Mothers in Peril

[Written when The Summer 2008 Caravan occurred].  

Every day, mothers approach the courts for improvements in custody, visitation, child support, move away, domestic violence matters, and protections for their children. Move aways can be some of the most complex, with mothers requesting to relocate for excellent reasons, including better quality of life, lower cost of living, new jobs, better pay, promotions, job transfers, proximity to family and support systems, health reasons, present marriage and relationships, new jobs for their spouses, safer neighborhoods, better schools, to remove themselves and/or their children from domestic violence, abuse, molest, and endangerment, because the child support will stretch further, because they have no child support and can survive in an area with lower cost of living and higher quality of life, to care for aging parents or ill relations, and other good reasons.

It is always best for the two parents involved to successfully, privately, and amicably come to terms, present their decisions and parenting plan to the court for final ratification, and to obtain their own court order. However, in contested cases, mothers faced with custody and visitation motions are often in great peril, as are their children. The first peril lies in a mother's ignorance of law, as the most perilous motions are custody motions. When custody is challenged, a typical mother is ignorant of what it is she most needs to know to protect herself and her children legally: court procedures, time lines, the laws which will protect them, the methodologies she must use, the facts and evidence she must put in her briefs, the attorneys she can trust, and many other things. Her legal ignorance can result in a good or great mother losing the custody of her children.

Her peril is also financial, because court costs and attorney fees are usually beyond the reach of most mothers. Some have been known to lose custody simply because of lack of funds - and for no other reason.

Worse, yet, are cases where the legal system is manipulated and used as a weapon to inflict harm against the mother and children. Set upon by numerous motions and accusations, a mother must defend and answer or, by her failure to respond, risk losing her children. If the accusations are severe, hopefully she will seek the services of an attorney.

Contested custody and move away cases can place extreme financial burdens upon the mother: plunging into the legal system, she often faces extraordinary expenses which can topple her fragile economic ecosystem. Caring for 2-3 children, working for $5-$13 per hour, stretching dollars daily to meet monthly bills, with or without child support, and typically earning significantly less than a man, she is often forced to a fateful financial precipice when court expenses arise. Confronted by a bewildering maze of federal and state laws, case law, statutes, precedents, technicalities, codes, and rules, mothers must press forward or expire beneath the wheel.

Unavoidable attorney fees of $25-$350+/- per hour can further undermine her economic inequality; expert and family court service fees, reports, depositions, and other costs create added financial instability for the mother and children. Assets, the house, the car, and even her job must be bartered in order to meet the high legal costs and time required at court. Further court demands are reckoned by bartering additional assets and savings, by exhausting employee benefits, and by obtaining grants, gifts, donations, waivers, and loans. Mothers running out of assets to barter may be left owing an attorney thousands, even before the case has come to trial. Attorneys can drop the cases, sometimes by quietly putting them on the back burner and refusing to respond. If family and friends have given or lent money, frustration occurs when it isn't even enough to meet the need. As positive avenues expire, mothers may find themselves slipping and sinking into a ruinous economic abyss which can result in loss of jobs, homes, cars, and in some of the worst cases and simply because of lack of money, in the loss of her children. At hearing/trial, a judge may trace this financial domino and decide that the mother, having no home, no car, no way to get to work, is unstable and irresponsible, and order custody of the children to the father. In such cases, a good mother can lose her children and custody can be flipped, simply because of lack of money.

Can custody be decided on such factors solely? It can be, if mothers do not know the law. It can be, if good law has not been crafted, and if we do not create sound laws. Good law does not permit custody to be decided by financial factors, nor does it encourage custody flipping. Instead, good law ensures custodial stability by determining child support awards that promise the custodial parent, typically the mother, is adequately financially supplied each month so that the children can be provided for and will thrive, and so loving relationships are stabilized.

