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Fall 2022 The Law Office of George J. Skuros Justice in Family Law Scholarship Winner

Christina Velazquez

Christina Velazquez

Christina Velazquez is pursuing her legal degree at the University of Miami Law School. As an aspiring attorney, she hopes to bring change to family law and represent survivors and marginalized communities as a public interest attorney.

Read Christina's Essay:

Over the last year as a Policy Associate with the Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence in Chicago, Illinois, I have seen first-hand the barriers survivors encounter when participating in the legal system. Survivors fleeing violence often have diverse and multifacted legal needs to secure safety and stability. Yet, survivor experiences often are characterized by the criminal and civil court systems not being trauma-informed. This is especially true for survivors involved in family law cases seeking civil legal remedies and protections for themselves and their children. Interviews I conducted with survivors and domestic violence service providers revealed that the family court system pervasively lacks awareness of the dynamics of domestic violence. Survivors highlighted judges that dismissed their experiences, Guardians Ad Litem that silenced their concerns, and manipulation by the person causing harm. Many of the issues survivors experience in family law cases stem from the default standard of shared decision-making and parenting time.1 While several states, such as Illinois, require histories of domestic violence to be taken into account, court staff and judiciary may not be equipped with the training to fully understand these experiences. This places survivors and their children at risk for continued abuse and decreased safety.

The policy of shared parenting time and responsibility is rooted in the notion that children benefit from contact with both parents. However, people who cause harm can utilize children as a pawn to perpetrate abuse and regain control when a survivor is fleeing violence. In a recent study, survivors reported that the person causing them harm used their children to stay in their lives (76%), intimidate them (72%), keep track of them (72%), harass them (71%), or frighten them (69%).2 Survivors also reported the person causing harm attempted to turn the children against them (62%) or used the children to convince survivors to take them back and resume the relationship (45%).3 Survivors are also at high risk for domestic violence-related homicide and child abductions during separation and shared child contact.4 These behaviors are designed to inflict psychological abuse on survivors during visitation which significantly correlates with “conduct disorder, anxiety, and hyperactivity” in shared children.5

When survivors try to express their concerns with shared parenting time, they are often met with negative responses. When survivors did disclose experiencing intimate partner violence, less than half were believed.6 In line with the court’s distrust of survivors’ experiences, 26% of survivors lost custody after reporting experiencing abuse.7 These rates increase when the person causing harm claims parental alienation, a theory that has been widely discredited8 and utilized to demonize parenting survivors. When people who cause harm claimed parental alienation, the court was more than twice as likely to disbelieve survivors' claims of abuse. Loss of custody also increased when the court credited parental alienation. As a result of the contempt survivors may experience when disclosing abuse, domestic violence service providers may urge clients to downplay histories of domestic violence because these stories are not well-received by judges. Survivors can be seen as attempting to gain some sort of advantage in their case. Thus, survivors that find the strength to re-tell the abuse they endured may be accused of manipulating the system or met with an un-empathetic judiciary/court system.

The same trends of disbelieving survivors and not understanding their experiences are perpetuated by other court staff and actors. Custody evaluators, Guardians Ad Litem (GAL), and/or child representatives are tasked to make recommendations to the court on parenting time and responsibilities. Their recommendations often carry great weight in family law cases. Unfortunately, court staff are often not trained to handle cases involving domestic violence and may not realize the impacts of the various forms of abuse. For example, financial abuse is a prevalent form of harm that can diminish a survivor’s access to financial security and employment. Survivors that lack financial access or other resources may be viewed as less competent to provide for their children. Without acknowledging the full picture of violence and abuse, an evaluator may see this as grounds to award full or shared parenting time with the person who causes harm. Furthermore, evaluators without proper training may be unknowingly manipulated by the person causing harm and put forth recommendations that compromise survivor and child safety.

In order to address the concerns of survivors and create a more trauma-informed family law system, comprehensive training and reform of parenting time policies are required. Knowledge of the dynamics of domestic violence is linked to more positive family law outcomes for survivors. Evaluators with knowledge of domestic violence were more likely to grant custody to survivors and recommend supervised visitation.9 It facilitated a culture of believing survivors when they did disclose experiencing violence. Evaluators were more likely to believe survivors, recognize domestic violence as an important concern and understand manipulative behaviors in court by people causing harm.10 The goal is to have a standard of knowledge across all areas of the court system to ensure survivors receive equitable case management. This training will work in collaboration with the reform of policies and common practcies that mandate judges to allocate equal parenting time. These laws may over-prioritize joint custody while neglecting to take into account survivor experiences and the prevalence of domestic violence in family law cases. While some states have include exceptions for abuse, others have not carved out similar protections for survivors. Thus, these policies must integrate strong language that empowers judges to consider the risks and impacts of intimate partner violence. This includes requirements for utilizing supervised visitation and safe exchange programs if allocating share parenting time to mitigate risks, hold people who cause harm accountable, and enable families to build healthy and safe relationships.

Survivors must fight every step of the way to be heard and understood, but they should not have to fight alone. Passionate attorneys provide critical support and access to the legal system with trauma-informed services and representation. In my conversations with survivors, they frequently highlighted they would not have been able to navigate the legal system or obtain legal remedies without the help of attorneys from a local non-profit or legal aid. Having had the honor to work collaboratively with some of these attorneys, I learned they are more than just legal professionals but also advocates for reform and justice. They lead policy and systemic change to hold our institutions accountable and ensure they protect the rights of survivors. They change the lives of survivors through individual cases while also fighting for change at the macro-level.

Hearing and highlighting the stories of survivors instilled in me a determination to become that same champion that would provide the access, protection, and justice every survivor deserves. I know the way to become that champion is via a legal education at the University of Miami School of Law. I am committed to utilizing the skill and knowledge I gained throughout my advocacy journey to lead the reform of the family law system to better serve survivors of gender-based violence. I am excited to embark on my legal education journey this fall and start a career dedicated to uplifting and empowering survivor experiences in family law and the larger legal system.

1 Chandler, M.A. (2017). More than 20 states in 2017 considered laws to promote shared custody of children after divorce. The Washington Post. Retrieved from here 2 Clements, K.A.V., Sprecher, M., Modica, S. et al. (2021) The Use of Children as a Tactic of Intimate Partner Violence and its Relationship to Survivors’ Mental Health. J Fam Viol. Retrieved from here 3Ibid.
4 Harrison, C. (2008). Implacably Hostile or Appropriately Protective?: Women Managing Child Contact in the Context of Domestic Violence. Violence Against Women, 14(4), 381–405. Retrieved from here 5 Smith Stover, C. et al. (2003). The Effects of Father Visitation on Preschool-Aged Witnesses of Domestic Violence. JOURNAL OF INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE, 18 (10), 1149-1166 Retrieved from here 6 Meier, J.S.(2020). U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show? JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WELFARE AND FAMILY LAW, 42(1), 92–105. Retrieved from here 7Ibid.
8 Rathus, Z. (2013). ‘Parental alienation’: the debunked theory that women lie about violence is still used in court. The Conversation. Retrieved from here 9 Saunders, D.G.,Faller,K.C., & Tolman,R.M. (2012). Child Custody Evaulators’ Beliefs bout Domestic Abuse Allegations: Their Relationship to Evaluator Demographics, Background, Domestic Violence Knowledge and Custody-Visitation Recommendations. Retrieved from here 10 Ibid.
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