Domestic Violence in the Civil Legal System: Quiet Tragedies

Power and Control Wheel

What does domestic violence typically bring to mind?  An image of a physically battered and bruised woman.  While this is an authentic representation of many of the cases, domestic violence (DV) has several other facets that are often overlooked in the United States and abroad.

[Caveat: Domestic violence exists in all intimate partner relationships, including LGBTQ.  For the sake of clarity for this article, however, I am going to remain within the hetero-normative framework.]

Having worked with survivors of DV for the past several years, there is an aspect of this power and control dynamic that frequently passes under the radar that I want to highlight: abuse through the legal system.  More than any other of the power and control tactics, this one stymies people not working within the field.

I spent the last year and a half as a legal advocate, helping survivors navigate our complicated legal systems.  While I’m not an attorney and did not provide legal advice, my primary roles included going to court as a support person, signing survivors up for legal clinics where they could receive legal advice, and referring them to other agencies that could be helpful throughout the period of litigation.  Most importantly, I was a witness to their experiences with the legal system and a sounding board when things went right, and wrong.  I followed dozens of survivors through their lengthy and contested cases.  I was there to validate their frustrations, and oftentimes shock, of the courts’ rulings.

Power and Control Wheel

Frequently, before initiating a divorce or legal separation, I would sit down with survivors and tell them that this is going to be a long haul; such DV divorces can frequently stretch for years.  In Washington State the minimum period to wait for divorce is 90 days.  I never saw any of my cases resolved in such a short period of time.  DV divorces are always contested because of the abusers’ inability and unwillingness to extend themselves towards compromise.  At the core, abusers’ sense of entitlement precludes their ability to self-reflect and recognize they have deeply rooted issues of power and control because, no matter what, “It’s her fault.”  Abusers don’t think they have a problem.

So how does this look in actual litigation?  Around the time of separation, lethality skyrockets to 75%, meaning that when a survivor leaves the relationship, she is at a vastly higher risk of being harmed or killed.  Within this framework, it takes substantial courage for survivors to file for divorce, especially when children are involved.  The majority of cases I’ve witnessed involved abusive fathers who were mostly absent in their parenting role during the marriage, yet who do a 180 within the court process with claims of dedication to their children and the ultimate request to be the children’s primary parent with sole decision-making rights.  These too-good-to-be-true dads are after one thing: to maintain power and control over their partner even when she has left the relationship by taking control of what means most to her – her children.

Part of the myth that keeps unsafe (abusive) parents in the lives of their children is the father who presents to be so dedicated to his kids that he’s willing to fight to the bitter end to get them.  In our society, gender norms still permit the absence of dads.  So when we see them working so hard to be in their kids’ lives, we want to give them extra kudos which often results in full custody.


Yet as much as the family court system is skewed towards giving abusive fathers’ rights because they show up and say they’re a committed parent, the court system holds survivors, especially mothers, to a double standard.   She needs to look the part of a “victim”, prove she’s a fit mother (textbook statements by abusers that survivors are an “unfit” or “unstable” parent are extremely commonplace), and not stay in the relationship too long, otherwise she is charged with not protecting her children.  This flies in the face what we know within the DV community:  staying in the relationship can be safer than leaving.

Uneven Scales of Justice

Another method of abuse perpetrators use in the legal system is to shatter the survivor’s determination.  What does this look like?  Repeatedly filing motion after motion to drag the survivor back into court, targeting her resources (time, energy, finances), and ultimately targeting her will to continue to advocate for herself.  This latter tactic is strategic and requires patience and calculation on the part of the abuser.  It happens all the time in DV divorces.

The public is generally not educated about the overarching themes of DV, as outlined on the power and control wheel.  Sadly, many of the most influential players within the court systems are not either, including attorneys, commissioners, judges, parenting evaluators, Guardian ad Litems (GALs), visitation supervisors, etc…  These are the people with the power to make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of survivors and their children.  When any of these powerful players lack knowledge of DV it has the following effects:  poor recommendations resulting in disastrous and long-term decisions that impact the safety of the survivor and their kids.  Due to such widespread ignorance, it makes it even harder for survivors of DV, including sexual assault, to come forward and share their experiences and receive justice.

The DV movement has come far in the last 30 years.  We’ve transformed what was once considered a “family matter” in the United States into the public sphere and even into an international human rights issue.  Indeed, DV is a universal phenomenon that happens in every country around the world.  But stopping the cycle of violence requires more education and less tolerance of violence in all its forms.  We still need deep, systemic changes.

For more ways to get involved, contact the National DV Hotline (US) or the Women’s Aid and Refuge (UK) or to find organizations in your area.






After receiving an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam in International Development Studies with a focus on Sub-Saharan African women's migration experiences, Danielle relocated to her home town of Seattle. She remains dedicated to women's issues both locally and globally, working for a domestic violence organization by day and, in her free time, blogging or volunteering for a project dedicated to gender equality called Stirring the Fire. Over the years, Danielle has volunteered in South Sudan, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Germany and New York in varying capacities with the same purpose: to work toward her global sisters' empowerment, equality and right to be heard. Though fiercely committed to women's rights, she's also an experienced Barista, English teacher and, most recently, amateur tri-athlete.

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    1. Then you pray the victim gets the help she needs and doesn’t find herself in another abusive relationship.

    2. You and I should chat sometime…we’re in the exact same line of work.

    3. I have been involved in the court system over here and it was dreadful. After years of what he did and then the last straw (wont go into detail) he got 9 months supervision. Then, this year he threatens to kill my daughter and my partner when our daughter started talking about that i am getting married. The police were great where i live and really supportive, given the history they knew this was serious. the police in the city where he is gave him a slap on the wrist and told him not to do it again. While my partner and I had to see doctors and psychiatrists and parenting courses for extreme behaviour as my daughter was so traumatized from what her so called “father” said to her. I got to my lawyer to get him taken off as a legal guardian and my lawyer told me not to bother. that the court system are in favour of the father being part of the kids life no matter what they do. He told me to move to Australia and run. I know why too…The legal system here is so shocking and he knew justice wouldn’t be at my end. Some people say “Why don’y you just leave?”. After threatening my daughter, this is why. Men like this will do anything for control. He would do anything to hurt me, even kill the daughter we had together.

      When things happen like this with myself and others i know, it is the victim who gets left out with no support or any help to get counselling or do a course. But the person who committed the crime gets the whole package and more. Where is the justice in that. This is a great example why victims don’t come forward. They put themselves in a vulnerable position. They rely on the justice system to help them. But then the victim is at risk of being killed or badly injured from what i got called a “nark” and “tryna put my daughters father in jail”. So the whole family came after me. People ask why I didn’t carry on trying to get justice and that it would save my life by doing it. But is it really? To me it felt like suicide

    4. Danielle, I don’t know if you’ve read the feminist blog Erica and I run, but we’d be interested in cross-posting this article as a guest post. Let me know if you’re interested, by emailing notanotherwave at gmail dot com.

      The url to the blog:

    5. Thank you so much for commenting, Kazia. What you share about your own story is so similar to the dozens of women I work with. I’ve started calling it the “legal system,” not the “justice system” as I’ve witnessed so many situations end up like yours. It continues to break my heart and fill me with rage. Survivors rarely get the results they deserve in the courts and that, compounded with families or friends who don’t “get it” make it near to impossible to come forward.

      I hope you are as safe and free as you can be given the dynamics of your situation. Are you working with a DV agency in your area? The DV hotline can help you locate supportive resources if you are not already involved.

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