Archive for October, 2019

Battered Woman Syndrome…All Too Common

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a psychological condition and describes a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, extended abuse. BWS is dangerous in part because it can lead to what some psychologists often state is a “learned helplessness” — or psychological paralysis — wherein the victim becomes so very depressed, defeated, and also so passive that she believes that she is not capable of leaving the relationship without her own destruction.  While there is no question that claims of abuse are often manufactured, many women are legitimately abused at the hands of a bigger and stronger male companion, husband or otherwise.  What a shame.  As Voltaire once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

What is a “syndrome”?  Is the term often used incorrectly?  How does it apply to an abused wife?  Let’s take a look at Merriam Webster’s definition and try to shed some light. 

Definition of syndrome

1: a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality or condition

2: a set of concurrent things (such as emotions or actions) that usually form an identifiable pattern

The more I have dealt with abused women, it reminds me of the similarities between BWS and Stockholm Syndrome.  The human psyche is immersing and deep.  If you have ever read about people who are kidnapped, held against their will, you may be familiar with Stockholm Syndrome.  It is essentially a psychological defense mechanism that allows an abused, subjected person to cope with their present challenge.  Although it does appear sickening to an outsider, this defense mechanism is often the best route for the subjected, unfortunately. 

Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity.  These alliances result from a bond formed between captor and captives during intimate time together, but they are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims. The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System and Law Enforcement Bulletin indicate that approximately 8% of kidnapped victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome.  It is not much different from the signs shown by a battered wife.

This term was first used in the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. These hostages defended their captors after being released and would not agree to testify in court against the suspects. Stockholm syndrome is quite paradoxical because the sympathetic feelings that captives feel towards their captors are the opposite of the disdain which an onlooker will feel towards the captors.  Again, the similarities with BWS are extraordinary.

One key point that always stands out to me about the psychological makeup of battered women is that the men they are with are always lacking core confidence.  Instead of loving and caring about their wives, they have no other medium than abuse, control, and bringing down the one they married or have an intimate relationship with.  There is simply no workable path in marriage that allows for abuse and control.  Confident men are a breed apart.  They will not resort to anything that harms the one that they married.

My advice to a battered woman is simple.  If in fact you are being abused, remember that victims act like they are abused.  Multiple occurrences of abuse that are swept under the proverbial rug are going to appear less than credible.  Even though the mindset of a true victim is difficult to fully comprehend to an onlooker, you must be aware that perception from the outside is very powerful.  The perception a chancery judge has regarding your credibility is even more so.  If you are being abused, find the strength to confide in those who care about you.  Find the will to get away, because there are always people who care…if you have the desire to look around you.

Battery of women is commonplace.  When you find the will to get far away from an abuser, know that you are better off without them, even if you stay single for the rest of your life.  Understand that a chancery judge will question the merits of your claims, and with some degree of skepticism.  For those who have never been true victims, it is difficult to understand why you stayed.

Divorce Dilemma: Stay or Leave

Friday, October 25th, 2019

There is little question that many divorcing couples are faced with a tough choice…whether to leave the marital home.  Oftentimes in domestic violence scenarios, one has little choice.  What impact does this have on the outcome in a divorce?  Does the spouse who leaves forfeit marital equity as a matter of fact?  We will also consider not only domestic violence, but other related issues that commonly prompt one spouse to head for the door…adultery. 

One very common mistake we see is a spouse who alleges physical abuse but stays in the home anyway.  Usually this scenario occurs when someone has a small child and no real options on the table other than maintaining the status quo.  Verbal abuse and emotional damage that ensues are also commonly alleged.  They must be extreme and continuing or they are not legally actionable.  So, let’s take a look at two hypothetical scenarios regarding 1. Physical abuse, and 2. Verbal abuse.

Physical Abuse

Although men can certainly be victims of physical abuse, I am going to present the more common scenario in this hypothetical wherein a woman is the victim.  Too often, women are harmed by their spouse in moments of anger.  Although the #metoo movement certainly has some valid detractors, it also demonstrates that abuse, be it sexual or violent, is far too common.  There is also no question that some women will cry wolf in order to leave their husband for other reasons (found another lover for instance). 

