Heroes risking their lives fighting Coronavirus were attacked and abused by Family Courts

Every night at seven o’clock, firefighters, other first responders, and people in the neighborhood come to the hospitals to cheer their heroes. Their heroes are medical professionals who risk their lives and endure incredible pain and sorrow to save patients they don’t know. Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy tells the story of moral courage. Moral courage doesn’t get the attention of physical courage but is even more critical because it demonstrates the strength of a person’s character.

This article tells the story of one woman who is a hero in the movement to reform the broken family court system and brings her wounds and PTSD into the battle against Coronavirus. 

Larissa Pollica [pictured above] is a courageous nurse, risking her life and living the horror of a hospital overwhelmed by Coronavirus. Larissa was an excellent nurse while the family court pathologized and attacked her as she battled to protect her girls. It is the kind of decontextualization family courts routinely engage in. Mothers who are successful in other parts of their lives are demonized because they have trouble cooperating with their abusers and are angry at court professionals who fail to protect precious children.

I first met Larissa at a Battered Mothers Custody Conference in 2006. I was a member of the Truth Commission, and Larissa was one of the protective mothers testifying about her experiences. The Truth Commission was the creation of Dr. Mo Therese Hannah, the leader of the Protective Mothers Movement. We listened to the mothers’ stories, applied current research, and issued a report that explained the failure of family courts to protect children in abuse cases and offered solutions.

A publisher saw the Truth Commission Report and asked Mo to edit a book bringing all the current scientific research together. Dr. Hannah asked me to join her in co-editing a book called Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody. One of the chapters included the stories of four protective mothers, including Larissa. The book was a significant turning point that brought research together and encouraged new research so that the failure of family courts to protect children is now confirmed.

Larissa’s story

In today’s world, we honor the doctors and nurses risking their lives to save the lives of people fighting Coronavirus as we would honor soldiers fighting a war. One difference is that we have not provided all of the safety equipment they need, which increases their risk. Their heroism makes the abuse and mistreatment some have suffered at the hands of the broken family courts all the more disturbing.

In Larissa’s case, the judge ceded substantial power to the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). The GAL had little understanding of domestic violence but refused to speak with the local DV advocates or me. She assumed she knew everything. She started by interviewing the abusive father and made her decision before talking to Larissa. When the GAL finally spoke with Larissa, it was to focus on the father’s complaints. She also refused to speak to some collateral witnesses or gave perfunctory interviews. After that, she was an advocate for the abusive father.

The father had a history of physical and emotional abuse, and there was substantial proof if only the court had been willing to listen. I often use a phone call between Larissa and her then-husband because it is such a clear illustration of what an abuser sounds like. Larissa taped the call, but the court focused on the fact she legally taped it and blamed her for the father’s extreme offensive statements.  

The call concerned the custody arrangements for the little girl. The father’s entire discussion was about how he would hurt and punish the mother if she didn’t give him custody. He threatened to ruin her financially, causing her to lose her job and to ruin her reputation. He never made one statement about why the child would benefit from living with him.  

This is the essence of domestic violence. He was the man and therefore was entitled to make the decision. If she did not obey him, he would punish her. The court professionals had no concept of how DV works and actually used the tape against the victim.

Larissa demonstrated her courage once again by organizing local protective mothers to protest the failure to protect children. They spoke to reporters who wrote stories exposing the court failures. They brought experts to the community to discuss best practices. They also picketed the courthouse to protest the mistreatment of protective mothers and their children. The judge and GAL retaliated against Larissa and the other mothers.

The court gave the father custody and complete control. He was allowed to move from New York to Pennsylvania, and the mother had to do substantial driving to see her daughter. During one exchange, the father threatened and harassed the mother while the daughter was in the car and then tried to run her off the road. On other occasions, he withheld visitation, attempted to end the relationship and tried to have her jailed.

The constant problems caused by the father eventually led to a new proceeding to determine custody. The court then appointed a new GAL. I had extensive communications with her. She sent comprehensive questions via email focused on current scientific research and how it would apply to the circumstances in the case. We also had a lengthy phone conversation again focused on the research.  

The GAL also spoke with her client and interviewed collateral sources. The extensive investigation led to an informed recommendation that custody be returned to Larissa. I could tell my discussions were useful when she recommended therapy for the father with someone familiar with the Saunders Study. The judge wasn’t as supportive as the GAL. The parties negotiated a compromise, and the child was returned to the mother.

The debt owed to Larissa and our other heroes

By any objective reckoning, we have failed the doctors, nurses, and other heroes who are putting their lives on the line to save people in their communities. More will get sick, and some will die because of the delayed response. The necessary protective supplies have been in short supply because this nation waited too long. The false assurances delayed creating the restrictions required to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Our heroes must face the abyss every day, knowing they are in danger and knowing our country failed them.

It takes courage for Larissa and her colleagues to walk into the hospital every day, but it also takes character. Larissa’s character was continuously attacked because the court professionals, unqualified to recognize and respond to domestic violence, instead joined her abusers in vicious personal attacks. As bad as going into the hospital is, even worse is going into our family courts. This is because, in the family courts, it is the lives of our children that are at risk from the incorrect and ignorant response. Despite the risks and consequences, Larissa never stopped fighting for her precious girls.

It would be helpful for the courts to recognize the mistreatment they inflicted on Larissa and reverse all their bad decisions. But it is too late because the damage they caused to her daughters cannot be remedied by such a correction. The Family Court in Tompkins County, NY, and the family courts throughout the country owe Larissa and their other victims something else.  

They need to use this forced hiatus to reconsider practices from the 1970s that are so harmful to children. They need to learn about current research and integrate studies like ACE and Saunders into standard practices. It would take courage for court officials to recognize their mistakes, but nothing like the courage Larissa showed in the courts and in the hospital. Our gratitude cannot be just in words or cheers, it needs to be in concrete actions.

In my first book, I told the story about a client who was a nurse. She could be treating the Coronavirus patients today, but she could not survive the family court. She blamed herself for not being able to protect her daughter and could not live with the guilt. She killed herself because it is easier to fight pain and death in a hospital than fight a broken court system all too willing to hurt your children. It makes me appreciate Larissa even more.

Barry Goldstein
Barry Goldstein

Research Director

Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate.
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.
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