By Tess Willoughby
Nate got another partner almost immediately. He found her on a Christian dating site. Patty had money from her millionaire father and a big house paid for by the government salary of her estranged husband. Nate had told me that remarriage for me was unbiblical, but he found a loophole in Scripture and told the children that he and Patty were already married in God’s eyes. God having spoken, Nate moved into Patty’s house and put our marital home up for rent.
Nate wrote me a letter warning that if I did not “come to terms” (give him full custody of the children), he would hold a big yard sale and sell off everything in the house that belonged to me and the kids. He had the right to do this, having been awarded the entire contents of the house by the courts. The letter specifically mentioned a silver tray that my grandparents had given us as a wedding present. The toys, costly and old-fashioned and ordered from catalogs, had been my parents’ birthday and Christmas gifts to the children. The kids had left behind probably two thousand dollars’ worth of toys–$300 in large hand-carved wooden blocks alone. Nate sold them all, except for a few that he informed us he would keep at Patty’s house for “when the children come home.” Nate sold or gave to Goodwill the 150 books in my personal library and the children’s library.
Nate informed the children during visitation that he was sleeping with his fiancée, but that he was sleeping on top of the covers while Patty slept underneath.
Sam, who has always been precociously bright, was eleven at the time and had developed advanced bullshit radar. “On top of the covers” has been a pet euphemism for Sam and I ever since. Whenever Sam was trying to get away with something and making preposterous excuses, I’d say, “you’re on top of the covers on that one, bud.”
In the divorce, the court-appointed psychologist reported that Nate had a high probability for child abuse and that I had every indicator of a battered spouse. She also found that the children’s accounts of child abuse were entirely credible. Nate tested high for narcissistic personality disorder and had indicators of antisocial disorder, white I had post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
So, readers: what do judges do when they appoint psychologists to evaluate a broken family and file a report, and that report states that the non-custodial parent has:
* chronic, untreatable personality disorders,
* an estranged partner who perfectly fits a battered partner’s profile, and
* credible reports (though no present physical evidence or prior police reports) that the noncustodial parent has abused the children as well.
The judges either order a joint custody arrangement, or order the custodial parent to give the children to the noncustodial parent for “visitation,” because (and this is the case in all fifty states, as far as I can tell from my research) only parents who have been proven to cause recent, physical injury to their biological children are not allowed unsupervised contact with their children.
Women escaping abusive cults or cult-like situations with children have no chance to even draw a breath of relief, figure out how to survive, or even hardly unpack, before they are in a courtroom being ordered to hand over their kids to the crazy man who hurt both them and the kids. Once the abuser has the kids alone, even infrequently, he’s able to make sure that the kids do not ever become normal, and to turn the kids against his former partner in an effort to force her back, to force her to accept legal terms that are not in her best interest, or simply to torture her using her children.
You escaped abuse. Congratulations! says the juvenile legal system. You’re probably just lying about the abuse to get an advantage in court, and we won’t tolerate any interference with your ex’s visitation with his children. Now come to court as much as your ex wants, even if that’s once a week. He has a “right to access the system” but you too have a “right to be heard,” for which you should be grateful and respectful. Cooperate with your children’s father and get along. And get over that PTSD and depression, get a job, and become a demonstrably successful mother, or we’ll give your children to your ex.
Courtrooms have become a trauma trigger for me. I react to being in a courtroom with Nate no differently than I would if I found myself back in my old house with Nate. I’m like a Vietnam vet parachuted into a rice paddy. It doesn’t even have to be a courtroom where Nate is present: I have nervous jitters when I’m in any courthouse for any reason. I get sweaty palms and fight off a panic attack when I take a child to court to get a driver’s license.
