My abuser’s father was the one who delivered the court’s petition to my slummy apartment. Because I had a protection order in place, my abuser couldn’t do it himself. I was in the bathroom, getting ready for bed—I had an interview the next day for a job as a paid fundraiser for a local arts program—so my husband accepted the paperwork in my stead. It was a request for genetic testing to establish paternity of the child my abuser had forced me to birth when I was 19 years old.
The first day I stood in the courtroom, all I had was my story. I prepared to tell the judge that I had been groomed by the man seven years my senior since I was 14; that I had been kidnapped, drugged, beaten, bitten, strangled, and raped. I prepared to tell her that the last time we were alone together, the petitioner strangled me while I was holding my infant son until I had a seizure and dropped my baby. I prepared to tell the judge that my son was now an eight-year-old boy who still wore diapers and could not speak, while I was in recovery from a heroin addiction that had, for many years, been my only means of coping with the PTSD.
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My abuser came to court equipped with an attorney. His lawyer was a tall man with an olive complexion and an easy self-confidence that he showcased by strolling through the courtroom, addressing the clerks by name and punctuating their interactions with a rolling belly laugh. My abuser’s attorney had all the papers in order. I, attorneyless, did not.
When the judge entered she told me I needed a lawyer, and offered me a continuance I didn’t know I could request. I took it, thinking it would give me a little more time before my son would officially belong to the man who had terrorized me when I was little more than a child myself. I knew the continuance would ultimately make no difference; there was no attorney I could afford.
This type of legal divide is not uncommon. According to the American Psychological Association, abusive fathers file for sole custody more often than fathers who have no history of domestic violence. Since 99 percent of domestic violence victims also face some form of financial abuse, abusers tend to have more money and thus more access to legal resources than the women fleeing their abuse. That gives them an advantage in the courts that makes them just as likely, or even more likely, to gain custody.
These prolonged legal battles can turn into an abuse of their own. Court-related abuse—sometimes called litigation abuse—is a widely under-recognized phenomenon in which a perpetrator of intimate partner violence will use family law court as a means of maintaining contact with their victims, even when legal protections would otherwise forbid it. Women and their children who have endured horrific abuses, including sexual molestation and rape, can be forced to interact repeatedly with their assailants in the courtroom upon escaping the relationships.
My abuser discovered his judicial advantage in 2016. I had a five-year protective order against him, a length of time I was told is rarely granted except in cases of extreme violence. But even that did not stop my abuser from dragging me to court.
Unlike many women, I got lucky. I won a lottery for a pro bono attorney through a program offered by my county that mentors licensed lawyers hoping to switch from their previous specialty to family law. These lawyers are only available—in limited quantity—to domestic violence survivors involved in custody cases where a child faces significant danger should the outcome favor the opponent. My attorney’s previous specialty was personal injury law. My abuser’s attorney had been practicing family law for decades. He filed claim after claim trying to dispute my testimonies, forcing me to recount abuses I hadn’t even yet addressed in therapy, and painting me as the negligent junkie who abandoned my son and couldn’t even keep a home clean.
When the case was over, I asked my attorney if she still planned to pursue family law. She said no.
After a year of litigation that included a comprehensive assessment by a child’s advocate, threats of Child Protective Services involvement, numerous courtroom proceedings that placed me side-by-side with my abuser, and an attempt at mediation, my abuser got bored and gave up his parental rights. Or maybe his new girlfriend became angry that he was giving me so much attention. Or maybe he litigated himself out of money, though that’s extremely rare in these types of cases. I don’t know. What I do know is that my son’s biological father now gets to put his name on the birth certificate. I know that I still have a domestic violence protection order, but it no longer covers my now-10 year old son, who is nonverbal and cannot call for help or tell anyone if he is harmed.
During the proceedings, I lost my job as a fundraiser. I began hallucinating the face of my abuser over the faces of men who resembled him, which made me afraid to leave my home. I had to start taking medication for trauma nightmares that made me dizzy if I stood up too quickly in the morning. I also relapsed on heroin, briefly, and take medication now for that too. Before the case began, my PTSD centered on events in the past. Now I have to be scared of the future: of the possibility that my abuser will come after my son and me again.
Litigation gave him freedom to pick at the most private things about me. I had to defend the reasons why my son didn’t live with me. I had to defend how and why I have PTSD. I had to reveal my addiction and treatment history, and then defend that too. On the other hand, I learned very little about my abuser. What I did learn was that he has a new girlfriend. She is not yet fully fluent in English, which fits his pattern of bouncing between underage girls and women who are new to the country and language. I learned that he lives with his girlfriend on a small piece of land outside of the city. I heard they raise chickens, and that on some weekends his girlfriend’s daughter—a young girl who has begun experimenting with hair dye—stays overnight.
Editor’s note: To protect the privacy of certain individuals, identifying details have been changed.