise. I didn’t go out and buy a Ferrari, but I also didn’t think twice about the grocery bill or occasional fast food purchase.

By the time we got to a settlement meeting, which was the first attempt he made toward talking about anything related to his desertion (a word no longer heard in court) and filing for divorce, I was beginning to get a clue how the legal system may not be interested in all of the facts. It still hadn’t sunk in, however, because in my heart of hearts, I don’t think I could accept the fact that no one today raises an eyebrow when a husband cuts financial support for his wife and child in one day, having supported them for a decade, and he cannot be legally obligated to reimburse any of their everyday living expenses after he has left them. My head still spins at that.

Within six weeks of his abandonment (another word the court no longer uses), I was allowed by my attorney to put an alarm system in place because my husband would only come home when he knew we’d be away. The second evening of his disappearance, when our child and I were at church, he snuck home with a friend who stood guard outside while my husband secreted out the contents of our safe, our tax records, his gun collection, and some personal effects. Our child and I returned home from church to see my husband’s truck piled up with stuff and another man in a truck waiting outside.

That night, my husband left a note for our child saying he didn’t know when I would let him see her, suggesting that I was somehow keeping him from her. I saved that particular note thinking it might be of some value in court, but nothing in what he did was against the law. Details like that are so insignificant to the courts in covert abuse cases like mine that they only ended up costing me money to tell the attorneys, who were all too happy to spend time hearing or reading about it from me, but neither acting on it nor telling me what wouldn’t be useful in court.

In the state in which I live, the first and most desirable way to reach an agreement with a soon-to-be-ex about all of the details (child support, education, marital assets, etc) is in a settlement meeting. This is when both parties sit with their attorneys and deal directly with one another without having to hire a mediator. It’s more desirable to settle this way because it’s more expedient, you don’t have to pay a mediator’s fees, and it keeps court costs down.

That said, in my experience there is no such thing as “settlement” with an abuser. As it turned out, my husband’s attorney drove the settlement meeting. We discussed only two issues (child’s education and selling the marital home), neither of which we agreed upon. I hardly got two words in before my husband’s attorney started shaking his head violently back and forth, reminding me of those bobbing head dolls, and practically spitting out how my view was absolutely intolerable. (I said that I wasn’t yet settled on the local public school and was still leaning toward homeschool to meet our child’s special needs. I had actually taken our child to several private Christian schools over the months of our abandonment, as well as a special needs school where she was evaluated and accepted. My husband and his attorney would hear none of it.)

His attorney had spoken adamantly and with great passion while we were in the settlement meeting, whereas my attorney was more genteel and reasoned. That didn’t bode well for my side. His bulldog attorney just chased us out of settlement and into mediation.

No matter how many times I asked my attorneys to seek reimbursement for things like mediation, since I wasn’t the party who drove us out of settlement and into mediation, it never happened.

So my suggestion is, if you can, look for and retain a bulldog. It’s worth the investment of time and money, even if you have to pay for several consultations to land just the right lawyer. Having trust in the professional you retain could well make a big difference in your case, even if that just means one less stressor added to your plate during what is already a difficult time.

The wheels of the system of justice can move very slowly, especially when dealing with an abuser. I personally believe that my abuser had no motivation for making it move any more quickly. After all, he had us right where he wanted us – not knowing when he’d just show up at a window or door in the dark.

All of that time usually adds up to increased stress and heightened emotion for the target of abuse, causing distraction and lack of focus on things such as finances. I was so concerned with getting counseling for our child and for me (which was more money down the drain that was not reimubursed and generally without gain) and our future (Where would we live? Would she attend school?) that those finances were draining away without as much attention as I wish now I had given them. I spent time – much time – on them, but the billing structure designed into attorneys’ services doesn’t come with coupons and savings incentives.

Because law firms typically bill after the work is done, the client has virtually no control over how high the bill can go month to month. Time spent behind the scenes preparing for court, filing legal documents, reading and responding to motions, phone calls with the other party’s attorney, etc. can all add up quickly, especially if you have settlement or mediation meetings as well as courtroom time.

In my case, it wavered between $200 an hour for my attorney up to $400 for the head of the law firm, who felt that my case was complicated enough that he should be involved.

So for the $30,000 my attorneys billed me for over the six-month period from when my husband left in October 2014 until we made it to the final hearing before the judge in May 2015, my husband reimbursed me for our child a grand total of  $150. That was a very bad return on my investment, and I made sure my attorneys heard about it. I wrote a final letter disputing their final bill ($3,000 US), which they dropped after I sent them a very long and detailed list of grievances.

Since this is a business relationship, you have every right to ask up front what this will cost – even if just a ballpark figure. That way, you can decide whether or not it is worth retaining this attorney or firm or not. Also, as you work through the days, weeks, and likely months (if not years) of your case, you can keep tabs on how close you are to meeting that figure they set. However, abusers have a knack of dragging out the legal case with innumerable red herrings and side-tracks and delays, so the attorney’s initial estimate of your costs may not be anything close to what the final cost is.

