Last week I went to testify before the Public Safety and Human Services Senate Committee in opposition of one bill, and in favor of the un-amended version of another one. Both of these Bills, SB1127 and SB1248 have to do with something that has slipped through the cracks in a monstrous way in our state (and nation) – domestic violence within the family law court system.
SB1127, which I opposed (but was passed by committee) will scare victims away from exposing abuse in child custody cases unless they have ample evidence such as police reports or hospital records. Without this “evidence,” the judge can make the determination of “false allegation” and use this determination when custody is established. So unless there are tape recordings of verbal abuse or eye witness accounts of emotional and physical abuse, expect these victims to keep their mouths shut for fear of losing their children to the abusers. The fact of the matter, is that false allegations of abuse are extremely rare. Some substantive evidence can be read in Barry Goldstein's talking points on Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody.
SB1248 would have for the first time added coercive control to the family law rules language which would have been instrumental to finally shedding some light on this growing problem in the family law courts, and make it a determining factor for judges to weigh when determining child custody. The bill was amended by Senator Gray just the day before it was heard, literally gutting the bill of all mention of the term coercive control.
Even though there is ample evidence, research, statistical data and documents that point out the dire need for the courts to become educated and act upon coercive control within family law and custody disputes, most of the Senators on the Public Safety and Human Services Committee stated they were reluctant to place a Pandora's Box in front of judges. Senator Gray even gave some examples which I found to be simply ridiculous.
I would urge all of the Senators present, as well as any Legislators moving forward on any Bills pertaining to domestic violence, to familiarize themselves with a document called "A Judicial Guide to Child Safety in Custody Cases" written by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Family Violence Department. I would also point them to a 2003 study conducted by the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence titled "Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project: A Human Rights Approach to Child Custody and Domestic Violence."
Men who sue for full custody (outside of situations where mom has a drug problem, mental health issue, or is abusive to children) statistically have abusive personalities with a history of domestic violence. In the state of Arizona, these men, even when there is documented proof of physical abuse (and sometimes sexual abuse as well) are winning either sole or joint custody up to 70% (or more) of the time. They often take the woman back to court more than once, in an effort to maintain and exert control after she has left the abusive relationship. Many times their goal is to intimidate and bankrupt the victim, making outlandish allegations and filing motion after motion.
When most people think of domestic violence, they think of black eyes and split lips. Many people often place blame on the victim (or survivor) questioning why *she didn’t leave sooner, or wondering what she did to instigate the aggressive behavior. Many people act as if violence toward women isn’t a huge problem – even though one out of every three women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime – and for many women, they will experience both. One in three women. This is a sad and unacceptable statistic.
What many people don’t understand, including the majority of Senators who voted on these bills last week (and a HUGE and HEARTFELT THANK YOU to Senator Lopez for speaking UP about the importance of the coercive control language being IMPORTANT to include in this bill, though she was ultimately out-voted) is that the main component of domestic violence doesn’t necessarily stem from physically hurting someone. It stems from the need to control another human. Often times, when the victim finally musters the courage to leave an abusive (emotional, physical or both) relationship, the abuser will use the legal system (in this case the family law courts) to continue a cycle of abuse that can, and often does, go on and on for years and years. This form of abuse can be just as exhausting as the abuse which occurred while in the relationship. It can be both emotionally and financially debilitating.
And I am certainly not proud to admit that I know this from first-hand experience, but I am tired of being bullied, and I'm tired of thinking that the courts may do something to stop it. I'm horrified at the prospect of enduring this ongoing legal abuse and harassment for another 13 years. Which is why I was there, taking time out of my very busy day as a small business owner, single mom, and community activist to have my voice be heard by the people who are supposed to help PROTECT women just like me.
Yet most of these lawmakers don’t seem to care. Looking at the outcome of how both bills were voted on, it doesn’t appear they even want to understand. And it certainly doesn’t appear that they are willing to listen to the experts who deal with these cases every day, or the women who have first-hand experience of the problem for that matter.
I was livid at the treatment the one other mom who came to testify and I received at this hearing. Though there were eight people who were present to testify in opposition to the coercive control language (7 men and 1 woman) - the only people who were rudely cut off and limited in their testimony were me and the other mom, a woman named Joy. At less than two minutes, Joy was blatantly interrupted by Senator Gray (though Joy stuck up for herself and finished saying what she had to say). I was cut off at just under two and a half minutes by Senator Gray, and completely shut down at just under three and a half minutes, though two of the men after me were allowed to speak for eight minutes and twenty seven seconds and another for five minutes and twenty four seconds without being interrupted or stopped by Senator Gray. This is simply appalling to me. Apparently your voice will be heard if it's in line with the ideology and beliefs of the Committee Chair - in this case, Senator Gray. Shame on her, and shame on the other Senators who didn't stand up for their constituents who came to speak out about very uncomfortable and personal situations for not only themselves, but for women everywhere.
We must pay attention. We must vote. We must let our voices be heard. Our rights as women are being trampled upon on a daily basis at the State Legislature. Whether it is our reproductive freedoms (there were also THREE anti-abortion bills being heard that same day) or bills disguised to protect men from "false" abuse allegations that will only serve to muffle the voices of women being victimized throughout the state, the truth must be told. Where are you media? Where are you women? If we don't start fighting for our basic human rights, who will?
As the recent producer of the V-Day Phoenix events, including a production of The Vagina Monologues, it is my hope that women and men will find their voices to help stop violence against women. Women are our future. We must be respected and protected.
I leave you with the words of Eve Ensler and her plea for change.
*I acknowledge that men can be victims of both emotional and physical abuse, but have used “she” throughout this piece as it pertains to my experiences, observations and research.