Untying the Knots | Episode 7 | Intimate Partner Violence, Part 2

Dawn Smith and Kristen Files, partners at Atlanta-based family law firm Smith & Files, host “Untying the Knots.” Season 1 offers practical advice and resources to families navigating crisis and covers such themes as co-parenting, intimate partner violence, myths about marriage and divorce, support systems, and financial safety after divorce. The 10-episode series launched July 1 with new episodes weekly through September 2 and includes special guests Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Stolarski, and Historian and Marriage Expert Stephanie Coontz.

Below is a transcript of Episode 7: Intimate Partner Violence, Part 2.

“Untying the Knots” is available on all streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To learn more, visit smithfileslaw.com/podcast.

DS: Dawn Smith | KF: Kristen Files |

JS: Jennifer Stolarski, Chief Assistant District Attorney for DeKalb County, Georgia

DS I’m Dawn Smith.
KF And I’m Kristin Files.
DS This is Untying the Knots, a podcast about family crisis…
KF and what it takes to survive the tangles and strengthen the ties.
DS Welcome to Untying the Knots. Thank you for joining us for part two of intimate partner violence. If you missed the last episode, stop now and go back so that you can hear from our subject matter expert, Jennifer Stolarski and come back to us on part two, where we’re going to do a deeper dive into civil remedies and parenting plan provisions. Kristin and I want to talk about a few of our personal experiences, some of the remedies that we’ve seen in the civil arena for working with families and intimate partner violence and what listeners should be thinking about in parenting plans when there may be a concern about intimate partner violence going forward.
KF This topic is so heavy and so just very real and very personal. I think that the tone of this episode and the previous episode will reflect that and that’s okay. And I hope that what people take from that is people who find themselves in this situation, like I hope that they hear something that resonates with them, someone who’s not in this situation, I hope they hear something that educates them and allows them maybe to be a resource for someone else or even just have more compassionate education around the issue. I worked with a client recently who was a victim and now survivor of intimate partner violence. She’d been in a marriage that lasted over 20 years, over half of her life. So this is a woman who met her spouse when she was 18, really young. They got married when she was about 22. He was almost 20 years older than her, established. And initially all of that was really attractive. As the relationship went on, he isolated her from our friends and families, he controlled all of the finances. He told her that she couldn’t go to school, that she needed to stay at home and that he would pay for everything. And then he would give her an amount of money to do the things that she wanted to do. He became physically and emotionally abusive to her and to the children. And not only that, his temper would be taken out, just like on the property in the home at sometimes like he damaged property in the house. You know, it all culminated into this physical altercation they had where luckily she was able to have the police arrive before anything happened that was too catastrophic to her. He was arrested. And once she came to me, we were able to get a protective order in place so that he had to leave the home.
DS And Kristen, and I remember in talking to you about this case, that the controlling did continue even after you got the TPO and we’ll talk to our listeners about a temporary protective order – and what that actually does – that he continued to abuse her in the sense that he stole her diary. He sent the entries from her diaries to her children. She had one child in college at that point. So he continued to follow her and attempt to injure her as he saw this power and control slipping outside of his grip.
KF But, you know, part of the reason to that affects me so deeply is because not only was I her lawyer, but it’s like, she is such a perfect example of someone who like didn’t know anything. I was in the courthouse, like helping her on Zillow to find an apartment because she had no idea how to do that, helping with a resume. She had no idea how to do that. And then like the idea of being 40-something years old, having to all of a sudden like go get a job, make your own money, raise these kids, get out of the house and you still have someone stalking you and like abusing you through the litigation process is just like, it’s so you know, traumatizing and she’s… but I would say to her like “you’re doing it, you’re doing it.” And she did like I’m extremely proud of her. I’m so proud of her. She’s such a perfect example of a woman who started off in an abusive relationship being very broken. And I had the honor of walking her through a pathway to gain independence and to gain resources that would help her start a new life with her children free from that abuse. And I’m so proud of that, and I’m so proud of her.