For Nate, court was a dating service. He couldn’t get me to go on real dates, but I could be subpoenaed for dozens of court dates, and jailed if I did not appear. He would put me on the stand and grill me for three or four hours at a stretch until I nearly fainted. I was forced to go into jury rooms with him for “depositions,” where I was so terrified I could not breathe, much less think. Then Nate would go into court and cross-examine me about what I said in the jury room and how it differed from what I was saying now, and “was it not true that I was lying now? Or had I been lying then?” The courts and their police power would force me to show up and submit to his abuse on a regular schedule.
Nate has a special voice he uses in court. It is the same voice he used during our marriage to signal that he was about to inflict physical pain on me if I didn’t yield to his demands. It is slow, with every syllable carefully enunciated, slightly mocking, and ice cold. In the early years it was all could do to remain seated in a courtroom, and not run away, as soon as Nate began speaking in that voice. Many times, I have asked for a recess and gone to the ladies’ room to vomit.
In my very first juvenile court hearing in my hometown, the judge said two things to me:
1. I was probably lying about the child abuse.
2. If I wasn’t lying about the child abuse then I condoned it.
Since that day, I’ve probably replayed those two statements in my head a thousand times, trying to figure out how they jive, and what they have to do with custody or visitation.
The guardian ad litem chimed in and said I had poor parenting skills and was the lesser of two evils.
Nate’s fiancée Patty took the stand and said Nate was the most wonderful Christian man in the world, was positively fantastic to her two children, and that I was making it all up to get revenge.
Nate took the stand and bawled like a baby about how much he missed the kids, said that I had abandoned him for no reason and “kidnapped” all of his children, and added that I had always been abusive and controlling.
Now I realize I got off easy, with Nate getting no overnight visitation, and with his visitation occurring only twice a month. I talked to one man whose children had to spend every weekend in a meth lab with their mother and her string of lovers, where there was no food. The common practice in juvenile courts is to determine the maximum amount of destructive visitation that the kids can tolerate with abusive noncustodial parents without being hurt too badly (and being neglected and mentally and emotionally wrecked doesn’t really count). This is true even in states like Virginia, where the legal standard is “the best interests of the child.” The pattern with Nate, as I’ve gone before 15 different judges in 12 years, has been that Nate gets increasing visitation over time. He hires rent-a-shrinks who testify that he has no personality disorders and is no danger to his children.
Nate’s second wife helps; Patty has testified dozens of times that there’s nothing wrong with Nate. Nate married Patty in 2003 but kept pressuring me to come back to him. I could live in the bedroom over the garage, he said. Patty was totally on board with this, as she freely testified in court.
I began to wonder about my children’s stepmother. On the other hand, my own experience taught me that you can find freaks on any dating site, but the Christian dating sites are in a freak class all by themselves.
Speaking of freaky groups of people, here is a shoutout to everybody in the legal system who thinks “the right to be heard”—to defend yourself before the law–is a sacred and beautiful right which insures the courts will be fair, simply because both sides “get their day in court.”
I have been heard through 158 court appearances. My lawyers were heard until I went bankrupt, and then I was heard representing myself. I have been heard through five Legal Aid attorneys, even though they could only manage a tiny fraction of the litigation Nate filed while still representing the other poor women in the area. I was heard until I was suicidal and on Prozac and Zoloft. I was heard right through five therapists. Nate issued a subpoena to one of these therapists, who responded by mailing Nate the notes he had taken during my therapy sessions.
My children have been heard too, in chambers and on the witness stand, after they had been prepped by their father for hours during court-ordered visitation. Everybody we were connected with was heard: medical care providers, counselors, relatives, friends, employers, prospective employers—until we felt like some kind of legal plague. Prosecutors and defense lawyers were heard on the sixty warrants that Nate swore out before magistrates, or made Jack swear out before magistrates. I was falsely arrested three times—but I had a right to be heard. We were heard through a decade of terrible poverty and despair.
Things are better now, but we are still all exercising our right to be heard as often as Nate decides to file papers in court. Whether it’s pure hell, as it mostly was ten years ago, or a major inconvenience, as it mostly is now, it’s no picnic. Some might even call it an outrage.
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More by Tess – Tangled
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce