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The children of two women who had moved out and were in the process of
divorce both suffered significant harm. An excerpt from one womans interview
reveals how children may be caught in custody arrangements. Both parents in this
relationship have graduate degrees.
When Robert came here one day
to try to get me to come back, David (her son) and Jane were here and he started
crying and he got down on his hands and knees. And David came running up
Davids only 3 years old pushed him away, and said, Dont
hurt Mommy. Dont hurt Mommy. Dont you dare touch Mommy. And
Robert said: See what youve done to them? Youve got them believing
that I beat you. Oh, God, I felt like killing him ... The oldest one (Jane)
blocks it out. Davids very protective of me, extremely protective, to the
point of when I go out on a date (Im dating someone now) hes very
clingy. He wants to know if I have enough money. He wants me to call him if I
have a problem. And he also watches at the window as we walk away. Its really
What about the custody arrangement?
want my children with me full time. I was feeling sorry for Robert. He wanted
the children halftime, so we originally started a week apiece. One week my house,
one week his. We were in the same school district, same bus. The kids have the
same class. So I thought that was OK. But then he wanted them at his house because
his house was bigger so he said he could provide more for them than I could.
I said Bullshit, I can provide just as much as you can. What makes you think
that youre any better than I am? And what makes you think that youre
a better parent than I am? I gave him this big struggle. Now its a
month apiece. I must say that David calls me at least five times a day, at least,
when hes at his fathers. And its very hard for me. I think,
Im just waiting for the right time. His girlfriend is moving in. Shes
in Washington in another PhD program. And I think once she moves in for good,
shes not going to want to have those kids around.
womans child, David, expressed his feelings through art. The message that
this mother gets from her childs art is sorrow over a broken family. She
said about one drawing: David says Im the one in red. Interesting,
Im the only one without a smile, and note the position of the hand (reaching
out to strike) on the gentleman with the tie! The evidence from this affluent
family supports what every social worker and child health worker knows from clinical
experience: that education, financial security, and social status are weak hedges
against the damage that can be done to children if violence between the parents
is observed and children are used as bartering points.
evidence is similar in a poorer family.
In this case, the woman was almost
beaten to death during her seventh month of pregnancy. When the father came to
the hospital during her confinement to see the newborn infant, this woman was
understandably reluctant to allow visitation. The husbands lawyer made a
case for the fathers affection for his child. The womans lawyer advised
her that she could jeopardize her case for child custody if she refused him visitation
rights with the newborn.
However, as the woman said: What do you mean he
cares about the baby? He just about killed both of us. Finally after several
weeks of legal negotiations, a visitation agreement was worked out for all the
children. Each visit, however, was fraught with tension for mother as well as
children. The mother complained that the father did not feed the children or change
the infants diapers. The oldest child, age 5, said simply: He makes
me cry. Also, in a most blatant display of using a child in parental battles,
he said to the child:
Tell your mother I dont want
her anymore ... I want her to die (although he continued to test every avenue
through relatives and a pastor to persuade his wife to come back). Say to
your mother, I dont love you. Tell your mother shes got
money and I dont have any, to give me some. (This mother was being
supported on Aid to Families with Dependent Children AFDC.)
This father may have been more desperate than most since he
was prevented from contacting her by a Restraining Order (relatives served as
intermediates when he came to visit the children). Yet, although he had abused
the older child, he was still legally entitled to visit the children. This womans
situation was even more complicated because of a legal entanglement concerning
her marriage certificate. This case suggests that the efforts of child advocates
to influence divorce and custody decisions to assure the welfare of children are
by no means sufficient. This fathers treatment of the children suggests
that he might not have visited them at all if he had not entertained the hope
of getting his wife back through this mechanism. While he did not openly express
hostility about the mother to the children at the beginning of the separation,
as his hope for her return dwindled, his visits became increasingly irregular
and his barbs at the mother through the children more pointed and vicious.