DS So people who have never been abused often wonder why a person wouldn’t just leave an abusive relationship. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat across the table from people, or even most recently, I had two cases where I was a mediator. Two of the partners in it were really well-healed professional women who looked at me as the mediator and to a tee, they both said to me, “I can’t believe I found myself in this situation. I cannot believe I was a victim of domestic violence and that I stayed. Now I understand.” And one of the things I really want to get across to everybody is your surviving if you’re staying in the relationship, it takes all kinds of courage to stay in there. And I think what victims know more than anybody is leaving is often the most dangerous times for victims of intimate partner violence, because when they’re leaving, they’re taking control and threatening that power base of the perpetrator, who can retaliate in some very destructive ways when they feel all control leaving. Aside from the danger, I just want to go through a few other reasons that people may stay, I’ll lead with, sometimes they love the perpetrator, right? They got together because of love. There was some mutual respect going on. And it’s hard to say goodbye to that love. More often than not, I think in both of the stories, the one that Kristin told today and I told him the last episode, victims end up normalizing behavior and believe that abuse is normal. So they minimize it. And I have had many people come into my office where maybe I’m a guardian ad litem who they don’t even recognize that they were abused. I ask it so many different ways. And they said, “Oh, yeah, there was that time that he choked me out and held me against the wall. And I sort of passed out and fell on the floor.” But it took me asking it four or five different ways. There’s a lot of embarrassment or shame, right? How could I let this happen to me, if you’re in an LGBTQ relationship, and you’re not out, you’re really worried about being outed, as part of the leaving process we see very frequently in the South, particularly cultural and religious reasons that serve as part of the glue that keeps them in that abusive relationship. And we also see a lot of concerns about immigration status; that the abusive partner holds some control over the victims immigration status. And as you might imagine, and I think we really want to keep hitting home, the inability or perceived inability by the victim to exist financially outside of the relationship serves as a really big reason. It takes victims an average of seven times to leave before they stay away. And that is legitimate. We do not want to shame anyone, we don’t walk in your shoes. And I want everybody to know when they run across the victim, that those are the statistics. It’s a hard personal decision./
KF Absolutely. And then once the person is finally able to leave, what remedies are available to them?
DS So Jenni walked us through some of the remedies that we are all familiar with; the calling of law enforcement, the filing of criminal charges. For victims of intimate partner violence in every state, there is a process to obtain a civil order. Here, it’s called a temporary protective order. I think in many places across the country it’s called that as well, and the temporary protective order, once you prove what you need to prove, is an order that will be issued that will keep the perpetrator some distance away from you. And if the court finds it’s appropriate, away from the children as well, and will provide some of the other remedies that a victim needs in order to separate his or herself from the perpetrator. To get a temporary protective order, the process typically is you can go and get it on an ex parte basis, which means you don’t have to have an attorney and your partner does not have to be present. You’ve just got to go and say, these are the acts of intimate partner violence that are occurring and a very short term, temporary protective order will be issued. You’ll then be called back into court to try to extend that order, in some cases for up to 12 months to protect, you the victim-survivor, from the perpetrator going forward.
KF Right? And that can also take place if someone is being stalked, right?
DS Right. More and more these days, we are seeing intimate partner violence paired with stalking or frequently may just be stalking. And it can be – make no mistake, very damaging, personally, professionally and to your family.
KF I’ve had clients that I’ve represented where we’ve had to get a stalking protective order. You know, one that comes to mind is where I represented a young woman who was a freshman in college and she’d innocently given her phone number to a man who she met on campus at a religious community event. But after like a period of time, he started approaching her like he wanted to be in a relationship and she was like, “No;” that’s like not at all what she thought it was going to be. And she asked him to stop contacting her, but he didn’t and he was texting her, emailing her. And after she blocked him from those, he went to social media and he was able to find where she attended church, where she lived, because as we know, a lot of those things are on our Facebook pages when we check in places and he would just show up at those places without her having any idea how he knew or definitely not wanting him to be there. So luckily, we were able to get an order in place that kept him from doing that anymore.
DS Right, and that stalking behavior can escalate even more. So that is dangerous, infringes on your right to safety and privacy in the first instance. But we frequently see that they escalate over time as well.