As a society, the popularization of abuse claims is both a blessing and a curse.  As has been said, if it’s not paradoxical, it isn’t true.  Any woman who is being abused needs to have documented every instance, and that usually means doing the simple things first…calling the police.  When she fails to do so and then walks into chancery court and claims she was abused but stayed anyway, she has a tough hill to climb.  Photographic evidence is always helpful, but in the cases where she has close friends nearby, family who live close, the likelihood of her being impeached and found not credible increase significantly.  If she had no option but taking the young ones to the nearest Motel 6, she is on much stronger ground.  

In short, wives must always consider the totality of circumstances when alleging habitual cruelty when they remain silent.  If she was physically harmed multiple times in the marriage and failed to contact the police, she can often deflect any attempt to impeach by arguing that she suffers from Battered Wife Syndrome.  It is the only method that will have an effect on the court for the women that remained silent for too long and failed to leave their abusive spouse. 

Verbal Abuse

Accusations of verbal abuse occur in almost every divorce we have ever handled.  While yelling, screaming, and cursing can be a ground for divorce for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (not inhumane, which is a slightly different term in the context).  Let’s look briefly at what would and would not constitute cruel and inhuman treatment.  It must also be noted that the word habitual is particularly important in divorce claims that allege solely verbal assaults. 

First, make no mistake that the verbal abuse must be extreme.  Getting into a couple of shouting matches will not suffice as a ground for divorce.  The tongue lashings must have persisted for a period of time that convinces the court you have been treated in a way that is inhuman.  In other words, you must have been treated with so little respect that no reasonable person could possibly endure the abuse.  This is what lawyers refer to as a subjective, rather than objective standard. 

It boils down to having to show the court that no reasonable person would be able to perform their marital duties under the circumstances.  If you can demonstrate that the hail of your spouse’s verbal bullets were both extreme AND pervasive, you have likely earned your way out of an unhappy marriage.  If you are seeing someone else (romantically of course) and simply want out, got into a few screaming contests, be forewarned:  you will not get a good result in court.

For anyone seeking a divorce, always remember that courts of equity are judging your every action and inaction of marital duties.  Even though only God can judge you in the end, make no mistake that you will be judged by a Chancellor in this lifetime.  At the end of the day, never forget that the person who is granted the divorce (and gets a better result) is the one who is less at fault. 

Although it is true that there is almost always blame to share, if you were decent and kind in marriage, the court will reward you.  The little things you were taught as a child can make a world of difference.  After all, what you really need to know most in life, and in divorce, you probably learned in kindergarten.

Mom Has the Advantage with the Young Ones

Monday, October 21st, 2019

Laws in Mississippi have certainly changed since the passage of Albright v. Albright (it is on our home page), but the reality is that mom almost always has a slight advantage when it comes to obtaining primary physical custody of a young child.  We have often looked at the doctrine that was front and center in custody cases prior to the Albright case, which was referred to as the “tender years” policy.  Although it has been deviated from, based upon the preference for Albright analysis, many of the same approaches are still employed when litigating a custody case.  After seeing this play out first hand–hundreds of times, mom usually does carry a slight advantage…unless she screws it up by cheating, drug use, alcohol abuse and, well you get the point.

The “tender age doctrine” has been undergoing a re-evaluation in the past decades, and rightfully so.  Times have changed in many ways, but so much remains the same.  Two states have essentially upended the notion that mom is better with having custody of a young child, and their courts have held that the maternal presumption favoring mothers in custody cases violates state as well as United States Constitutional guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Some of the challenges to the tender years (or tender-aged) statutes have also been based in the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.  See Watts v. Watts, 77 Misc.2d 178, 350 N.Y.S.2d 285 (1973). The tender years presumption has also at times been held unconstitutional as a gender-based classification which discriminates between fathers and mothers in child custody cases solely on basis of their sex. Devine v. Devine, 398 So.2d 686 ( Ala. 1981).  However, state statutes generally control unless appealed to a federal court.  Few can afford to do so.

So, where does Mississippi stand?  Is there truth that dad doesn’t have a chance?  Not necessarily, but he usually has a taller hill to climb to obtain custody of a young child than mom does, and that’s not written law, it is likely cultural more than anything else.  The Albright analysis does afford some advantage to mom, particularly because of the continuity of care when dad is at work. 

