Violence Prevention Grey Bruce

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Why Do We Need Family Court Awareness Month?

By: Paige Harrigan, Lucia Vitaro, and Kyoka Tabei

What Is Family Court Awareness Month?

Tina Swithin, the founder of One Mom’s Battle, established Family Court Awareness Month in 2020. Family Court Awareness Month is a movement aiming to draw attention to systemic problems that put children and survivors of gender-based violence in immediate danger at the hands of the family court system. Currently, the family court system is not adequately protecting survivors of gender-based violence and their children, and parental rights often come above children’s welfare. Cooperation between child welfare agencies, the courts, and survivors of gender-based violence is crucial to better comprehend and address the complex difficulties encountered by families affected by violence. There are evident flaws in the system that were put in place to handle family law matters that decide cases “in the best interest” of children. Family courts do not fully understand and often do not identify the unique needs of women and children who have experienced gender-based violence. Therefore, the court is unable to properly address the needs of a survivor and act in the “best interest” of a child.


Family court officials, procedures, and orders frequently fail to address genuine safety concerns of women and children (Cross, 2012). From the start, the family court process has missed the complexity that the context of abuse brings for families and does not adequately serve most women who use the system. These flaws call for knowledge, discussion, finding solutions, and, ultimately, change of the system itself (Family Court Awareness Month, 2022). Our goal is to raise awareness of the serious effects of the family court system on women and children who have experienced or been exposed to gender-based violence and end these systemic failures.


Let’s Talk About Litigation Abuse or “Custody Stalking” 

Custody stalking is defined as a malevolent course of conduct involving fathers’ use of custody and/or child protection proceedings to overturn the care of children from the mother to the abuser (Elizabeth, 2017). After separation, an abuser may attempt to maintain control by exploiting the legal system against the survivor. Submitting multiple petitions or motions, asking for numerous adjournments, contesting the judge’s decisions without a valid reason, or taking other steps requiring the survivor to appear in court regularly, are all examples. This kind of conduct refers to “litigation abuse” and it is frequently used against survivors of gender-based violence.  Litigation abuse is challenging to deal with because it is hard to limit someone’s right to file in court (eNNEDV, 2020). As documented by survivors and advocates across the nation, narrative studies depicting litigation abuse strategies are prevalent.


According to a 2011 article by Mary Przekop in the Seattle Journal of Social Justice, child support and custody litigation is one of the most typical ways domestic violence perpetrators keep in touch with their victims. According to Przekop, abusive men are “more than twice as likely” to request sole custody of their kids than non-abusive fathers (Klein, 2019). T. K. Logan is a behavioural scientist and professor at the University of Kentucky who has studied stalking for nearly 20 years. Logan says that litigation abuse can be hard to document because the lines blur between a “standard” custody battle and one employed by an abuser to threaten the survivor (Klein, 2019). In addition to the stress brought on by this experience, litigation abuse can negatively affect survivors’ health, deplete their funds, force them to miss work, separate them from their children, and force them to navigate an archaic patriarchal legal system.


How Litigation Abuse Affects Mothers

When women experience litigation abuse and unfair treatment in the family court systems, an abuser is leveraging the system to exert power and control over the survivor and cause further harm (Carman, Ward, & Wesley, 2022). In many cases, judges give primary custody to an abuser even when there is a disclosure of previous incidents of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. Keira Kagan’s case is an example of one of the worst forms of an abuser using the family court system to continue his violence upon the survivor and her children. In Keira’s case, her mother filed a complaint with the court about her ex-partner’s violent behaviour, which went ignored. The father killed himself and Keira in his home in Milton, Ontario (Seal, 2022). Judges’ decisions and their impact can be a matter of life or death and are often the result of courts prioritizing co-parenting over the safety of survivors of gender-based violence and their children. Additionally, the trauma brought on by the persistent fear caused by violence and litigation abuse poses problems for a woman who is active in family court proceedings. Her coping mechanisms might backfire on her, especially if her abuser is charming and cordial to everyone he meets, and she comes across as unreasonable, suspicious, withdrawn, or aggressive (Cross, 2012).


Women and families come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Considering the intersectionalities of race, class, status, and abilities during family court proceedings is essential to understanding the barriers and threats to a woman’s safety. Because the law, legal institutions, and processes do not adequately reflect this reality, when abuse is present, there are frequently one-size-fits-all legal remedies such as court orders and restraining orders. These orders are commonly overlooked, disregarded, or broken by the abusive party, leaving women and children once again at risk of ongoing violence and abuse (Cross, 2012). Using an intersectional domestic violence lens and working together across sectors could help transform family court to find appropriate and effective resolutions in family law proceedings. This would provide a safer place for women and their children and allow them to move forward living free of violence.


