When Leaving Your Abuser Isn’t Enough
The following is from my good friend Loni Coombs, a legal analyst and regular contributor to the Dr. Phil show and The Doctors. She appeared on the Dr. Phil show “End the Silence on Domestic Violence: Abusive Exes,” weighing in on the legal rights of women who are allegedly threatened by violent former spouses and boyfriends.
Could you imagine, after having endured countless verbal or physical attacks from an abusive partner, finally getting up the courage and strength to leave them, only to find out that the nightmare isn’t over? In fact, just the opposite — the violence is increasing and intensifying?
This very real and extremely dangerous phenomenon is called Separation Assault. Abusers, who perceive that their victim is getting away from them, become more determined and more aggressive to make sure that “If I can’t have them, no one will!”
I recently met a very courageous woman who has been struggling to, literally, survive this separation assault cycle. Sandy came to share her story with Dr. Phil in the hope that she could save even one other woman from the hell that she is now enduring. Her allegations of abuse are some of the most harrowing that I have heard in all my years of prosecuting domestic violence. But that isn’t Sandy’s whole story.
Here is the cruel, tragic twist: Sandy has a child with her alleged abuser. You may be wondering why that is so significant … This next sentence is extremely important for every woman to know: No matter how violently a man abuses the mother of his child, he still has legal parental rights to his child, protected by law, unless and until a court says otherwise. So, despite Sandy’s best efforts to cut ties with her abuser, she can’t disappear because of her child. In fact, if she did, she could be in trouble for violating his parental rights. Shocking, isn’t it?
Parental rights can be forcibly terminated, but it usually involves a difficult legal battle. Courts have traditionally ruled to preserve the parental rights, unless the parent is shown to be incapable of taking care of the child due to substance abuse or mental illness, or is abusive or neglectful of the child. There is no specific ground to terminate the rights of a parent if they are abusing the child’s other parent.
Law enforcement and the courts have come a long way in prosecuting abusers and protecting victims. But there is still a long way to go. Awareness of the “separation assault” danger zone is crucial for any woman contemplating an escape from abuse.
More needs to be done to protect the children of parental abusers. Remember when OJ Simpson was held civilly liable for the death of his children’s mother? Even after the trial, he retained his parental rights. Some states have allowed evidence of domestic violence when determining custodial arrangements, finding that the child was “at risk of harm” even if they weren’t the actual victim of the violence. This logic needs to be expanded further, in the best interests of the children.
For anyone who is in an abusive relationship, or thinks he or she may be, or has a loved one who is, I highly recommend watching this Dr. Phil episode, which airs Wednesday, October 27. It could change your life. Maybe even save it.