I fully appreciate that dad often gets punished in this sense for earning and supporting his family.  If mom is also at work and their child is being equally cared for by both parents, this advantage can easily disappear.  However, due to the commonality of mom staying home, receiving some maternity leave, continuity of care usually will favor her.  Some states do require employers to mandate paternity leave, but not Mississippi.  See our other articles wherein we discuss the power and importance of being the primary caregiver, because they are particularly front and center in this conversation.  It truly is the most likely predictor of who wins custody.

In sum, dad has a relatively equal shot at obtaining custody but for the fact that they are likely not an equal caregiver…especially if mom stays home.  If the father of a child truly wants to increase the possibility of obtaining child custody, he needs to find a way to, at the very least, be an equal participant in child-rearing.  Even though it is difficult to afford for many, hiring help is usually his best shot so that mom can return to work.  That way, at least he can argue that mom who does not stay at home is not advantaged by his daily absence.  Make no mistake, I understand full-well how unfair this may seem to all of the dads out there.

If you have a child custody issue and are seeking primary custody, give us a call and we can give you unfiltered advice in obtaining the best result for your kids.  As a single dad, I appreciate your devotion to your children, but more importantly, so do they.

Paying Support = Custody Rights?…Nope

Friday, October 11th, 2019

One of the most common calls we receive is a father who is paying child support, most often through the Mississippi Department of Human Services (D.H.S.), and believes that somehow he has automatic visitation or custody or visitation rights.  He is terribly and fundamentally incorrect. As morally wrong as it may seem, paying child support does not afford the payor to have any custodial rights at all …only an obligation to pay. Make no mistake, the state is merely a collection agency, nothing more.  They cannot, by law, be involved in when and where you get to see your little ones. Seems unfair, right? We will touch on that shortly, so stay with me.

Years ago, the state of Mississippi had a program administered by D.H.S. that promoted access for a paying parent to their child.  That is no longer the case. In fact, D.H.S. is so overwhelmed with deadbeat dads (and occasionally moms) that they have suspended the access/visitation program outright.  They simply lack the funding to continue what are deemed “non-essential” administrative duties required by statute. So what is a dad to do? Unfortunately they have no option other than hiring an attorney to pursue any rights at all.  Again, this seems to be unfair, but it is a reality that has to be faced sooner or later.

As I have said many times, if every person were reasonable, I wouldn’t be a domestic attorney.  Oftentimes, mothers are reluctant to allow their child to go with dad without a court order that requires a certain return time or other specifics that delineate their rights…and they should have that concern.  That belief is well-justified. Fathers generally are reluctant to pay an attorney to garner clear rights to the when, what, and hows that are front and center in any parenting scenario. The predicament that exists is a literal catch 22…both mom and dad have genuine concern and merit to their concerns, as they should.  

So what is the best answer?  It was said to me by a former client that “the only way to prevent a misunderstanding is to have a clear understanding”.  Well said. Couple that thought with the fact that Mississippi requires a court order on anything pertaining to child custody, support, and visitation and the best recipe is clear…the court must issue an order addressing all of these issues, or mom and dad both suffer…so does the child.  Even though dad is the likely recipient of a legal bill, the court’s involvement is paramount, mandatory for the child having a steady and peaceful, even predictable life and schedule. Kids benefit from that predictability in more ways than we, as adults, often realize.  

When you call an attorney and ask for advice, there are a few key ways to simplify your path forward. First, know that most of the callers to family attorneys have little or no communication with the person they created a child with, be it husband, wife, or an ex they never married.  Obviously, that is a shame. The best way to help yourself (and your child) is to make all efforts to keep an open line of communication with you ex…and I know this is easier said than done. If you are able to communicate, drop the hate that may exist, forget the past wrongs that may have been done, and your child will be the first benefactor. After all, their best interests are sacrosanct with yours.  Forgiving and forgetting are powerful tools when your child’s happiness is at stake.  

In the end, what matters is that you thrive for the sake of you and your children.  It is easy to relive old memories of being hurt, rejected, cheated on, or betrayed. However, your child deserves the benefit of a clear understanding, a court order, to thrive and have predictability, peace, and happiness.  Don’t do it for you, do so for them.