One year left to graduate high school, a young woman with the whole world in front of her with endless dreams and potential – dreams of not only serving in the US Navy and commanding ships but to ultimately become one of the most powerful women – takes a quick turn to becoming a prisoner – a victim of domestic violence, forced to be submissive. For the next 17 years and counting she becomes focused solely on survival simply because of a boy who charms his way through a tangled web of lies, their children, and a slowly progressing legal system that fails to recognize and protect the victims of domestic violence post-divorce from the abuse of what I call, “DNA privilege.” Because domestic violence is repetitive and endurance-based, it does not end when the marriage ends.
To understand where the laws have failed the victims in my story, we go back to 2009. I divorced my abuser at the age of 25, after eight long years of suffering where I was simply existing … not truly living. I am now 34, but the abuse has not stopped. During the past nine years, I have been awarded sole legal and sole physical custody of the children, who have already been granted a last name change. The estranged “father” has provided no financial support and any relationship the children once had with him has completely disintegrated. Two of the children don't even know who this person is and, thus, he is no different than a stranger at Walmart.
This estranged parent, who suffers from an underlying psychological condition, who has disappeared for multiple years at a time and commits crimes, is allowed to return whenever it’s convenient and petition the courts to request a change in the current parenting plans which would be disruptive to the children’s mental and emotional stability. He can do this simply because these legal venues are open to him, and they allow him to continue to exploit his DNA privilege in an effort to ensure the victims remain his prisoners. His claim to the children is based solely on the fact that they are connected by DNA. There is more to being a parent than providing genetic material and we need to start looking at our children as children and not as property. This DNA privilege comes before the rights and protections of the children simply because no laws are in place to protect the victims from this form of domestic abuse.
Domestic violence is repetitive and endurance based. An abuser finds new ways to keep the victims prisoner. He is allowed to not only disappear for multiple years, but to continue his long history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, fail to comply with court orders, fail to provide child support, and ultimately, fail at all attempts of any rehabilitation – he is allowed to do all this and then reappear again out of the darkness and bring destruction upon the lives of the victims. He can do this because the family court system allows him to.
It is human nature to want to label situations in an effort to make sense of what is occurring, and within the legal system we follow an archaic standard process. We label the person as a victim of domestic violence, but that fails to label the ways in which they are truly a prisoner of the abuser. Then, in an effort to make sense of what is taking place post-divorce, we create general assumptions to label these occurrences. A bitter divorce? A jealous ex? Parties lying… overreacting… seeking revenge… blaming the victim? We then follow a standard process of recommending counseling, mediation. Then we escalate to court orders to show cause, orders of protection, then back and forth to court hearings for every little thing.
The cycle of abuse continues, situations escalate, and we then follow the standard recommendations of a neutral location, having law enforcement be present at child exchanges. Then, we work our way up to supervised visitations and, finally, we arrive at a court order being issued of no visitations and one party getting sole custody. All of this correlates to high expenses for lawyers and time taken away from work and the children, not to mention the inability to move forward in life. What is the true cost of it all? It is time – time that should have been focused on the children, growing and making happy memories. That time can never be returned, nor can the damage ever be undone. What is my only legal remedy? According to the children’s court, it’s getting married and having my new spouse adopt my children. Archaic and discriminatory.
The standard process is the presumed next step, right? A psychological interview and making a determination of which cases are likely to demonstrate a behavior change and which are more likely to remain dysfunctional and violent – in an attempt to keep the family together – comes next, correct?
We all hold on to that piece of hope so we may recommend counseling, therapy, rehabilitation, mediation, programs. We all like to think that these will work.
Well I can tell you, based on a 17-year trend of dysfunction and violence, it is clear to the victims these steps will not work. I have been forced to become a strong woman and mother, because it is my duty to fight for the protection of my children, and here I am again simply because of DNA privilege. These children are innocent and deserve to continue to live a life free from all this despair, to be given a future that breaks this cycle of abuse. It’s time for New Mexico laws to be written for situations like ours.
Token J. Garnica