Police Divorce and Family Law

When you are considering separation or divorce, your abuser probably senses it.

This section discusses how domestic violence in the police family impacts divorce settlements, child custody and visitation decisions. The information in this section is based on Illinois law and procedure. While other states have similar provisions, keep in mind there may be significant differences if you live in another state.

Filing for Divorce

Your abuser may try to intimidate you by telling you that he knows "the law," he knows what happens in "these cases," he knows how the system works. You may be accustomed to taking his word for things and not question what he tells you about the law. Be aware that what he's telling you is most likely his version of the law. The abuser may warn you that if you pursue a divorce, he'll take the assets of the marriage. According to him, what's his is his, and what's yours is his. He may swear to you that he will get custody of his kids, possession of his house, his pension, and all of his money. He'll promise, "You won't see a dime of my money, you'll live on the streets, you won't survive."

To counteract the possibly paralyzing effect of the misinformation he gives you, it is extremely important that you independently seek accurate legal information from a domestic violence agency or a private attorney. Although every court decision is made on a case by case basis, you have the right to receive a fair portion of the marital property in a divorce. You have the right to receive child support if you have minor children. The amount of child support you will receive is based on a percentage (set by law) of the abuser's net income.

Experienced Attorney Needed

If you are ready to proceed with a divorce, you will need to retain an attorney who has an expertise in family law, and preferably one who is familiar with laws pertaining to domestic violence. Your attorney has to be knowledgeable about legislation that affects police officers subject to orders of protection, the laws related to domestic violence and the ability to possess firearms, and police pension rules.

It is important that the attorney you hire is not intimidated that your abuser is a police officer.

Many attorneys claim they are not afraid of taking on a cop only to back down later when they realize who and what they are up against.

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Expect Custody Fights

Your abuser is likely to interpret your wanting to separate or divorce not as an end of the relationship, but as a declaration of war. He may enlist the children as his allies. He might work to instill fear, loyalty, sympathy, or anger — whatever he needs to get them on his side. He knows that the children are his most powerful weapons against you. You may be willing to let the money, the house, and your lifestyle go in order to be free of him, but he'd bet his life you won't let go of the kids. He'll figure that the surest way to make you stay, or to destroy you if you leave, is through your children. He'll tell you that it's your choice.

The decision whether to settle for joint custody or to fight for sole custody is often a very difficult one. Joint custody gives both of you an equal voice in making major decisions regarding medical care, religious upbringing and education. This arrangement can work in situations where there is a balance of power in the relationship and both parents are willing to make the concessions and compromises necessary to make decisions cooperatively. In joint custody arrangements, both parents are assumed to hold the best interest of the child as the number one priority. But your abuser probably has no interest in compromising or cooperating. He will use joint custody to maintain control over you and the children after the divorce is final. Many judges are coming to understand that control is the abuser's motivation for wanting joint custody and so will grant sole custody to the mother.

The standard the court uses to determine who is awarded custody is the "best interest of the children." It is considered an absolute that it is always within the children's best interest to maintain a close relationship with both parents. Being awarded or retaining physical custody of the children depends greatly on your willingness and ability to foster a close relationship between your batterer and your children. You will be required to demonstrate this by doing everything possible to accommodate the batterer's needs regarding visitation.

Whether you are married to an abuser or dating one, the children get caught in the middle. If he is the father of your children, he knows that he can use the children against you. If he has children from a previous marriage, you can learn a lot about him by how he handles custody and visitation issues.

Visitation Used as Control

Visitation can be used as a powerful control mechanism. The father can choose whether or not to exercise his right to visitation based on his convenience. If he wants to see the kids at his court appointed times, you are obligated to see that the kids are available to him. In many police departments, officers' days off are on a rotational basis. Judges make sure that the visitation schedule accommodates the officer's schedule. Thus the visitation schedule is not consistent. He may see the children Saturday and Sunday one week, Monday and Tuesday the next week, and so on. The fact that this is extremely disruptive of the kids' routine (not to mention yours) whether they're in day care or in school is not often a consideration of the court. If the abuser chooses not to see the kids at his court-appointed time, you are left having to make last minute alternate arrangements for childcare. Thus, he can use visitation to interfere with your work schedule or your social life. He can use it to sabotage your efforts to rebuild your life independent of him.

