What is a protective mother?

A protective mother is a mother who has a child with an abusive partner who, during the divorce or custody process, finds her abusive partner is threatening to take custody of her child. Often, but not always, these cases involve child abuse as well, and the term could be applied to a case where there is child abuse, no domestic violence, and the abuser still gets unsupervised time with his children.

  • Total Divorces 100% 100%
  • Number of divorces involving children 60% 60%
  • “High Conflict Divorces” 4% 4%
  • Alleged abuser awarded unsupervised access to children by courts 75% 75%


How Often Abusers And Batterers Obtain Unsupervised Access

Why does this happen to children?

The Saunders Study, a major study by the National Institute of Justice, found bad practices were behind most of the worst decisions. These included a belief in Parental Alienation Syndrome, a lack of knowledge about domestic violence and child abuse, and the belief that women frequently fabricate allegations of child abuse and domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a crime. How do judges overlook that when making custody decisions?

Only a very small percent of reports of domestic violence result in police records, and even fewer of those result in criminal convictions. Plus, a great deal of crippling domestic violence isn’t physical (it may be entirely emotional or financial) and as such is technically legal. That means there are a lot of divorces involving domestic violence that don’t have police records, only the word of the victim. An improperly-trained or prejudiced judge is likely to assume the mother is making these allegations in order to get a leg up in custody. And as such, a logical response to her “push” is to “push back” in the opposite direction. Tales of documentation proving domestic violence or child abuse going “missing” from files are also fairly common among this group.

How often does this happen?

It’s hard to know, but nationally, 3.8% of divorces are considered “high conflict”, and 75-90% of these involve domestic violence. Research also shows 13% of divorces involve allegations of DV or child abuse, obviously the overlap isn’t perfect.  

What’s the relationship between child abuse, domestic violence and the family courts?

Men who abuse their partner are much more likely to abuse their children, so there is a lot of overlap. Each form of violence can happen without the other, but it is important to remember that both direct abuse and living with an abused mother are Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Why would someone who abuses their children want custody of them?

When an abuser does this, their main motivation is to further control their partner. Sometimes the threat of custody is used to encourage the victim to drop charges against the abuser. In the case of sexual abuse, the abuser may want continued sexual access to the children. And even abusive parents will often enjoy parts of their parenting experience. Another facet of this is that this is a way for the abuser to drag the victim into court, again and again, to drain her resources and emotionally exhaust her. This is called Domestic Violence by Proxy- rather than directly abuse his partner, the abuser is using the legal system to hurt and control her.   

Doesn’t CPS investigate allegations of child abuse?

Yes. And CPS is generally over-worked, inconsistently supervised, and under-trained. Nationally, workers only stay in their job for an average of nine months- not nearly enough time to learn all there is to know about something so complex. The same incorrect beliefs about women and children frequently making false allegations of child abuse during custody disputes tend to work their way into CPS. So it’s common for CPS to unfound a case that later gets indicated, a case for which there is abundant evidence, etc. This is exacerbated by the fact they generally have little-to-no training in domestic violence. So while it’s important that CPS does their job, it’s also important to realize they don’t always have the expertise courts assume they do.  

How do courts assess for domestic violence or child abuse?

Courts rely heavily on court-appointed psychologists. Unfortunately, training in psychology doesn’t make someone an expert in domestic violence. Richard Gardner, the psychiatrist who invented Parental Alienation Syndrome, publically stated in his writings that child sexual abuse wasn’t common or terribly harmful, and this belief has also worked its way into the world of court-ordered psychologists. Another place where psychologists fail protective mothers is with evaluations- it’s common that an abuser will “look” more normal during an evaluation than the woman he has abused who is in danger of losing her children. And one of the stranger misapplications of psychological testing is using the Able test (which tests for sexual attraction to children) as evidence that someone did, or did not, sexually abuse a child. This is like using someone’s checking account balance to “prove” they didn’t steal money.

How can a judge justify putting a child at risk for abuse?

Most judges who make such horrifying decisions would say child abuse is terrible. But without the ACE study to prioritize different kinds of harm, a child “alienating” from an abusive parent can be interpreted as being as harmful as experiencing outright abuse. Without the guidance of the ACE study, it’s common to think of some types of child abuse as being “more severe” or ”less severe” than others- the ACE study proves it all is a matter of life and death.

Do all of these cases look similar and follow a similar path?

No, but they all have some common elements. The most litigious cases tend to involve participants with money, because litigation costs money. Some cases are handled almost entirely by CPS, which can be extremely dysfunctional. These cases often involve allegations of abuse by both parents. In some cases, there is domestic violence and no child abuse, in some there is child abuse but no domestic violence.

I know substance abuse is a common problem among battered women. What’s the appropriate decision when there is a battering father and a drug-addicted mother?

Living with a parent with a chemical addiction isn’t healthy for children and is an ACE. However, someone is much more likely to quit a chemical addiction than to cease battering their intimate partner, especially if the addicted person is using alcohol or drugs to cope with their abuse. The same logic applies to mental illness- the intense stress of being abused exacerbates it, and acute symptoms are likely to fade once there is separation from the abuser. Many people can successfully parent with mental illness, if they have proper support. Some mothers abuse their children, but will stop once they are separated from their abusive partner, and some won’t. All of these risk factors and variables can be weighed successfully by someone with genuine expertise in child abuse. When left to court-ordered mental health evaluators, what’s likely to happen is that a laundry-list of each parent’s mistakes and weaknesses is formed. And the person with the most money and the most power is likely to have the shortest list.

I’m in an abusive relationship. I have kids. I’m about to leave. I’m scared my husband will do this to me. What should I do?

It’s important to remember that not all cases get mishandled. Leaving is important to ensuring the protection of your children, and if you don’t, it’s possible you will run afoul with CPS. Call your local domestic violence shelter, even if you don’t plan on staying there. DV shelters may have a resident lawyer or paralegal who can provide advice and help you with the necessary paperwork. Keep documentation of anything that can be considered evidence of child abuse and domestic violence, including police reports, medical records, and all reports with CPS. Learn about the laws in your state, and reach out to support groups.



trauma, protect children

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