KF So in talking about those orders that we get for people, there’s going to be a lot of issues that are addressed. You know, particularly when you have people who are married and have children, there’s things that need to be addressed, like the custody of the kids, visitation, child support, the use of the family residence, who’s going to be able to stay there? And the return of personal property. What we know is that a child witnesses violence in 22% of intimate partner violence cases filed in court. There was another study in North America that found that children who were exposed to violence in the home were 15 times more likely to be physically and/or sexually assaulted than the national average. And so in thinking about how we protect children, when they’re coming from a family that has intimate partner violence, we have to be very intentional about creating a parenting plan or visitation schedule between the parents that protects them.
DS Yeah, I want to jump in because it’s this myth that is out there, that if there are any ill effects of domestic violence between the grownups on children, that they’re minimal and short term. And that is simply not what the data shows us. Science shows that exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety, and that can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain. I want y’all to pause guys, that disrupts the developing architecture of the brain in kids. Now, we struggle with convincing judges of this and the more enlightened judges know this, but these events are traumatic, and we know have lifelong consequences. You know, the CDC has done studies and looked at these type of adverse childhood experiences that indicate that these children who develop into adults have more health problems including pulmonary disease, heart disease, hepatitis, obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases and depression. And more troubling is the fact that we know that children who witnessed domestic violence are more likely than children who don’t witness to become victims of abuse themselves at some later time. So it’s serious, right? If we’re not worried about the grownups, at least be worried about the children.
KF Those statistics are so jarring. And so you know, you have to think about how do we protect children with balancing the idea that we want to protect them. But also, I do think that there’s value in children having time with both of their parents and balancing that with how do we do that? There are times, and I’ve had cases where the violence within the relationship is such that there needs to be some type of supervised visitation between the parent and the child. And if there’s supervised visitation that can look like the parent being able to visit the child with a professional supervisor present, who can monitor what’s going on, monitor the words that are being said between the parents and the child because that emotional abuse, you know, you can’t see with your eyes. But also there are agencies, there are supervising agencies, where the visitation can actually take place in that location. There’s a price associated with that. Is there a family member or a friend or a neutral person that you trust to be present while your spouse, or the father of that child, or the other parent of that child is spending time with the child, and that could look like a grandparent or a friend. And sometimes that’s hard to do when there is such a lack of trust and so much hostility between the parties, like finding a third party who can really do that. Is that your experience to, Dawn?
DS Yeah, that’s my experience, too. And I think I would add in about why there’s a need for supervised visitation and intimate partner violence cases is one is certainly the emotional trauma to the child and we want to make sure that we hear what’s going on, but so often when the perpetrator loses all other areas of control, then their ability to control the other partner is centered in the children. So frequently, they will use the child via communication of messages, interrogating the child and doing other things to gain information from the child about the partner that needs to be protected. That’s why we have supervised visitation. Every jurisdiction has a visitation center that’s set up for some nominal fee that can be used. It’s not a really naturalistic setting, right? You don’t go hang out with your kid at a stranger’s house. But you know, if you’ve been engaging in intimate partner violence, you’ve sort of lost the ability to choose where you’re going to go hang out with your child. So those are really important safety mechanisms that we can put into place in parenting plans. As well, you know, because we know that the exchanges and parenting time will be an area of control, where will pick up and drop offs be? Let’s have them be at school more often than not. In cases of intimate partner violence, I frequently have pickup and drop offs be at neutral locations. You know, we used to joke in Atlanta that there was a Texaco up on the north side of town that had more people on a Friday afternoon picking up and dropping kids off because you could go inside and buy a pack of gum and get a time stamped receipt and show that you were there on time.
KF You had a client who they were going to the gas station to make the exchanges, and the other parent would still be abusive and park the car right behind her car so that she couldn’t get out to be able to leave when she wanted to leave or would bang on the car, if he was upset about something. And so sometimes, you may start in one place and realize you know what, I thought this was going to be safe enough. But sometimes you realize, okay, there needs to be an added level of safety here.
DS Absolutely. Parenting plans in intimate partner cases, a lot of times we get very specific about where you go to drop off, there’s a 15 minute window and allowing the parent with the child to leave if the other party doesn’t show up, because that’s another method of control. It’s every way you could think of using power and control. They’ll think of it and use it.
