The swelling tide of change: protective moms seek federal hearing

”Once in a lifetime something comes along that you feel you have to go out on a limb and give your all to support. This is such a cause.” Photo: Clare O'Toole

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2013 —The National Safe Child Coalition (NSCC) is supporting the advocacy group Mothers of Lost Children in calling for a Federal Oversight Hearing into the violation of civil rights when protective parents lose custody of the children they are trying to protect.

Activists, inspired by the recent, tenth annual Battered Mothers’ Custody Conference (BMCC X), petitioned senators and congressmen outlining the failure of family courts in the 50 States to protect victims of domestic abuse and their children during divorce and custodial hearings.

SEE RELATED: Damon’s Story: Are Family Courts enabling child sexual abusers?

The follow-through is expected to gather pace in the coming weeks as the mothers continue to organize and hone their campaign for justice and safety for their children.

White House Advisor to the Vice President on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Lynn Rosenthall openly acknowledged there are high levels of discrimination against women in family courts.

Rosenthall is encouraging protective mothers to petition for change. She offered to use her position to pass on any targeted recommendations stemming from the conference and its aftermath to Congress.

She announced a Federal Task Force is to respond to the Family Court crisis.

SEE RELATED: Fighting Family Court: Battered mothers take their case to Washington

Members of the NSCC met with staff members from the offices of Senators Durbin, Franken, Boxer, Feinstein, Casey, Gillibrand, Hagan, Brown, Portman, Menendez, Schumer, Toomey, Thune, Leahy, Sanders, Kaine, Lautenberg, Reid, and Merkley, along with Congress members Conyers, Hoyer, Cardenas, Maloney, Neal, Poe, and Costa. Initial responses were encouraging, and behind the scenes, the work goes on.

One wheelchair-bound mother told representatives of the Congressional Judiciary Committee her back had been broken by her violent former husband and her eldest son had committed suicide while in the care of his family.

She said the combined trauma and tragedy had limited her ability to maintain employment and yet she had been court ordered to pay child support to her custodial ex. She described how, despite her condition, she had been put in jail for accepting and smoking a cigarette after the judge told her she was under order to hand any gifts over to her ex in lieu of child support. She said he told her she should have sold the cigarette and given the income to her former husband.  

Hearing her story and others, Ron Legrand, Democratic Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary said:

“I’m truly shocked, dumbfounded and disturbed. Once in a lifetime something comes along that you feel you have to go out on a limb and give your all to support. This is such a cause.”

Lobbyist, Connie Valentine, a vocal member of the California Protective Parents Association (CPPA) observed that over the years of attending the conference:

“One mother can start her story and another can finish it. Specific details may be different but the general stories are all the same.”

Since the inception of BMCC ten years ago, mothers have shared how they and their children suffer often years of abuse from their partners. They have described domestic violence that can manifest as physical, psychological or sexual in nature. They’ve agreed all forms are interrelated, equally threatening and totally unacceptable. 

Mothers have told how they are wrongfully profiled by judges, attorneys, and an assorted variety of custody evaluators as being the parent most responsible for the collapse of the marriage, the hostility of the divorce and any detrimental effects on the children.

Victimized mothers injured first by their abusers and then again by court processes have consistently identified the act of making an allegation of abuse as the trigger that results in an onslaught of false accusations and misrepresentation from the opposing party.

Protective moms say they have sought to defend themselves and fight for the safety of their children, only to be undermined by court practices. In extreme circumstances where there has been a persistent threat to a child, some mothers found no alternative but to take their child into hiding and face the serious consequences of abduction charges.

When mothers have chosen not to run, but to continue in a seemingly never ending fight for custody of their child, they have found themselves forced into bankruptcy or facing jail sentences when they cannot pay child support to the custodial father.

Renowned academic and expert on domestic violence, Phyllis Chesler spoke to protective mums attending the BMCC X in language that is stark and dramatic:

“The police do not rescue abused children. In fact, the court often award custody to their abusers and severely limit or cut altogether the “crazy” mother’s visitation. When such mothers finally run away to save their children, they are routinely captured, imprisoned and lose access to them for a very long time.

Battered mothers need excellent court representation and the best lawyers, often exemplified by those prepared to represent a mother pro bono. These lawyers are prone to ‘burn-out.’ Helping a custodial embattled mother is very demanding.”

Protective mom Cindy Dumas, mother of Damon Moelter whose bid for emancipation from Family Court custody rulings won him attention in the national media, was among the mothers who travelled to Washington. She brought Damon with her to tell their story and stress its significance to protective mums around the nation.

After a ten-year legal battle and months of hiding from a father he feared, Damon took extraordinary action to help himself find the security the courts had failed to allow. He chose, at 16-years-old, to get married.

Luckily for Damon, in Nevada a marriage license can be obtained with notarized permission from one parent only. He could therefore pursue emancipation through marriage without seeking his father’s approval. The worst of his personal war is over and yet he is keen to stress he does not see this as a victory.

“I didn’t beat the system, I circumnavigated it,” he said. “I spoke to numerous professionals and none of them protected me.”

His experience has led him to become a staunch advocate for children’s rights and, speaking at BMCC X recently, his closing comment, aimed at protective mothers and other child victims of abuse, was chilling.

“One in five kids is sexually abused. It’s not as if the professionals don’t know what they’re doing, they deliberately cover-up abuse. They are entrenched. If you don’t recognize it’s deliberate, you may make the wrong choices and then you won’t be able help yourselves.”

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Clare O'Toole

Clare O'Toole is a journalist who has written for several Australian publications, including Times of the West and Freemantle Community Radio.  With an MA in Journalism, O'Toole seeks to uncover injustice in the family courts and what happens when families breakdown. 

Contact Clare O'Toole


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