(Names have been changed to protect the surviving children associated with this case.)
“I can be shrill and unlikeable, but it’s because I am panicked for my sons,” Tracey, a survivor of domestic violence, wrote to me two years ago while she was fighting to protect her children from a man whom she believed was abusing them. Over the years Tracey’s emotional state deteriorated, pushing away her family, friends, and even the members of the legal community who tirelessly fought to help her. After six years fighting, Tracey lost custody of her children. She died one month after her last supervised visit with her sons.
“When I am 50, will you be alive? I am going to fly to your house and live with you for the rest of my life” This was one of the last things Tracey’s child said to her, a few months before her death.
Many of us who knew Tracey, believe that she died as the result of abuse by proxy. Family Courts in America allow abusers to use the court as a weapon against the targeted victim through ongoing litigation, which results in devastation of the victim’s financial and emotional resources. Since the court becomes an extension of the abuse, victims of domestic violence typically don’t present well at trial as the process itself becomes a trigger of past trauma. Had the court been trained to recognize its impact on victims, they might have taken Tracey’s concerns more seriously and she might still be alive as a result.
I met Tracey in December of 2013 when she contacted me via my website. She was asking for help, disclosing that she was a victim of domestic violence who feared for her life and the lives of her boys. Over the years, I saw Tracey subjected to repetitive trauma which negatively impacted her emotional state and ability to present as a credible witness. In contrast, her ex-husband, a military combat veteran who sustained a traumatic brain injury while deployed, presented as a hero who only wanted a closer relationship with his sons.
Nine months before Tracey’s death, a judge awarded sole custody of her children to the man she believed was abusing them. Tracey was given supervised visitation once every two weeks, where she was forbidden to take pictures of her children or buy them gifts for their birthdays. This decision was a dramatic reversal of custody, disregarding the strong bond the boys had with their mother – their primary caregiver since birth. The court determined that Tracey was alienating her ex-husband by continuously raising concerns of abuse. These concerns were dismissed in part due to the court’s disbelief of Tracey, on several occasions citing her emotional state as reason to discredit.
Dr. Christine A. Courtois, an internationally recognized psychotherapist, asserts that complex PTSD (CPTSD) generates complex reactions including dissociation, problems with interpersonal relationships, and despair. Complex trauma refers to the type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, over time, and within specific relationships and contexts. The prolonged contact with an abusive partner that is required throughout the Family Court process can exacerbate the original traumatic series of events.
In addition to misjudging Tracey’s emotional presentation, the judge also based her decision on the fact that her ex-husband hadn’t yet been convicted of the abuse Tracey alleged. In many cases, evidence of a crime isn’t even permitted in Family Court unless the accused is convicted criminally. While some might opine a parent should have access to their child unless the court can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there’s abuse – this opinion puts children in danger. Though the evidence might not have been sufficient for conviction in criminal court, Family Court is a civil proceeding for good reason. If the preponderance of evidence points to a parent being abusive, the courts should properly investigate and move to protect the child above any parental right.
In January 2018, Tracey wrote, “I am ashamed and disgusted by the way I behaved toward a number of people who were only trying to be supportive and kind. I was so angry that I couldn’t even see straight. I felt hopeless, terrified, and panicked.” Consistent with CPTSD, Tracey burned many bridges in personal relationships and in the legal community which made it hard for Tracey to find an attorney when she most needed representation.
The last message I received from Tracey was two months before her death. She wrote that it had been the hardest time in her life, and that she was going through an immense grieving period after losing custody of her children. I am haunted by her words, but also further driven to push for reform. Family Court is killing people and Tracey’s death is no exception to this horror. We must start questioning why the concerns of victims of domestic violence are so often dismissed. I implore states across America to require court officials and attorneys to learn about CPTSD so to avoid dismissing domestic violence victims based on misunderstood demeanor.