Before the case is concluded, you can also try asking them to bill you for the services they have rendered you thus far. An interim bill will give you some idea of what their charges mean in actual practice. And if you have kept a record of the phone call duration times and of each consultation you have had with them, you may be able to assess whether they are billing you only and truly for what they have done for you.

In some cases, attorneys have been known to set a fee for the entire case, although I have heard of cases that even once that was done – the attorneys informed their client that additional fees would have to be added due to the ongoing nature of the case (which is more likely than not when dealing with an abusive, self-centered egomaniac). I’ve also heard clients lamenting how their attorneys hired with a flat fee didn’t work as diligently due to lack of financial incentive.

The point of all that detail is that until you know how your attorney is going to handle things, it’s cost-efficient for you to try to discern or flesh out up front exactly what your attorney intends to seek for your benefit and how he or she proposes to go about it. I wish I had asked more questions up front before retaining the law firm that I did.

Next up: “Unholy Mediation” (shudder)

 

42 Comments

  1. Freed

    Good information. Experience also varies county by county, at least in my state. I am fortunate that my county helped me, while another woman I know in the next county over found her kids fell victim to a pro “father’s rights” court system which gave joint custody even though the man was legally proven to be physically abusive. 😦

    • Still Reforming

      Freed,
      That was my case as well – a pro-father’s rights court system (aka the judge). Thankfully, my now ex- was no physically abusive. I am really, really glad to hear that in your own county you were able to receive adequate help. I suspect that is the exception to the rule.

    • Hi Freed,
      You will see that I changed your screen name to protect our identity. We like to direct new commenters to our New User’s page as it gives helpful tips for staying safe when comment on the blog.

      And thank you for your comment. Yes, I agree that scenerios vary not only from state to state but also from county to county. And while I know that many victims has suffered greatly at the hands of the judicial system, my personal experience was very positive.

      Welcome!!

    • Oh, and Freed,
      If you don’t like the screen name I gave you, feel free to contact me and I can change it.
      twbtc.acfj@gmail.com

  2. Overcomer

    I am so sorry you and your child had to endure all this. It is so true that courts adhere to the letter of the law whereas covert abusers violate the spirit of the law, and therefore cannot and will not be held accountable in a court of law (laughingly known as the justice system).

    I was very fortunate in my case whereas my attorney charged me a flat fee and I did not feel like he was skimping on his time or attention to my case. He was very empathetic and when I submitted my written statement of abuse, he could not believe it (of course, he did believe it). The ex’s attorney was an obnoxious female bulldog but my attorney did a great job and we ended it at mediation (which is what I told him my goal was.) He even set it up so I did not have to be in the same room with him (or her, she was just as bad) during mediation. The mediator had to skip between two rooms but I did not care. I had a great attorney, Thank God.

    This post is very disturbing and I am afraid all too representative of what happens most of the time with these covert perpetrators. I am glad you are divorced from him now Still Reforming. May the Lord bless you and keep you and your child going forward. Peace and hugs to you.

    • The mediator had to skip between two rooms

      In Australia this type of mediation is called ‘shuttle mediation’ because the mediator shuttles between the two rooms, the room with the victim and her attorney in it, and the room with the abuser and his attorney in it.

    • Still Reforming

      Overcomer,
      Yes, we did that as well during mediation although he was the one (or his attorney) who chose to sit in another room. That surprised me because we had been in the same room one month prior in “settlement” (or lack thereof). He was angry (as was his attorney) during the settlement meeting, so it’s just as well that they were in another room during mediation, but – in those days, only one year ago – I still was aghast that he would even see a need to be. I kept thinking that we were trying to get some kind of settlement or agreement. I kept thinking that we could talk all of this out.

      After 20 years of his stonewalling, lying, manipulation, and covert aggression, there I was still thinking that surely we could come to an agreement easily because it was in his best interests as well as mine. But that’s best interests to a ‘normal’ person – not a covert aggressive narcissist – and I was still coming out of the fog in those days. His world is so twisted and contorted that he had no need to make things run smoothly.

      In hindsight, I’m glad we ended up in separate rooms during mediation, but at the time, I saw no need for it. Knowing what I know now about triggering and intimidation – and how his actions (such as revving the car up and flooring the gas as I walked in front of his vehicle recently) can jar me – separate rooms can be beneficial for the target of abuse. Heck, we lived in separate bedrooms for years before he left so separate rooms for mediation worked too.

  3. Oh yes indeed, I hear you. My attorneys didn’t want to know and didn’t care. In fact, more than once I got the distinct impression that they felt like I got what was coming because I’d spent 25 years at home, lying around the house, sponging off the ex instead of working a fulltime job like a responsible human. I spent hours explaining over and over that I started and ran a business from my home which generated significant income that the ex now had complete control over while caring for aging parents and homeschooling four children through high school.

    Oh– and I paid them for the privilege of reminding them over and over to the tune of $300/hour because my attorney couldn’t bother to remember the facts of the case. Felt like I was getting victimized all over again. No fault divorce is an absolutely ridiculous notion.

