If you want to make a real difference, become a legal eagle watching over the court system.
We all know that “justice” in the legal system belongs to the affluent and powerful. But, I think many of you would be shocked to discover how easily the court system can be manipulated as an instrument of abuse.
A rich and powerful man with a well-established professional career can afford to out-litigate a wife who sacrificed her own professional ambitions to care for his home and his children. A man who never had a second of time for his kids can suddenly discover how easily and effectively a well-funded custody dispute can destroy his estranged wife. There’s also the refusal to pay child or spousal support. False allegations of abuse and arrests on false charges can destroy a person’s reputation. These are just a few of the ways sophisticated, affluent people have found to manipulate the court system as an instrument of abuse. It’s all legal.
Many attorneys fuel these “Wars of the Roses” because the legal fees essentially transfer family assets into the coffers of the law firm. And, judges who are burned out or personally abusive or naive sit back and let it all happen.
A few states require judicial training on domestic violence cases. Fewer states have integrated court tracks for cases involving allegations of domestic violence. The manual advising women on how to navigate the legal system is eleven years old. A Google search to research this post revealed a pitiful lack of progress, resources, and funding. A few brave souls in law schools are soldiering forward, but they need reinforcements.
Most women who decide it is time to exit an abusive relationship with a powerful man quickly discover they have three options which leaves them essentially with a least-worst choice:
Remain in an abusive relationship to protect their children’s future opportunities and to avoid going on welfare. The ex-wife of a prominent surgeon, for example, asked me, “which abuse is worse? My own physical, emotional, and financial abuse? Or, is it child abuse to tell my kids they’ll be going to community college instead of Harvard because I can’t and won’t take it anymore?” Tough questions. Tough choices.
Spend a fortune trying to recoup their investment in the marriage. Jeanne I. King, Ph.D. recounts the cost of this choice in All But My Soul: Abuse Beyond Control. I clerked in the Domestic Relations Division of Cook County’s (Chicago) Circuit Court during law school. Her experiences were typical of most affluent divorces. The downside of this approach is that it leaves a person vulnerable to continuing abuse for years, and it can be devastating financially.
We need to be less naive about suggesting women in these circumstances “just leave.” We also need to be more sophisticated as women about our life path and career choices. We need to be more pragmatic about our life partner choices. Wife and mother are career choices that don’t come with compensation or severance packages or pension plans.
We need people to be vigilant watchdogs over court proceedings and judicial fitness. At this point, selection of judges is subject to too much control by the attorneys who have a stake in the outcome of cases. Voters know very little about judges. It leads to corruption.
We need committed, qualified attorneys to represent women and children in landmark cases pro bono to set precedent. Available legal services don’t begin to meet the demand.
We need new laws and court procedures as well as mandatory judicial training on domestic violence.
We need to find a way to introduce prevention into the legal process. We need stricter monitoring of offenders. We need tougher gun control laws.
And, we need to benchmark best practices to see what works and what doesn’t work.
The American Bar Association has a domestic violence section. The Family Violence Prevention Fund works with the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to train judges. It’s a good start, but we have a very long way to go.