The mothers options, however, were limited
legally. Unless the father was physically abusive toward the children, even though
he had a history of such abuse, the mother could not prevent him from seeing the
children. To do so would damage her legal chances of obtaining exclusive custody
at the final divorce hearing. Meanwhile, as the legal wheels slowly turned, the
children were slowly but surely exposed to the effects of continuing venom passed
back and forth between the parents. The mother was explicitly advised by her lawyer
and by the researcher when appropriate not to discuss negative things about the
childrens father in their presence, nor to question them in a way that would
leave the child in a conflicted position, except to ascertain discreetly if any
physical abuse had occurred. This was another of those instances where I felt
an ethical obligation to depart from the research role and intervene for the sake
of the children. After this mans divorce from his previous wife he never
visited the three children of that marriage, although they were not far away.
His former wife and the woman in this study met periodically in order to provide
the half-siblings from these two marriages an opportunity to visit one another.
The two women were also friendly and exchanged stories about the similar pattern
of abuse in each of their marriages.
How do these examples
illustrate the childrens suffering?
These examples illustrate some
of the most explicit ways in which the children of battered women suffer. In this,
they resemble millions of other children whose divorcing parents conduct their
marital affairs in a manner that suggests they are abandoning their role as responsible
parents as well. The great personal stress experienced during these transition
states suggests the need for contemporary rites of passage to assist a battered
woman in redefining her new role in the community as a divorced person and single
parent. Currently, this process is accomplished largely as an individual matter
between her, her husband, and the respective lawyers whose tendency is to handle
these cases in the general adversarial framework of law practice. Through contemporary
rites of passage, this process would be extended to include other concerned members
of the community. Thus the parents changed roles and responsibilities could
be redefined and publicly supported to reduce the possibilities of parents and
children alike becoming scapegoats for a problem that extends beyond the immediate
Even when divorce
and custody issues are resolved and children have been spared the direct impact
of violence against their mothers, observation of the women in this study suggests
that the indirect effects are everywhere visible. There is, of course, no question
that to be free of actual abuse or its constant threat is a great boon to both
mother and child.
But as one woman said after months of homelessness with two
young children: Its the pits. Today Im number 11 on the emergency
housing list. Here I am scrunched in one room, the babys clothes in a bag,
no room for a crib, and theres rats here. Ive lost hope in the housing
authority. The effect of such housing crises on children is bound to endure,
though its full dimension may only be revealed in the next generation (Kozol 1988).
of the life-threatening nature of the crises it deals with, the battered womens
movement has, of necessity, focused on refuges to protect women and children from
immediate danger. As an unintended consequence, less attention has been given
to what happens after resolution of the immediate crisis.
Follow-up programs for
women and children after they leave shelters are rare or their services quite
limited. This situation presents a sober reminder of how very new the battered
womens movement is and of how much work remains to be done. It also underscores
the irony of the fact that women and their children, the victims of violence,
must struggle to re-stabilize their lives in home and school, while their assailants
enjoy the comforts of the marital dwelling.
The experience of these women strongly suggests a need to reexamine the societal
approach to victims and perpetrators of violence. Thus, some of the women had
left their violent mates several times before their final departure. Either they
found the struggles of parenting alone simply too much, or they perceived the
difficulties of single parenthood as too insurmountable to even try it. If these
factors are combined with the womens powerful socialization toward responsibility
for making a marriage work, it is not difficult to understand why battered women
stay as long as they do.
In fact, the womens fears and anticipation of the
struggles of single parenthood and establishing a new household are well-founded.
Their sharing of these struggles is not intended to suggest in the least that
they would prefer the horrors of living in a violent relationship. Still, the
price some women pay for freeing themselves of such violence is very high. The
experience of some battered women and their children for months after leaving
a violent mate presents poignant evidence of how little the womens movement
has touched the lives of many battered women. More importantly, the long-term
effects of violence on the children are yet to be revealed.
- Hoff, Lee Ann, Battered Women as Survivors, Routledge: London, 1990.
Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information
about the effects of child custody conflicts. Write three case study examples
regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
What has been a consequence of domestic violence programs
focus on protecting women and children from immediate danger? To select and enter your answer go to .