    • Still Reforming

      Ida Mae,
      Yes indeed. I too felt victimized all over again – and all the more foolish for letting myself be victimized, although until one actually gets into the process (thousands of dollars and months down the road in), one really doesn’t know how much one won’t get out of it until it plays itself out. Or at least I didn’t know. I would indeed do it differently had I the opportunity, but that’s covered in an upcoming post.
      In hindsight, I think my attorneys were abusive men also. They just had a more shiny veneer (and nicer suits and cars) than my now ex-husband.
      But yes, attorneys and the court system can be abusive in their own ways. I hear that quite a lot from others who have gone through it.

    • No fault divorce is an absolutely ridiculous notion.

      Yes… No Fault Divorce = No Justice Divorce.

      • Anonymous

        This term “no-fault divorce” always made my skin crawl. Thank you for calling it exactly what it is – ridiculous!

  4. The emotional turmoil the abuser inflicts on victim and children should be a crime in itself!
    I live in a state where the court system is primarily for the woman. Also depends on how long the marriage lasted before you walk into the court room. It appears there is a pattern the abuser sets up. That being.
    The wife should that stays home and home schools her child or children is a scapegoat method for his covert aggressive mentality.
    The enemy knows how God set the foundation for a successful marriage.
    He.. The abuser will use this for his advantage.
    It makes the abuser look like a godly husband and father.
    All the while he is setting up his trap of deception and hate against his spouse and vulnerable children.

    Trophy Wife
    Is name I use for my situation.
    I made him look like the ideal man.

    Yes!
    I agree your attorney should be an expert in the field of DV.
    Dobt settle for any thing less.
    Ask questions!
    Before hiring your advocate.

  5. Persis

    Excellent practical advice. The legal side can be very scary particularly when you’ve been conditioned to not stand up for yourself. A good attorney can make a big difference.

  6. Sonflower

    This post brought back so many memories for me. When I married my husband about a decade ago, he had just gone through a two week trial to determine child custody and division of assets from his first marriage. I naively thought that would be the end of it. HA! I now know that my husband is an abusive personality and they love, Love, LOVE court and legal proceedings. It is the stage upon which they win. I was married to him by now and we spent the next FIVE years going to court for everything and nothing. I could not understand at the time why he couldn’t just let things be settled. This is why: they dont want to settle, they want to win. Period. That’s it. An abuser will go to court about the family tea towels. Even small, insignificant wins are still wins and they feed their sense of power and entitlement to win those tea towels (which he doesn’t care about at all and will discard as soon as he’s won them)

    In the abusers mind it has absolutely nothing to do with a fair settlement or what is in the best interests of the children. It’s about winning. Period. (By the way, even when he doesn’t win he twists and manipulates facts to make it look to himself and others like he has won)

    My advice? Decide on two or three REALLY important matters to you and fight for those things. Concede as much as you can and let him know that he has won the tea towels! HE is the victor of the tea towel battle! It’s ridiculous and petty, but true. When you concede those things you will feel like you’re giving in on everything and he’ll be proud and happy – NOT SO – he will be disappointed because he wants to go and argue his rights to those tea towels in front of a judge. Not only does he get to argue and win, he gets an important audience like a judge and lawyers. Decide what will bring peace of mind for you and your children’s future and let everything else go. You will be financially and emotionally drained if you don’t.

    I am still with my husband but I had a front row seat for five years to all his court escapades with his first wife, that cost $100,000 plus in legal fees. I know what kind of battle I will fight when I do leave and I’m preparing and gathering information. At the time I hated it but it was a valuable lesson from where I sit now. Tea towels might be called dish towels elsewhere, but where I live they’re tea towels …. You get my point 🙂

    • Still Reforming

      Sonflower,

      You nailed it. That is exactly right and something I didn’t understand going into the process. Even after being with him 20+ years, I did not expect the dragging of feet in the divorce process – and I got out relatively quickly – eight months after he left us.

      Still… when issues would come up during the divorce process, it was astonishing how normally easy-to-resolve issues would take forever to get an answer from him or his attorney – and my attorneys would excuse it. (“Well, I think that office isn’t well-managed. He only has one secretary and he travels a lot…, etc”) but if something was requested from our side, it had to happen yesterday, and boy did my attorneys jump-to.

      I’m glad your front-row seat has proven to be instructive to you, and I imagine you’re stocking up on tea towel sets. I’m also glad you found this site before leaving. 🙂

    • Yay for tea towels being called tea towels!

      (Barb’s jingoism is showing! )

      • Sonflower

        I suspected you’d know exactly what I was referring to …. Even tho I’m not Australian 🙂

  7. 7stelle

    Dear Guest Writer and all,

    What questions are imperative to ask of a prospective attorney?

    Thank you.

    • Questions to ask a prospective attorney are going to be the subject of Part 3 of this series, which comes out Friday US time. So readers, please hold you responses till then.

