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By now almost everyone has been affected by the coronavirus in one way or another. Whether you have been ordered to work from home, are practicing social distancing, or worst of all have been exposed to the virus, these are unprecedented times in our society. For parents that are divorced or going through a divorce, shared custody may create additional challenges to social distancing and keeping their loved ones safe during the pandemic. Having a temporary or a final restraining order in place makes this situation much more complex. Taking steps to safety plan according to your restraining order and ensuring that the guidelines in the order are followed is critical.
Shared custody may also create the opportunity for an abuser to exert new or increased “post-separation” power and control at this time. Post-separation refers to specific domestic abuse tactics that perpetrators will use against survivors after they have separated. During the relationship, domestic violence can include physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and financial abuse. When the relationship ends, the abuse does not always stop, but can transition to a new form referred to as post-separation abuse.
After the relationship ends, the perpetrator often sets their sights on the children to exert power and control over the healthy parent. However, post-separation abuse does not just affect the survivor, it has both immediate and long-lasting effects on children and can result in high adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACE’s describe a traumatic event or events during childhood such as divorce, violence, emotional abuse, neglect, substance abuse or even an environment that undermines a child’s sense of bonding or stability.
If you have valid concerns about your child’s health and safety, talk to a lawyer, reach out to the court, or contact a domestic violence advocate. You can try communicating with your ex directly, or through a third party if there is a restraining order in place. If you are considering speaking directly to your abuser about your concerns, take time to review your safety plan and consider your safety and wellbeing. We encourage you to focus on the well-being of the children. It’s important to keep your wellbeing and safety, and that of your children, at the forefront of any decision you make.
If you have questions about post-separation abuse, see the categories and examples attached to this document. You can also reach out to Safe+Sound Somerset’s call or text Hotline at 866-685-1122 or go to www.safe-sound.org for additional information. Information on Legal Resources is available at njcedv.org/legal_resources.
Tips for Professionals to Assess for Post-Separation Domestic Abuse*
If you are working with a survivor who has a formal or informal custody arrangement with their abusive ex-partner, ask them:
- How is their child’s other parent handling custody and access arrangements?
- Do they feel safe sending their child to their home?
- Are they using COVID-19 to threaten or coerce them around custody and access?
Continue to safety plan around their choices within the situation which may include learning how family courts are operating and handling these issues since their process changes daily. Currently the courts are only handling emergent motions however, clients can still file online at njcourts.gov under the self-help section.
If you have access to the children and can speak with them in a safe environment (and they are old enough), ask them:
- About their wishes around custody and access (this can be both therapeutic and practically beneficial. It may help you further assess risk, safety and provide the children with an opportunity to explore feelings and assist with safety planning.)
Continue to assess how the perpetrator is handling the current situation but also challenge justifications around controlling custody and access due to COVID-19. As a thought experiment to help you think critically and clearly, ask yourself:
- How would a domestic abuse perpetrator, who was owning or claiming responsibility for their behavior, act in this context? For example, we would want someone who is changing their behavior to act differently than they would have in the past, be understanding of their partner’s needs, and to continue to work to build trust back.
- Are they putting the needs of their children before their own?
- Are they communicating with their partner around custody and access in a respectful manner?
- Are they supporting the children’s relationship with the survivor?
- Are they maintaining stability and routine for the children that is consistent with the survivor’s?
Safe+Sound Somerset is available to answer your questions on these topics and others related to domestic abuse. Contact our call or text Hotline at 866-685-1122 to be connected the appropriate staff person or go to www.safe-sound.org for additional information. Information on Legal Resources is available at njcedv.org/legal_resources.
*Adapted from Safe & Together Institute.
Post-Separation Abuse Categories and Examples
- Counter-Parenting: Undermining the healthy parent, disrupting the child’s sleep schedule on purpose, withholding important information, contradicting established rules, eating patterns and/or routines. It’s using the children as pawns to spy or gather information. Ignoring school responsibilities, projects and homework to create chaos and discord for the healthy parent.
- Neglectful and Abusive Parenting or Co-Parenting: Exposing children to age-inappropriate television shows, experiences, movies and video games. It’s exposing children to toxic situations or toxic people. It’s using violence, intimidation, manipulation, fear-based tactics and ridicule to gain compliance from children. It’s manipulating the children using their wants, needs, fears, and feelings to hurt, tease, and control.
- Isolation: Destroying the survivor’s social capital such as family, friends, your child’s teacher, or other community relationships by spreading lies and rumors in an effort to isolate and publicly damage you or your reputation. It’s painting a false portrait or narrative, typically that the survivor is unstable, mentally unbalanced, promiscuous, dysfunctional, or dishonest.
- Harassment, Stalking and Intimidation: Sending an overwhelming number of emails (or messages) in a week, most of which are manipulative, threatening or blatantly abusive. It’s destroying possessions such as your children’s toys or clothing and making it seem like an innocent mistake. It’s unfairly portraying the survivor to be a micro-managing parent or a helicopter parent.
- Discarding: Leaving the children with family members, or other childcare providers because the harsh reality is that parenting duties are tedious to an abuser and require selflessness, which they are incapable of. The abuser would rather pay someone to care for the children than to allow the healthy parent to be with the children because the abuser knows this will inflict pain.
- Legal Abuse: Using the family court system as a weapon to destroy the healthy parent. It is done with malicious intent and includes intimidation, false narratives and lies. It often results in financial devastation created by uneven playing fields.
- Financial Abuse: Controlling, withholding or mismanaging support payments or reimbursements. It’s blocking access to financial resources and interfering with the healthy parent’s ability to work, find employment or get ahead. It’s financial games and deception designed to financially destroy the healthy parent.