Some of a mother's difficulties lie in the state in which she lives, the laws to which she is subject, and the legal and moral presumptions which hold sway. Some are imbedded within a custody/visitation domino, and others swirl within lies and accusations commonly perpetrated when others attempt to remove custody from her. All of these can be layered within deliberate domestic violence, molest, abuse, move away requests, child support, visitation schedules, burdens of proof, expert reports, legal technicalities, and court displays. But perhaps the worst domino is the one which pushes womanhood 30-40 years backward to the days before sensitivity to domestic violence and battered women existed, and is exemplified in the indifference of the attitude, "You made your bed; sleep in it; I don't care." This lack of support and understanding from family, friends, and the community, coupled with a mother's helplessness and hopelessness because of lack of resources, the inability to afford court costs, and the ignorance inherent in a mother being thrust into a legally technical world she does not comprehend but in which she must defend the custody of her child[ren], or lose them, defines a critical problem which we can easily change by caring. The frustration, for those who do care, for those who have seen their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, their relations, their friends, go through this, is the anguish in helping in every way one can, and standing by and not knowing how to help further.

It is at this point that one must trust one's heart. Giving support and encouragement is lifesaving to those mothers facing the two, last great perils of domestic violence and being spiritually unprepared. To interact with the courts often requires protracted spiritual fortitude. Often, a woman must transform from mom to mom-warrior. Mothers raise children; they don't expect to represent them and to defend custody of their children in courts of law. It is a daunting challenge and, often, a lonely time for many mothers, when spiritual qualities must be expressed. Domestic violence gives a strange twist to custody cases because when the suffering that the mother and children are subjected to is not acknowledged, perceived, or taken seriously by the courts, their behaviors can be misinterpreted, resulting in the rending asunder of the mother and children's safety, in removing custody from a loving mother, and placing the children into a permanent state of abuse and molest. Worse yet, are the cases where the children, sometimes the mother and her children, die, and would not, had sustained and caring public opinion and sound laws made their welfare and safety paramount, their suffering avoidable, and their deaths preventable.

The difficulties engendered by financial inequality, legal ignorance, domestic violence, spiritual unpreparedness, and unsound law are compounded in custody hearings when mothers request to move away.

Senator Watson, sensitive to the move away and custody plight of mothers in California, submitted a relocation bill to the state legislature for their consideration (SB 1350, I believe) circa 1992-1994. Mothers throughout the state journeyed to Sacramento to testify in support of the bill and to try to convey the heart of their peril. A survey conducted during that time showed that of 200 custodial parents requesting to move, 8 moved, 192 were denied. Presenting the same reasons as women to relocate, 8 male custodial parents moved while all 192 female custodial parents were denied, this writer was told. This evidence strongly underscores the great gender bias prevalent in courts of law that mothers battle.1

A move away court order can be extremely difficult to obtain not only because a mother must prevail over the gender bias threshold but, also, because it signifies that (1) the mother has successfully obtained custody, and (2) should the case involve endangerment to the children or domestic violence, these issues must be resolved successfully in the mother's favor before the children are allowed to relocate with her. Additionally, the burden upon a move away mother usually requires her to show that there is no desire to interfere with the visitation order of the non-custodial parent, given that the safety and welfare of the children remains uppermost. Hopefully, the visitation order provides for the children's safety and welfare at all times. Considering these broad-brush factors, the move might be allowed, depending upon what state you live in, what laws you must respect, what judges you face, what case law holds sway, what supreme court decisions can be invoked, what the parties say in their briefs, how the attorneys conduct and argue the case, what family court services reports, what expert witnesses present, what the courts perceive to be the facts, and which laws are cited as controlling. For these reasons, when a mother successfully obtains a move away order, it is great cause for celebration.

This celebratory acknowledgment encompasses the many triumphs she, and every mother, has had to meet when defending the custody of her children at court.

The desire to assist and to alleviate starts with "How can I help?" and ends in caring solutions. An easy solution is acknowledging the significant milestones mothers accomplish.

In celebration of the independence achieved by mothers and children successfully obtaining good court orders, and our country's coincident, The Summer 2008 Caravan is scheduled to run through Washington, D.C. on July 4th, 2008. (For several years, including 2015-2016, we raised funds for a second National Drive which occurred in 2016-2017; see our Indiegogo Campaign, Drive for The Voiceless (now closed), The National Drive and Traveling Art Exhibit Campaign (now closed), and the last one, still running, Documenting Their Voices: The Drive for The Voiceless).

A civilization protecting its mothers and children thrives in its legacies.

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1 For statistics / research, see Mothers on Trial by Phyllis Chesler, 1986, 2011. For work supporting the importance of the mother-child bond, see Maternal Care and Mental Health by John Bowlby, 1951, and his subsequent attachment work; Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects by Mary Ainsworth et. al., 1962; More recent research includes the work of Judith Wallerstein.