      • 7stelle

        Thank you Barbara. I look forward to reading it.

        I’ve been home for 20+ years busy caring for children. Learning here how an abuser drags one through court, how can one afford the costs for a divorce especially being pulled back in court over false accusations? He’s withheld access to funds from me for some years now. Getting a job at my age is near to no chance. I’m despairing big time! This article is very necessary and VERY unsettling.

    • and 7stelle, if you need to see the text of Part 3 before Friday, email me and I can send it to you by email. 🙂

    • Still Reforming

      7stelle,
      Hiya! Great question and I’m glad you’re thinking ahead. That will bode well for you. The last installment in this three-part series will give you a few sample questions that should get you started. It’s a long post, so I won’t include the questions here, but hang on. They’re coming. 🙂

      • 7stelle

        PLEASE list more than a few questions.

      • Still Reforming

        7stelle,
        There are more than just a few questions, and commenters here may come up with their own that they would ask.

  8. sheisovercoming

    Years ago, I filed for divorce using a strong Christian attorney recommended by our counselor. Because of his drug use, I would have been granted supervised visitation. He pulled a very convincing repentance act, and we reconciled after a few months. Today, the courts [in my jurisdiction; can’t comment on other jurisdictions] probably would not grant supervised visitation for drug use. The courts have changed.

    After we fled years later, he filed for immediate hearing for custody. I was seeking counsel through elders (big mistake) and a Christian attorney who was a nice guy in a good old boy system – not good when an abuser and his mean spirited attorney were on the other side. In follow-up cases, after the 3rd try, I found a woman attorney who has been very helpful in every way. Quiet, yet strong in the courtroom.

    Today, I would recommend seeking counsel through a domestic abuse agency, and asking your counselor for attorney recommendation. I attained a very good bulldog attorney for writing a cease and desist letter to my church (i.e. cult) through my attorney. This is easy to write now that I am not in the thick of it and have seen the system’s problems.

    For follow-up family law cases, I found an attorney (the lady attorney) through searching for family law attorneys. She worked with me and allowed me to do some of the work myself in order to save money, but mainly I think she had personal life experience that gave her a heart for women and their children. Finding the best attorney for yourself is very important and sadly that usually means looking outside the Christian community where there is not much desire to understand abuse or protect children from it.

    • Still Reforming

      sheisovercoming,

      Yes, yes, and yes! I think calling a domestic abuse shelter is a wise way to seek recommendations for attorneys. Some people who work in such shelters have been in courts and witnessed different attorneys at work. I would also recommend speaking with several workers or directors at the shelter (or several shelters) since one volunteer with whom I spoke at a shelter before my ex- ever left us wasn’t that knowledgeable or helpful. She mostly confirmed that I was living in a scenario of deception, but had no counsel for me. Nonetheless, I think shelters can offer an informed opinion of domestic abuse, the legal system, and options for gaining the best result.

      I agree that not being in the thick of things in an abusive home helps a bunch while divorcing. Still being in the fog makes it difficult to step back and look at the situation with clarity. Lack of familiarity with the machinations of the legal system and its bureaucracy doesn’t help either.

      Your situation with your ex-‘s drug use and your own eventual inability to gain supervised visitation in spite of that exemplifies the injustice of the system at present. By and large, that is the case. I too was seeking supervised visitation due to some lies of my now ex-husband with our child that put her at risk. A state agency even became involved in the case, but my attorneys went from hopeful for supervised visitation when one judge was on the bench at the beginning of the process to very discouraging when a new judge appeared on the bench halfway through the process. And yet, the details of the case didn’t change. But the judge did. That says something about the system as well.

      Finally, your words about “looking outside the Christian community where there is not much desire to understand abuse or protect children from it” sadly sum up much truth in the matter.

  9. I’m really glad I read Lundy Bancroft’s books before I got dragged into the legal system, because then I was forewarned that I wasn’t going to get fair treatment. It helped that I was prepared for all the deceit and the needless expense and the way the legal system was used as a method of abuse. Whenever I’m tempted to get upset about it now, I think of the value of freedom, which is priceless.

  10. Abidenhim

    You are writing my story. My ex threatened me when he left in 2008, that if I wouldn’t agree to the settlement terms he offered me, and if I chose to seek legal counseling, he would drag me and the kids through court. And he did for many long years…

    There is so Much I could write about the legal shenanigans that went on but to tell it all would take a similar span of years. I wish I could say it was all over.

    [Eds: Long story of ongoing abuse removed as it was too identifying. The abuser has been able to continue this mode of abuse because of the way the property was divided to the two parties in the divorce. The commenter has very few options as to how to reduce this ongoing abuse. It’s complicated. . . .]

    Anyway I just felt after I read this post like getting some of that off my chest. Thanks for listening

    • Hi Abideinhim, I read your story, and so did our other moderators. We believe you. We sympathise with you. We couldn’t publish the comment unedited as it could easily have identified you to your abuser should he happen across this blog.

      Please review our New Users Info page as it gives tips for how to disidentify your comments.