How Litigation Abuse Affects Children

Family court professionals do not fully understand how domestic violence impacts children in cases of domestic violence. Many court professionals do not realize that domestic violence custody cases are improperly examined. This stresses the need for specialized areas of research present in the courtroom to help judges understand these cases (, 2022). Experts and survivors are needed to support the court in grasping experiences and education about domestic abuse. As Carman et al.’s article (2022) explains, when lawyers advise survivors not to disclose abuse in court, they forgo giving evidence to protect the child(ren). Abuse is often reduced to “high conflict,” and judges become disappointed when a parenting agreement is not reached, prioritizing neutrality over the reality of the situation (Carman et al., 2022). The court needs proper education to understand a child’s exposure and response to abuse.


Despite the legal expectation in Ontario for courts to not support the violent parent and consider various factors to understand the specifics of the violence inflicted (FLEW Webinars, 2022), it is not often prevalent. The efforts to keep the best interests of the child(ren) intact are lacking in awareness and neglect proper handling within legal procedures. The efforts lack the insight of survivors and children. An article by Carman et al. (2022) shares multiple examples of survivors’ experiences. They detail their children’s negative experiences, how they felt discouraged, hopeless, or trapped, some displaying suicidal behaviours from court-ordered counselling sessions to loss of appetite or changes in mood due to forced relations with the violent parent against the child’s will. The same article also addressed that many survivors were not entirely against their children establishing a relationship with the abusive parent, but saw potential re-traumatization based on the child’s fears (that went disregarded by the court) of that parent (Carman et al., 2022). Cordeiro, a family court mediator, arbitrator, and parenting coordinator, strongly suggests that “such cases should be taken out of the court system entirely and decided through an alternative process presided over by people who are trained to spot the signs of domestic violence and coercive control.” Cordeiro’s insight explores the possibility of mending child-parent relationships, even with the abuser; however, it is counterproductive when it is forced and instills fear (Carman et al., 2022).


The Misused Concept of “Parental Alienation”


Frequently, mothers are accused of alienating their children from their fathers. This concept is described as one parent intentionally trying to sabotage the relationship during a “hostile separation” (Carman, 2020). However, many legal advocates notice the weaponization of this concept often used against survivors of gender-based violence in child custody cases (Carman, 2020). More often, the abuser and their lawyer claim that the mother, a domestic violence survivor, positioned the child against the father and was thus guilty of alienation (Carman, 2020). This accusation can be made by submitting a claim from a clinical psychologist that suggests the mother’s behaviour was the cause of the child’s refusal to see their father. The use of this tactic is to shift the blame onto the mother and create an image which tries to convince the court that she is guilty of brainwashing or persuading her child’s emotions (Carman et al., 2022). However, in the work of Tina Swithin of One Mom’s Battle, there is an understanding that this is an element of post-separation abuse and explains that children often cling to the survivor because they see and prefer them as the safe parent.


Plenty of research has confirmed the misuse of parental alienation allegations. Survivor interviews in B.C. shared a survey regarding their experiences in family systems. The study showed that slightly more than half of the women responding said they had been accused of parental alienation, and just under half said lawyers had advised them not to talk about the abuse (Carman, 2020). Another piece by a University professor in New Brunswick noted that three-quarters of parental alienation claims in domestic violence allegations are made by the alleged perpetrator (Carman, 2020). The lack of gender-based violence awareness in family court, according to Carman’s article (2020), will result in decisions about the care of children being made without knowledge of the need for protection. These misinformed decisions increase the risk to children and for this reason, mothers are very hesitant to disclose abuse and be accused of parental alienation (Carman, 2020).


Calls To Action


Family Court Awareness Month is a non-profit organization and movement that aims to bring attention to the underlying problems that endanger children and families navigating an unequipped court system. Survivors and their children suffer when family courts lack the education, understanding and policies to address gender-based violence. Acknowledging how custodial stalking, litigation abuse, and parental alienation intersect is essential to seeing how gender-based violence can present itself in family court. With Family Court Awareness Month in November, we urge you to keep these ideas in mind and support efforts to spread knowledge about ongoing survivor experiences. There are many ways to participate in Family Court Awareness Month. Learning and familiarizing yourself with what is happening in Family Court is an important first step.


Additionally, you may improve people’s awareness by taking simple yet helpful acts like sharing this information with the people in your life and spreading the word on social networking sites. Visit Family Court Awareness Month if you are interested in taking further action. Social transformation results from consistent individual participation.


Lastly, if you or someone you know has a family court story to share and/or would like to be involved in a family court focus group, please contact


Paige Harrigan, Lucia Vitaro and Kyoka Tabei are placement students at WomenathecentrE. WomenatthecentrE is a survivor-led non-profit organization working to eradicate all forms of gender-based violence globally. We are dedicated to ensuring the voices and expertise of survivors are central in the inception, development, and implementation of all programs and policies aimed at preventing and responding to gender-based violence. This article was developed with the support of HER Grey Bruce, the Grey Bruce survivor-led Chapter within WomenatthecentrE. They unite survivor voices in the Grey Bruce region for community capacity building, individual healing, and systemic advocacy.

For more information about WomenatthecentrE, including connecting with the HER Grey Bruce Chapter, please see->

For more information about the content of this article, please see the following references and links:



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