I still remember walking through the doors of family court for the first time in August of 2009. To anyone on the outside, I looked like I had it all together. I was a respected and recognized member of my local business community, but more importantly, I was a mom. On the inside, I was shell-shocked, riddled with anxiety and out of my element. I clung to the words printed on my court paperwork, “in the best interest of the children.” Those words were playing in my mind on a continuous loop. Those words gave me hope that no matter how dire things felt in the moment, that my daughters would be safe and protected through this next chapter of our lives.
After spending almost ten-years volunteering at my local women’s shelter, I found myself tapping on their doors and desperate to be let in. This was by far the most humbling experience of my life. Due to the financial abuse that had been in play for years, but intensified when court paperwork was filed, I found myself in proper and attempting to make sense of the mountains of court documents that were required of me. I sat up, late into the night at the women’s shelter with my laptop strategically propped in the window ledge as I desperately needed access to the open Wi-Fi of a neighboring home. Just three weeks prior, I had been driving a brand-new Mercedes in a gated community and there I was, choking back tears in a dimly lit bedroom with my very young daughters sleeping in an unfamiliar bed just a few feet away.
I was devastated to discover very early into my custody battle that parental rights carry more weight than children’s rights. My path into the family court system included a two-day trial, over thirty court hearings and two full child custody evaluations. During this time, minor’s counsel was appointed, over twelve police reports were generated and a total of three child welfare reports determined that my ex-husband was a “moderate risk” yet did nothing to protect my children. I was shocked to discover the hard way that an unfounded child welfare report is often misinterpreted as an event that did not happen however, more often than not, it means that the event did happen, but the child is now with the “safe parent.” After a six-year battle, I was successful in my plight to protect my children. In 2014, my ex-husband was stripped of his parenting time and all access to our daughters based largely on emotional abuse.
Throughout my battle, I found myself repeatedly saying, “it should not be this difficult to protect children.” I have dedicated my life to family court advocacy so that my daughters’ suffering was not in vain. In 2011, I founded a grassroots movement, One Mom’s Battle, which has now expanded internationally. This issue is one of epidemic proportions and it’s not just one mom’s battle. My custody battle was not about my ex-husband’s love for our daughters, contrary to what he told the court. It was about winning, and his motivation was to hurt and control me. He lost power over me when our marriage ended so the children were his only weapons. This is true in most high-conflict custody battles but often, both parents are unfairly grouped together in the “high-conflict” category.
What is the common denominator that we see in high-conflict custody battles? Often, one parent has a diagnosed (or suspected) Cluster B personality disorder. The three disorders that are most common are: Borderline Personality Disorder (more common with females than with males), Narcissistic and Antisocial Personality Disorders (more common in males than in females). With each of these three Cluster B disorders, there is a pronounced lack of empathy and repeated testing of laws, rules, and personal boundaries. The high-conflict parent will purposefully become delinquent in child support to exercise financial control over the other parent. There is a high level of manipulation to meet their own needs which can fluctuate with their mood or state of mind. In addition, there is often a history of domestic violence, fraud or other criminal activities. Substance abuse, addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex or porn) and other forms of mental disorders are also prevalent with these disorders. Any of these pervasive issues should pose as a “red flag” to court professionals.
Judges and family court professionals are often fooled when a high-conflict individual proclaims that they want to be an active participant in their child’s life. The narcissist’s portrayed interest in being a part of the child’s life is the furthest thing from the truth. I refer to this as the courtroom mask – the narcissist is wearing a mask in the courtroom or when the eyes of a court professional are upon them. Outside of the court setting, the mask falls and the narcissist’s true colors show. This is where it is critical to pay attention to courtroom statements versus actions.
When a judge, commissioner or a family court professional is making a decision that impacts the life of a child, it is important to err on the side of caution. This is even more critical if a parent shows impaired empathy, disregard for boundaries and poor impulse control with their children or their former spouse. Many high-conflict individuals may appear to be a loving, devoted parent through their testimony or declarations, yet their actions prove otherwise. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control, clearly illustrates the lifelong effects of childhood trauma and abuse. The ACE Study should be utilized by anyone who is tasked with deciding the future of a child. Children are dependent on family court professionals and their rights should supersede parental rights.
Tina Swithin is the Author of the series, “Divorcing a Narcissist” and a Family Court Advocate who resides in San Luis Obispo, California with her husband and two daughters.
Thank you Tina Swithin for this great article!