      • Abidenhim

        Thank you….I shouldn’t have gushed like that. The post was just so similar to my story. Your work and that of others on the website and so many other ways to come along side of those who are being abused is truly a God send. I appreciate your reply

      • Still Reforming

        Abidenhim,
        I’m so glad to know that this post resonated with you. I think there are a lot of us out there who, wounded internally (some externally too) from abuse, are all the more dismayed to enter a system where that is not only overlooked or sanctioned, but added to by the attorneys, judges, and counselors.
        Blessings to you, dear sister.

  11. Waiting for the Lilies to Bloom

    I have read and re-read these posts today with great interest and mixed feelings and reactions. I guess I have a unique perspective. I spent 20+ years in an abusive relationship with my now-ex-husband. In the middle of the warfare, I became an attorney. I stayed in the marriage because that is what I was raised to believe that I should do as a Christian woman. I became an attorney because I wanted to help others AND because I saw the proverbial writing on the wall for the future of my marriage. I believed that I needed to enter a profession that would give me the opportunity to increase my earning potential and gain financial independence. My thoughts at the time were that I would die in the marriage while praying for a miracle or die from being married to my spouse. When I first started practicing law, I was involved in some domestic cases. Often I became overwhelmed, physically and emotionally, because I was living my own nightmare outside the office at night and living others’ nightmares at the office during the day.

    I read some books, did some research, came to the conclusion that things weren’t going to get any better, and looked for ways out without being “the one who filed.” An opportunity presented itself. My spouse moved far away. I stayed on my own turf. I made sure our young child stayed with me when my spouse left. I got counseling–through which my counselor determined that my ex-husband was a classic example or textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder.

    I decided to be ‘the one who filed.” Yes, I hired an attorney. Yes, I shared many of the same frustrations and disappointments voiced here–for five long years before it was over–numerous proceedings at the trial level, a stop-off at the mid-level appellate court, and a failed attempt to have the highest court in our state hear my ex-husband’s long list of reasons why. Being an attorney did not make me immune from shortcomings of the legal system. In fact, my frustration level may have been intensified by the fact that I knew horrible truths, but was counseled time and again to be discrete and particular about what and how much I shared and with whom so as not to be seen as “the crazy one.”

    I also became a mediator trained and certified by the governing jurisdiction of my geographic area of primary practice. As an attorney I have attended numerous settlement meetings–they are called four-way meetings in my jurisdiction. During the time the divorce was pending, I took on more domestic clients and found that I could handle their stresses and issues better now that my home was not a war zone. I could also relate to their difficulties in ways that many attorneys could not since I had lived and was living a variation on the theme of their stories in a very personal way. I am not a pitbull attorney, but my name started being associated with one of the preferred people in my jurisdiction from whom to seek domestic counsel. I am quiet, but firm and resolute. I go to court prepared, having overturned every possible stone. I am not theatrical. Domestic cases often bring enough drama and theatrics to the stage that I never needed to be a part of the cast. I don’t bluster. I don’t make idle threats. I don’t blow up situations just to create tension and fear. I was there to represent my clients to the best of my abilities, to protect my clients’ interests as far as reasonable within my abilities and the confines of the law, and to be a voice for those who had tiny voices or no voice at all, especially when I was appointed guardian ad litem and represented children in custody and visitation disputes. And I often significantly reduced my billable hours for clients who could not afford to pay me for the duration of their cases.

    I realize that there are plenty of attorneys who do not have a heart to care, do not have time to care, are more interested in billable hours and raking in checks than in getting eye-to-eye with suffering people, or some combination thereof. But they are not all like that. I think the best advice in these posts is to be careful about selecting an attorney. But also realize that there are some situations for which the law simply does not have the answer — after all, Biblical law didn’t have all the answers either, which is why Christ came and we’re getting ready to celebrate His birth and to welcome love, mercy, and grace.

    Also, remember that those who work in the court system hear a lot of “stuff” day in and day out. While our stories are deeply personal to us and we come to court bearing battle scars that we believe should be clearly observable, those working in the legal system have no such personal connection or immediate insight. As harsh as this sounds, when divorcing parties first appear, the court is trying to get a handle on the real “crazy maker.” If a disordered personality is lurking underneath that shiny veneer, it is going to take some time for that shellac to be scraped off in places so that at least little glimmers of truth can be seen–usually that means several court appearances–over a significant period of time. This process is agonizing, painful, infuriating, frustrating, expensive! It really hit home for me when I took a small step back and realized that it had taken me many more years than five (the duration of my divorce) to come to grips with the real identity of the man to whom I vowed, before God and all those witnesses, to spend the rest of my natural life. Simply put, my expectations for the court system were too high.

    For a short time, I considered taking on my state’s legislature and working to put mental, emotional, and verbal abuse on a higher level of consideration in the court system. However, already suffering compassion fatigue and burnout from being a private practitioner in domestic law, I soon decided that my focus needs to be on fully recovering myself, being present and engaged for my child, and moving forward with my life. I got what I needed most from the court system–freedom from my abusive marriage–and have tried to leave the rest behind. It cost me in excess of $30,000, but if I hadn’t spent the money, I’m not sure where I would be now.