Another way that the abuser can use visitation as a control mechanism is as an opportunity to tell the kids "his side of the story." He might tell them what horrible things you have done to him. He may refer to you as the bitch or whore. He might tell them that you cheated on him. He'll say that you took away everything he had, and now you're even taking them away from him. He'll try to get the kids to feel sorry for him and angry with you. He might appeal to the kids' sense of fairness, asking them to listen to him and understand that there are two sides to every story.

Children Used & Confused

When this kind of manipulation is going on during visitation, the children are horribly conflicted by feeling that loving one parent is betraying the other. They often come home on a mission to avenge their dad by making you pay for hurting him. Young children act out in an endless variety of ways: they may call you names, they may be aggressive or violent. Your child may hurt himself by pulling out his hair, banging his head against the wall, holding her breath until she turns blue. Older children might spy on you for their dad, listen to your phone conversations, monitor your comings and goings, or read your mail and report back to him. They may feel obligated to assume the batterer's role, that of keeping you in your place by humiliating and ridiculing you, ordering you around, demanding that you wait on them like you did on their dad. The abuser has lost direct access to you, so he now may try to maintain control of your life through your children.

Some kids don't want to go on visitation because they are afraid of the man who hurt their mother. The child may hide, cry, get sick, or run away to avoid going on visitation. You will still be obligated by the court to force your child to go with him. If you do not force the child, you can be held in contempt of court for interfering with visitation. Your children may come home from visitation and act out for days. Some kids are angry and violent; others are sad and quiet. Some are afraid and have nightmares. Others regress to bed-wetting, sucking their thumbs, or wanting a baby bottle. Adolescents exhibit self-destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation, drinking, drugs, running away from home. Some even threaten or attempt suicide.

In these extreme circumstances, your attorney can ask the judge to order that the abuser cannot be alone with the children. This is called supervised visitation. The court might instruct you and the abuser to agree on a person to do the supervision, or the court might appoint a supervisor. Some domestic violence agencies provide this service. The supervised visits will last as long as the judge feels that the abuser is a threat to the children. You can ask your attorney to request that the judge order psychological evaluation if you have reason to believe that the abuser is mentally or emotionally unstable and therefore a danger to your children when they are in his care.

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Child Abuse Allegations

If you ever suspect or even know that your child is being sexually or physically abused by the man who abused you, you might feel that you are in a no-win situation. Your attorney will most likely warn you not to make any allegations unless you have strong evidence of the abuse. Such evidence could include statements from a third party not involved with the family, such as a teacher, childcare worker, or doctor. This type of evidence, and the willingness of these witnesses to testify in court, may be difficult to obtain.

You may be afraid to use the courts because of the possible ramifications and decide to seek help for your child from a psychologist or social worker. Be aware that you may end up in court anyway.

Professionals who work with children are mandated to report disclosures of abuse to child protective services.

Protective services will launch an investigation and question the abuser. This gives the abuser the opportunity to manipulate the investigators and try to convince them that you are falsely accusing him. He may also tell your child that if s/he doesn't recant, the court will never let him see the child again. He may try and make your child feel responsible for sending him to jail.

In court, the abuser's attorney may allege that you are projecting your own fears of the abuser onto your child, or that out of revenge you seek to destroy the relationship between your child and her/his father. The abuser's attorney will attack your motives and the child's credibility and refute any evidence that exists. The attorney will try to discredit any professional who is willing to testify on your child's behalf. The attorney can claim that the therapist is not qualified to make an assessment or suggest that the therapist is biased against the abuser. If there is medical evidence that a sexual violation or physical abuse did occur, the abuser will deny that he is the perpetrator. His attorney may implicate any other man who has been with the child — maybe your father, brother, or boyfriend. You could be accused of child endangerment for allowing contact with men other than the father.

Abuser Doesn't Care

The abuser doesn't care what he loses, as long as you lose as much or more. Women usually have a hard time grasping the abuser's callousness and his willingness to destroy anything and anyone that he can no longer control. The one thing your batterer dreads above all is your discovery that you can make it on your own. Thousands of women have survived police domestic violence. You can too.

Excerpt from Police Domestic Violence: A Handbook for Victims. Diane Wetendorf, ©2000, 2006, 2013 All rights reserved.

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