This blog is written by a survivor of domestic abuse. Her identity has been withheld to protect her and her children
That first day in the family courts was one of the worst of my life. I was standing in the courtroom, a stern-looking district judge on high. And the man who'd repeatedly raped me, assaulted me, threatened my life and our children's lives, standing just a few feet away. No protection measures in place - nothing.
The judge ordered us to sit, and for nine hours I was subjected to his barrister accusing me of being a vindictive, hysterical wife, alienating her poor ex-husband and poisoning her young children's minds against their father. This set the stage for future court appearances - only this time, I would be cross-examined by my ex.
My sons have suffered at his hands since they were tiny. He yelled, pushed them, broke their toys in fits of rage. He refused to help look after them, and towards the end of our marriage threatened my youngest with a knife. When he was away overnight, I packed our bags and fled to my parents.
That was over eight years ago. After we left, he stalked and harassed me. I managed to get a divorce - but that took nine years. Again, I was accused of being a vindictive ex-wife.
He carried on psychologically abusing the children during their contact visits, calling them spoiled, stupid brats. I made a diary of everything that was happening - aggressive texts, abusive emails. The children stopped wanting to see him, so he decided that if I wasn't going to give him more time with them, he would take me to court.
I wrote in my court application about the emotional and physical harm he inflicted on the boys. The case was referred to a district judge; CAFCASS was ordered to interview us. I spoke to the woman for hours, and gave her evidence. But she returned after interviewing my ex and commented on how sweet he was for buying her lunch. She also said that I was "unnaturally close to my children." I was horrified, and was told by my lawyer it was likely that she wouldn't read the evidence I gave her, which was true. Her report was patchy and she didn't know who to 'blame'.
I went to court six times last year, each time more horrific than the other. My ex taking me to court is way for him to continue his campaign of terror. The cross-examination I have been subjected to by him was horrifying. The man who raped me and attacked our children, allowed to discredit me in court! And, even though I had amassed a great deal of evidence of his abuse, I was ordered co-parent with him. I was told to sit there, make sure that I looked calm, so the judge wouldn't think I was a hysterical mother. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is a broken, ridiculous and patriarchal system that benefits abusive men.
The judge couldn't decide who was telling the truth, and ordered that we all see a family psychologist. We were ordered into a room with two psychologists who were not experts in domestic abuse. They made my oldest son cry, and asked him "what must daddy be feeling?" My hands were tied; if I responded it would be reported that I was an emotional, unpredictable mother. We should have never been made to sit in a room with our abuser whilst he carried on in front of untrained 'experts'. If the family court system understood domestic abuse, this would not happen.
Last year I was diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD. All the court appearances have taken a toll. As a survivor, being brave enough to speak up out is hard enough. But in court, as a mother, I'm labelled as the vindictive ex-wife determined to use the children against their father.
The family court system is broken. We cannot shout about it because every case has a privacy clause in it forbidding discussion of the case in public. So, we suffer in silence. Our children are left to be tortured, as abusers are using the court system to abuse them more. I am constantly threatened with court again from my ex. And my situation is a common one.
They family courts are destroying lives. So many women and children are being constantly failed by the system.
And my children? They have had no support. Both boys have nightmares and suffer anxiety attacks. They are frequently off school and feeling sick all day. And I am getting blamed for everything.
Women's Aid is calling for all survivors of domestic abuse to be kept safe in the family courts with their Child First campaign. Support the campaign here.