    I am still an attorney, but I do not practice privately. I still use the law to help people, but in a very different way. I am grateful for the opportunities that came my way to help women and children in need, but I also know that my approach to their issues was born of a high level of empathy from personal experience which many attorneys simply will not be able to bring to the attorney-client relationship because they haven’t “lived it.”

    • Thank you so much for this, Waiting for the lilies!

      I think your input to this discussion is very helpful.

    • Still Reforming

      Waiting for the Lilies to Bloom,

      First off, I love both your name and the detail of your testimony. Your perspective is quite unique here and I’m grateful that you took the time to lay it all out as well as you did.

      That said, I only want to offer my own two cents on a few points.

      1. re: Biblical law and why Christ came. Jesus didn’t come because Biblical law didn’t have all the answers. He came because God ordained that He would be the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world for His own purposes, among which was to give a people to His Son. Biblical Law is the schoolmaster that was guiding His people – the Hebrews – until such time as Jesus walked the earth. It was sufficient and showed the insufficiency of man’s ability to save himself.

      2. You wrote: “when divorcing parties first appear, the court is trying to get a handle on the real “crazy maker.”” That may be true in your jurisdiction, but in mine, there was no interest in getting a handle on the real crazy maker. I had four motions filed against me in the space of a few months, one of which was for a psychiatric exam and among the reasons seeking it were that I hung curtains on the windows and that I homeschooled our child (by mututal agreement over eight years). The Court didn’t have interest in who the crazy maker was or it would have reviewed the motions in greater depth. I don’t actually begrudge the Court for that. We were only one case among thousands, and I’m sure the Court has to deal with all kinds of nonsense, not to mention the bureaucracy of it all. After a few months, I just wanted to get out of it fast so I wouldn’t waste more time and money, so I cut my losses as quickly as I was able to do.

      I’m so very glad to read that you chose to focus on your own life again and that of your child. I agree with your assessment that many attorneys can’t bring a level of compassion to the domestic abuse client because they haven’t lived it. Sadly, my impression from my own experience (which you’ll read in upcoming posts) is that my attorneys were themselves abusive men, albeit in quiet genteel ways. I strongly suspect from dealings with my now ex-husband’s attorney that his attorney was as well – yet his lawyer was harsh and barked a lot. Therefore my attorneys just let it be and didn’t fight my corner.

      While I regret not having engaged in greater due diligence at the outset of the experience to interview more attorneys – I don’t regret the experience of what happened. Like you, I was out $30,000, but it’s a small cost to pay for being free. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank God that I had the funds in a trust account for my child to pay for the lawyers. Those funds are greatly depleted now, but it is invaluable to both my child and to me the lessons we have learned and continue to learn along the way – about abuse and about God’s sovereign grace from beginning to end.

    • Still Reforming

      Waiting for the Lilies to Bloom,

      I forgot to comment on one thing you wrote, which was this: “was counseled time and again to be discrete and particular about what and how much I shared and with whom so as not to be seen as “the crazy one.””

      That struck a chord with me, because three I was cautioned by my attorneys that my behaviors could be misread. The first time was when I didn’t ‘jump to’ at a day’s notice to get my child together with my then husband because his attorney called mine to say I had to hurry up and get them together. The facts were that he had left us four months earlier and hadn’t sought to see her, but only made forays into ‘the marital home’ to secret items out when he knew we wouldn’t be there. Because of that, I was allowed to put an alarm system on the house. My attorneys said that if I didn’t get the child with her dad asap I would be seen as – I forget the exact term – standing in his way to get together with his child, though he had abandoned us, even leaving a note on her bed (during one of those forays) stating, “I don’t know when (my first name) will let me see you again.” Those details are not insignificant, but the attorneys and judge showed zero interest in them.

      The second was when I put a camera system around the house because I expected to take a Christmas vacation with my child and fully anticipated (and was told by my attorney) that my then husband would break in and take more if we were gone for a week or so. The vacation never happened, but I was glad to have a camera system in the house. When I told my attorney that the cameras caught my now ex-husband appearing at the windows in the dark – and one the recording it’s clearly seen how our child jumps because he’s suddenly outside and visible and she runs to another part of the house away from him. When I explained all that (along with some confessions in counseling of bad dreams she had related to him), I was told that I should tell no one about the cameras lest I be seen as “hyper-vigilant.”

      The third involved a lie my now ex-husband told his attorney and mine on a conference call that I was not invited to. I didn’t about it until after the fact. My then husband said that I was told not to come to church anymore with a loaded gun. I never carried my gun to church. I rarely carry it anywhere, although I have a concealed weapons permit. My attorney told me that the statements my husband made would trigger the judge due to a bad divorce he went through. The judge has custody of his own children – and is very keen on dad’s rights. The cards were stacked against me from the beginning, and my attorneys made sure I knew it. It was good that I knew, but it added to all that stress that you so adequately described.

      What you wrote in that one sentence and illustrated here by these examples I gave shows that domestic abuse targets can easily suffer yet more abuse in the system because they are so cautioned against sharing detail after detail of abuse. And if shared, it only costs them a LOT of money with little hope for any return on that investment.

  12. Here is an article by Rosie Batty, Australian of the Year, and victim of domestic violence. I’m putting it here because it illustrates some of the problems with the Family Law system in Australia.

    The rights of children must trump violent parents

    • Still Reforming

      Barbara,

      There are quite a few good points in that article. It’s astonishing that Rosie was deemed the ‘protective parent’ then put in charge to manage the risk of Luke’s time with his dad. Lord willing, Rosie will have an impact on helping children and women in Australia to be safe from their abusers.

  13. Charis

    Things I learned through my divorce process:

    1) “You will not get justice through divorce (family court). If you get peace of mind – then we have done really, really well.” A quote by my lawyer…and not too far off the mark.

    2) In the USA, things vary county by county – as another reader mentioned. For me, this had far-reaching impact even to the extent of WHEN support started to “count” and lawyer fees that became billable and a few areas of shared parenting. This tipped the scales when it came to filing and I picked the more favorable county based on residency rules.

    3) Guardian ad Litems are NOT safe people. They do not represent your interest. Do not confide in them. And…in my experience, they do not “play fair” nor are they bipartisan. They can be bought – as easily and simply as by swinging the testimony in favor of the one footing the bill. If you can avoid it. Do so.

    4) The smaller increments your lawyer bills – the better it works out for you because the farther your dollar stretches. For instance, my lawyer billed in 10 minute increments. This is rare, even for my state/county. I loved that he did this and I got an invoice each month, showing how each $275/hr was split into 10min “tasks.” So…that allowed me to pick my media. Emails are cheaper, next phone calls and lastly – office visits.

    5) As someone else mentioned: pick your battles and decide what hill you will die on. Make it one or two things and be willing to let everything else go. It might be school district. It might be residency. It might be custody. It might be retirement. Whatever “it” is…figure out what you absolutely MUST have and CANNOT live without. Everything else is a bartering chip.

    6) The lawyer is a business man – not a therapist. Period. He may or may not “get it” or “care” that you have been abused. When you interact with him, sure – point it out. But don’t get wrapped up in explaining the tactics, remember: YOU’RE paying to educate HIM! It’s likely to become an expensive habit and…you don’t need his validation. If you need to someone to talk to about this aspect of your soon-to-be-ex’s escalations during divorce: seek out a friend or visit your therapist. Divorce is a business transaction. Try to keep it that way.

    7) Think LONG term. Don’t settle for short term fixes when it is the long road that counts. Yes, it may feel good and stop the hemorrhaging for right now – but at what price 10yrs from now? This is why you pay the lawyer big bucks AND…this is why you need to know what hill you are willing to die on…even if it means court vs settlement.

    8) There can be advantages to filing first. The biggest of these (for my jurisdiction) is Temporary Orders. Along this line – Temporary Orders (support & custody) is one reason to consider divorce over mediation.

    9) Lundy’s books are amazing. Read them – even if you are already in the midst of your divorce. Truly.

    10) Know where you’re “I’ve had enough” line is. Abusers will drag divorce out, costing thousands of legal dollars with every motion filed and every answer required – adding months and months to the process, maybe years. You have the right to stop it and simply say: “I’ll see you at trial.” This is the hard line in the sand. Pick a dollar amount. Pick a date. Whatever that is and stand by it. Tell your lawyer that this is how you wish to operate. Otherwise: “hope springs eternal.” It is always just one more “something” before it “seems” like the other side will finally settle. Yet it never happens. Psych testing is ordered. Custody evaluators are ordered. Professional Assessments are ordered. Audits. It. NEVER. Ends. Don’t get trapped into that. Set a reasonable amount of money and/or time and tell yourself that if the other party isn’t serious about coming to the table ready to negotiate – then you are willing to put a stop to the games: “See you in court.”

    • Still Reforming

      Charis,

      You have a LOT of good points, and it sounds like you made a lot of wise choices as well.
      With respect to your points:

      1. ) That is a really good quote. I agree with your attorney, and I think we read that sentiment echoed above Waiting for the Lilies to Bloom. It’s a small price to pay for freedom.

      2) I had no idea that I needed to research county by county. I chose attorneys in the closest city to my area (an hour away) and the court in which we eventually met wasn’t in that city. The judge preferred to meet in another courtroom an hour away in a different direction. What you wrote re: child support makes sense though because mine didn’t start until after the divorce even though we agreed on a figure in mediation, but it didn’t start until months later and was not retroactive from the time of his abandoning us. That was a failure on the part of my attorneys.

      3) I fought and fought to get my child an attorney ad litem but was counseled by my attorneys that the judge in our case does not respect them. So she never got one.

      4) I wish I had sought for someone who billed in smaller increments. I remember one office visit that my attorneys requested halfway into the process. I stalled and didn’t want to go because it ended up being just what I thought it ended up being – a meeting to caution me about our judge. I didn’t want the meeting because I had already gotten the message loud and clear in a phone call earlier. But the head of the law firm wanted to meet as a prep for settlement, so that’s what it was billed as, but it ended up being mostly time spent cautioning me about the judge. That was an expensive meeting in many ways.

      5) For me, I lost the hill I was to die on – and that was supervised visitation. After that fell through (and only because the judge changed halfway through the process), the next hill was the child’s education, which ended up driving my purchase of the marital home – and so forth. Sometimes the issues are intertwined. Everything else (the marital assets) was just “stuff.”

      6) Agreed. It’s a business relationship.

      8) I was told by my attorneys that there were not advantages to filing first. Perhaps that’s true only for my jurisdiction or perhaps they just didn’t care. What you say re: divorce and temporary orders, however, is one of the reason why I retained a divorce attorney early on (then switched attorneys because I wanted someone who I thought would be a fighter). That initial attorney said I could file a Motion for Temporary Relief to ask the Court to get him out of the house, and that’s what I wanted. That’s the only reason I thought of filing for divorce because I couldn’t get such an order without a divorce.

      10) I could not agree more with this last thought of yours. It’s just as well that the judge in our case dismissed the motions filed against me (except for his motion for timeshare of our child) because at one point in judge’s chambers everyone (judge, attorneys, legal assistant) was spending time reviewing who could be a proper psychiatric assessor, pondering if a social worker would be accepted by law. They did so because although the judge advised against the exam, he wanted to look at who would be agreed upon by both sides lest it happen. That reviewing alone cost me hundreds of dollars in fees and court – and although at the time I had hoped we’d actually have the family assessment, thinking it might prove his narcissism, in the end it likely would have only ended up causing me a lot of lost time and money, in addition to grief, to no good end. I wanted out of the process more than I wanted to prove his abusive behaviors to the court, because it became apparent very quickly that manipulations, lies, and screaming in rage do not cross a legal line – so it was pointless for me to re-enact the story of Sisyphus – pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again. Over and over and over.

  14. Rachel

    Dear Still Reforming,
    I am appalled at the sorry state of the family legal system in the U.S., I saw a bit of what it is like in Lundy Bancroft’s books. The country where I live, there is much better protecting for the family.

    After a cour of false starts, the Local DV support group, who I was out in contact with b the local (county) DV team, recommended a law firm who specialized in DV in family law. They have been brilliant. Lots of time has been taken to listen to my concerns about safety and other issues of behavior, their fees are modest and they are up front about it all, we discuss in advance if a large piece of work is coming up.

    All the information I give them about the DV and any ongoing situation is taken seriously and put into the court process. Here, mediation is not permitted for couples where there has been DV, and a mediator will sign for the court to say so. That is brilliant and should apply everywhere.

    Also, the starting point for division of assets is 50/50, with leaning of more than 50% towards the resident parent if the marriage is long, there are many children, or other factors.

    I feel that although the court process has been very stressful and a lot of work, I have been listened to well.

    Other practices include being accompanied by a support worker for DV or by my solicitor on the way to the court room, so as not to bump into anyone unexpectedly, my barrister making sure I do not have to speak to or look at H in the court room, the use of small meeting rooms for privacy, each party has their own and the solicitors go between to discuss.

    I think all of these practices are very good and should be baseline for any country.
    I can’t imagine how stressful this process is in the U.S.

    (Editor’s note: comment slightly edited to protect identity)

    • Still Reforming

      Dear Rachel,
      What an encouraging testimony you have! I particularly love this:

      Here, mediation is not permitted for couples where there has been DV, and a mediator will sign for the court to say so. That is brilliant and should apply everywhere.

      Indeed. That is something to strive for everywhere by those of us who have lived systemic abuse within the legal arena. Abuse compounded first within the home, then by the church, and finally within the courts.

      While in theory I do not disagree with the 50-50 division of assets, I also think when DV is determined within the home

      (1) the spouse who has been the target needs to have majority if not full custody, mandating only ‘visitation’ by the abuser – and that should be supervised (but I know that’s highly unlikely to happen in the US) and

      (2) particulars such as my own, where I had not worked by mutual consent for more than a decade – division of assets and financial support need to weigh more heavily into the picture – moreso than it was in my case anyway. I was just represented “on paper,” not as a person. That’s why I was imputed a minimum wage that I have yet to earn. The particulars of my case (with a special needs child who cannot be left to fend for herself and has to now be picked up at a public school up to three days a week in the early afternoon) make it difficult to find an employer who wants to bend around my details.

      How I love the fact that you were accompanied by a support worker for DV on the way to the court room. One would think that within our churches we’d have the same support, but alas – that is exceedingly rare.

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It is very encouraging, and I’m truly very happy that you and your compatriots in your country enjoy such a supportive system.

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