Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are getting divorced. There are a lot of complex financial issues to work through, and we're meeting regularly with a court-appointed mediator. So far, the process has taken more than a year, and although it's been painful, things were proceeding along in a fairly friendly way. Or, at least I thought they were. At the last meeting, my wife didn't show up, and, completely out of the blue, her lawyer announced that they were going to be reporting me for domestic violence and child abuse and will be changing their demand from joint custody of our three children to sole custody. As you can imagine, I was stunned. I have never done anything to harm or threaten my wife or children, and I'm devastated at the prospect of never getting to see my kids. My wife won't take my calls anymore. What's going to happen and what can I do?
A: An accusation of child abuse is the atomic bomb of any divorce or custody case. If you're accused, you'll be presumed guilty — unless you can disprove the charges. And that's not easy. By the time you first hear that you've been accused, your children will probably have been seen by a therapist or a child protective services caseworker, many of whom believe that their role is to "validate" accusations rather than investigate them. And things move pretty quickly from there. The instant you're accused of having molested or harmed your child, all your contact with the child will be cut off until the question gets heard in court, and that could be anywhere from a few days to a few months later.
An accusation of domestic violence may have nearly the same effect as an accusation of sex abuse: no access to your child until a judge rules on the charge. But, keep in mind that men are the victims of domestic violence at least as often as women. The problem is that men rarely see their partner's shoves, slaps or thrown dishes as violence. As a result, they rarely report those incidents. Now's the time to change your thinking. If your partner (whether you're in an opposite-sex or same-sex relationship) has been violent toward you or the kids, file charges immediately. This does two things: it helps protect the kids from further abuse, and it helps protect you if your partner attempts to bring charges against you in retaliation.
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As far as what to do, let's start with what not to do. Assuming you're innocent (if you're not, please put down whatever you're reading this on and turn yourself in), you'll probably feel like strangling your ex and her lawyer. Needless to say, that won't help — and neither will getting angry or defensive or trying to argue with her. Most attorneys agree that aggressive behavior will just make the judge more suspicious and negatively inclined toward you. It's critical, then, to be as cooperative as possible.
You also need to immediately get yourself an experienced criminal defense attorney who has experience with this kind of case. Next, keep detailed notes of every conversation or activity that involves the accusations against you. If it's legal where you live, record the conversations. At the same time, have your lawyers arrange for you to have visitation with your children — even if it has to be supervised. It's important to maintain contact.
Finally, as hard as it might be for you, try to give your soon-to-be ex the benefit of the doubt — she may have seen something she genuinely thought was a symptom of abuse. Imagine how you'd behave if you'd seen something suspicious. Remember: your goal should be to get the truth out, not to get revenge.