Battered Women Take Custody Battles to White House
By Mary Darcy
Friday, May 7, 2010
Battered mothers often shy away from publicity. But this year, in a sign of their growing organization, some plan to spend Mother’s Day in Washington in a White House vigil to draw attention to a court system that often gives custody to abusers.
(WOMENSENEWS)–On Mother’s Day, busloads of battered moms and advocates for abused children will roll into Washington, D.C.
They’ll hold a vigil outside the White House in an effort to persuade President Obama to take up their cause of reforming a family court system that they say all too often puts children into the hands of abusive parents.
For some it marks a new and somewhat frightening degree of public exposure. Some of the protesters will be shrouded in scarves, hiding from their abusers or a court system they fear will punish them for speaking out.
“They’re whistleblowers,” said vigil organizer Connie Valentine, policy director for The California Protective Custody Association, based in Sacramento. “The system doesn’t look kindly on whistleblowers. It’s a difficult situation because we have seen enormous judicial retaliation against mothers who step up in front of the problem.”
Efforts to quantify the problem are just beginning but protective parents claim it is widespread. A study done by the Williamsburg, Va.-based American Judges Foundation in the early 1990s showed that in 70 percent of challenged cases, battering parents involved in custody battles persuaded authorities the victimized parent was unfit for sole custody, according to a spokesperson from the foundation.
Valentine and other advocates for protective parents call the family courts broken and corrupt and say the system not only puts children into the hands of abusive parents, it also bankrupts and punishes the protective parents who fight for them. At the same time, they say it’s hard to reform the system because the people it hurts are hiding from abusers and anxious to avoid publicity.
But Valentine feels the ground shifting. “I think we’re in the early stages of a civil rights movement for protecting children from physical and sexual abuse.”
She said the Internet is helping battered mothers come together. “E-mail has helped. It’s a good part of the reason for all of the advocacy,” Valentine said. “Women are beginning to see that it’s not their fault and that they are just pawns in the game.”
Mo Hannah, psychology professor at Siena College, near Albany, N.Y., used the Internet to organize the first annual conference for battered women seeking custody in 2004, after her own difficult custody battle.
This past January marked the seventh gathering, which meets annually in Albany and is the major organizing and networking event of the year for protective parents.
“The first conference was about getting people to talk and validate their experiences,” Hannah said. “But as the conferences continued it became very clear that we needed a national movement. Now the conference is just sort of an umbrella or structure that encourages people to share with each other.”
Over the seven years, women have met at the conference and formed smaller groups, such as the Massachusetts Protective Mothers for Custodial Justice.
“Mass Moms,” as it has come to be known, brings together women who have gone through custody battles with those currently in the throes. Volunteers accompany women to court and on lawyer visits and play a general shepherding role.
“We stand next to a woman who is fighting for her children while she pleads and receives orders,” one Mass Mom told Women’s eNews at January’s Battered Mothers Custody Conference.
These volunteers have all been through their own custody battles and declined to be named for fear of retribution from their ex-husbands or the court system. Many have gag orders associated with their own cases. It is this type of fear of retribution that has helped keep the protective parents movement under the radar.
Fear Stands in the Way
The California Protective Custody Association’s Valentine understands the fear that keeps women from protesting and fighting the bigger battles.
“I waited until my own children were grown so we weren’t affected by the family court system,” she said.
Valentine says advocates and organizers need to study and replicate the successful civil rights campaigns of the past.
“Slavery was ended with a good law but slavery wasn’t ended because a good law happened to come about. The law happened because huge masses of people put their lives on the line and fought for it,” Valentine said.
This year “Mass Moms” is preparing to add some more public activism to their advocacy with a demonstration taking place in Boston on a date to be announced soon. In what they’re planning to call “Confetti,” the moms will symbolically shred court-appointed guardian reports–which they feel are particularly unfair to protective parents–into little bits and toss them at the statehouse to call attention to the plight of protective mothers fighting for custody of their children.
In New York City, a group called V.O.W., or Voices of Women, has been working within the court system to try to provide legal counsel and one-on-one help for women. On a wider scale its mission is to “promote long-term systemic change by documenting institutional failures, testifying at hearings, creating position papers and meeting with local and state officials.”
Both Valentine and Hannah say this is the right time to take the movement to the next level.
“The new president is a fatherless man with a good wife and they will hear us,” said Valentine. “And if they don’t hear us, Vice President Joe Biden worked on the violence against women act and he will hear us. And if they don’t hear us we will keep going until they do hear us.”
Mary Darcy is a multimedia producer/host and documentary filmmaker. She’s a two time Gracie Award winner for her work with Kate Mulgrew on Herstory and The Sounds of Progress, public radio series about great women in science. Darcy is a co-owner in Uptown/Downtown Media, producers of Alloveralbany.com.