Domestic Abuse and Weaponizing the Courts

When the media highlights stories of domestic violence, they often tell a sensationalized story designed to simply capture the public’s attention. Their depictions of violence frequently fall into traps of victim-blaming and stereotypes surrounding what domestic abuse looks like. These traps mislead the public on the reality of abuse. Narrow portrayals of domestic violence invalidate the experience of many survivors whose stories do not fit inside the dominant narrative. Domestic violence is any pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship where one individual dominates the other. This can take many forms of coercive control, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, or “paper abuse.”

A survivor of domestic violence, identifying herself as “D” to protect her safety, has been battling her ex-boyfriend in court for the last two years. After their relationship ended, D’s ex began stalking and harassing her, leading to D filing a protective order against him. The harassment continued in the courtroom, with D forced to attend a never-ending series of hearings as her ex repeatedly contested the protective order. The method D’s former boyfriend used can be described as “paper abuse.” Domestic abusers attempt to maintain control of their partners by filing unnecessary lawsuits, requesting numerous hearings over custody arrangements, making false reports of child abuse or neglect, or taking other legal actions within family court. Paper abuse is not widely understood or studied, but has been quietly draining survivors—both financially and emotionally—for decades. Unfortunately, paper abuse is also on the rise as perpetrators realize family courts are an ideal setting to target their victim’s biggest vulnerability: their children. Supporting legislation that targets “stalking by way of the courts” is necessary to protect domestic violence survivors and end this cycle of abuse. 

Tactics of Control

Domestic abusers are masters of manipulation and use strategies of coercion to establish power dynamics to psychologically, financially, and physically control their partner. The abuse can often consist of isolation from the victim’s support system, controlling their bank accounts and spending, forcing them into rigid gender roles, destroying property, or harming pets. Abusers restrict their victim’s autonomy and, if children are involved, may challenge their partner’s parental authority to create tension between them and their children.   

Even after a domestic violence survivor has escaped an abusive relationship, their abuser is likely to attempt to regain power and control, and violence may escalate. The chance of a woman being killed by her abuser is six times more likely when she leaves the relationship. If an abuser does not resort to violence, it is common for them to prolong their contact with their victim through legal proceedings such as protection order hearings, child support, and custody issues. Abusive fathers are more than twice as likely to file for sole custody of their children than non-abusive fathers, not necessarily out of paternal responsibility, but rather to maintain control over their former partner. A 2019 study found that 59% of abusers were given sole custody of their children by family courts and the rest were granted joint custody or unsupervised visitation rights. Survivors of domestic violence are legally required to participate in the lengthy process of protection order hearings and divorce or custody agreements, therefore having repeated forced contact with their abuser. The criminal justice system often overlooks the impact of legal threats and intimidation on a victim. 

Legal Opportunities for Manipulation

Family court tends to attract inexperienced judges who are often overloaded with a high volume of cases. These judges may not understand the nuances of how the court system can be manipulated by abusers and may have difficulty determining which parent is better fit to care for their children. Due to the established power dynamic between an abuser and their victim, custody evaluators may conclude that the abuser is the more credible and reasonable parent. An abuser’s gaslighting and manipulation of the victim’s medical records may result in the victim appearing unstable and uncooperative within the co-parenting process. 32 states currently have child custody laws that include a “friendly-parent” provision in the list of factors to analyze when determining the best interest of the child. In these cases, if a parent presents themselves as “more generous in sharing the child with the other parent,” the custody evaluators assume that they have a greater understanding of the child’s needs. As a result, this provision tends to favor the abusive partner. 

Political and Legal Remedies 

Currently, Tennessee is the only state that has passed a law to specifically target domestic violence related “stalking by way of the courts.” In 2018, Governor Bill Lee, signed the Abusive Civil Action Law to allow judges to determine “whether a defendant’s ex-partner or family member is filing frivolous lawsuits intended specifically to harass, stalk, or otherwise cause harm.” The bill gives judges the power to prevent abusers from filing lawsuits for up to six years. Texas, California, Florida, and Massachusetts have also passed legislation to address vexatious litigation, but these bills do not directly address the issue in a domestic violence context.     

In states without laws regarding paper abuse, victims may still have the opportunity to be protected from frivolous lawsuits through anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) laws. Anti-SLAPP laws are bans on lawsuits that are intended to intimidate or silence an opposing party by burdening them with legal fees and court dates. States that have anti-SLAPP legislation allow defendants to have the unnecessary cases dismissed and to be reimbursed for their legal fees. The Public Participation Project has been advocating to pass federal anti-SLAPP legislation through Congress to further protect survivors of domestic violence from legal harassment. 

In addition to legislation addressing paper abuse, domestic violence advocates can also help end this cycle of abuse by thoroughly documenting legal proceedings within family court. Records of unnecessary lawsuits and hearings can be used to better educate and train legal professionals—such as judges and court report writers—on the pervasive nature of paper abuse and coercive control. Survivors often do not know what their legal options are in these situations and ensuring that resources are available to connect them with legal aid is essential. For example, tort claims require those who are found to be at fault for causing harm to others to provide monetary compensation to the victim. However, tort claims are rarely ever used in domestic violence cases to combat frivolous lawsuits, but can be extremely effective in fighting harmful actions that do not qualify as crimes, like intentional emotional distress. This demonstrates the importance of domestic violence legal advocates supporting survivors through the complex legal system.  

Lastly, federal courts have also set a precedent in allowing judges to discipline perpetrators who file “frivolous or improper claims.” Family courts have the authority to “discipline a batterer who files excessive motions” by finding them in contempt of court or by ordering them to pay the attorney’s fees and legal costs of the victim. If judges are properly briefed on how to recognize signs of paper abuse, then action can be taken to protect survivors from legal harassment.     

Unfortunately, there are already numerous barriers that prevent women from leaving abusive relationships, such as fear, isolation, financial restrictions, concern for their children, or lack of resources. Becoming trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of lawsuits and custody hearings, after already enduring the trauma associated with leaving an abusive relationship, causes further distress for many survivors, like D. Making the difficult decision to escape one’s abuser is just the first step, and survivors of domestic violence need resources and support to navigate divorce and custody proceedings to avoid any continuation of manipulation. Educating legal professionals about the prevalence and danger of paper abuse, as well as advocating for federal protections against paper abuse, are essential to ending the cycle of violence.   

  • Madelyn Amos

    Madelyn Amos is a first year Master of Public Administration student with interests in environmental policy, grassroots advocacy, and gender politics. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019 with a double major in Public Policy and Gender Studies. She previously worked for the Democratic Party of Illinois as a campaign manager and oppositional researcher in Chicago and currently works for the Feminist Majority, advocating for reproductive justice. In her free time, Madelyn enjoys yoga, reading, and searching for the best Thai food in DC.

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