KF Even at supervision agencies, many will have a protocol in place where there’s a staggered, drop off and pick up time so that you’re not having to interact. When you do that one parent comes, dropped the child off and then the other parent comes 20 minutes later, 15 minutes later, so that it’s staggered. And that’s really, even the emotional distress of a victim seeing their abuser and knowing that they’re having to leave their child can be extremely triggering. So that’s a good option as well.
DS Frequently in parenting plans we also do things like put communication tools, there are several apps both that you can use on your phone or on your computer, to have communication with the other parent, particularly when they need to be tracked in a fashion that allows you the professional oversight in the form of a court guardian ad litem or parenting coordinator. Some of these apps have tone meters that will not allow you to send the email unless you adjust your tone. You know, it is the court, more and more and certainly the survivors should, use legal counsel or seek other counsel that can talk them through what do we need to do to be really tight about keeping this safe so that we make sure to the maximum extent possible that the perpetrator doesn’t continue to perpetrate as part of the parenting plan that is put into place.
KF The purpose of this episode is to empower people and to let them know that you do have options. There are resources available to you and people who want to help. So we’re trying to drop those nuggets now and also provide resources to help people along their journey, wherever you are in the journey, of either recognizing this as happening, recognizing what’s happening with someone else, making that first step to exit it. Or maybe you’re on the other side of it. There are resources available at every section of the journey.
DS And I would tag on to that as well in that we know that you’re fearful about leaving and what will happen to your children. And we want you to know that this is not the court’s first rodeo in cases of intimate partner violence, and that there are mechanisms that can be put in place for safety.
KF Absolutely. The more experience that I get and the more people who I meet who are going through this, the more compassion I develop and the more empathy I develop. It’s so easy to judge someone who’s in this situation. It’s so easy from the outside looking in to say, “This is so crazy, like he is beating you.” But this isn’t a situation where, you know, you check all the boxes, and you should just be able to get up and leave. It is extremely hard and emotional and…
DS Right. But what I also want to say is that there’s hope, right? I may never be as strong as some of the people that are enduring what they’re enduring right now. But what I do know from having witnessed this and been honored enough to be a part of the solution, is that there’s hope. I know there can be happiness after the nightmare that folks find themselves in, I know they’re deserving of love, and that there can be love in their future and that they will heal I want to hold that hope for the people who maybe aren’t there yet and can’t take a hold of it for themselves. You know, one thing all these years on this planet has done for me is allowed me to see it play out. And I know that there’s love in everybody’s future.
KF Something I tell clients often is that I know you can’t see the other side of the tunnel yet. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to see the other side of the tunnel for other people and say to them, I know there is another side you cannot see it yet. I’ve seen it and you will get there. And when you get there, you’re gonna say, “Wow, didn’t know this existed, but it does.”
DS Kristen, I know that you and I decided to do this podcast because we wanted to open up our office doors for the conversations that we had with each other about our personal lives and about what we see in our professional lives, and we have fun together. And we laugh together and we frequently cry together. And I think you and I both have felt from doing these past two episodes, the heaviness of this because it is hard when we bring it all together like this. I feel like what we’re doing is respecting the journey that a lot of our listeners and a lot of survivors are going through in taking it this seriously.
KF Absolutely.
DS Thank you for sticking with us these past two episodes on this very important topic. We thank you again Jenni Stolarski and look forward to you joining us again on Untying the Knots.
DS If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, The Hotline provides lifesaving tools and immediate support to empower victims and survivors to find safety and live free of abuse, you can visit their website at the hotline.org. You can find your local domestic violence service provider through the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic violence at GCADV.org. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website is NCADV.org.
KF If you would like to know more about the topic we discussed today, you can find show notes and resources on our website, which will be linked in the episode description.
DS Untying the Knots is a production made in partnership with FRQNCY Media. I’m your host Dawn Smith.
KF And I’m Kristin Files. Enna Garkusha is our producer. Episode research is by Jessica Olivier, Becca Godwin and Vincent Mitchell.
DS We are recording in Atlanta, Georgia during the pandemic.
DS We want to thank all essential workers and those who are doing their best to keep us healthy and safe.