‘She must have done something wrong’

Posted on 18 October 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Because fit mothers are losing custody and children are being harmed, supporters of Safe Child Act want to make sure family court focuses on child safety over parents rights

domestic violence awareness month

And in danger of losing custody of her children.
That’s where Bonnie Roy found herself while trying to get a divorce in Minnesota 10 years ago.
Because of her own experience and the stories she’s heard, Roy has dedicated herself to positive change in the laws around family court that prioritize the safety and well-being of children.
She’s attended the New York Battered Women’s Custody Conference, and events by the Center for Judicial Excellence and Protective Mothers Alliance International. She’s worked to bring well-known domestic violence advocates Barry Goldstein, who authored the Safe Child Act as well as “The Quincy Solution,” and Lundy Bancroft, who authored “Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men” to Minnesota to provide trainings to therapists and other family court professionals.
And she’s worked hard to counter this statement made by so many: Well, she must have done something wrong to lose custody.
Of the moms she knows who lost legal custody and got reduced parenting time, none had criminal convictions or had been in criminal court. There was no determination of negligence or endangerment. “They hardly had a speeding ticket,” said Roy.
“People just assume lawmakers and judges are looking out for children – and they’re not.
“The public needs to get informed.”

Evidence ignored as ’heresay’
What is the contributing factor to women losing custody? Not being heard on the evidence they have, according to Roy.
She pointed to cases like that of her friend, Leigh Ann Olson Block, whose evidence of domestic violence was ignored by the Ramsey County Family Court. Having been given joint legal custody and over 50% of the parenting time, Highland High School graduate John Tester murdered their daughter Mikayla the weekend before she would have started kindergarten in September 2004.
This isn’t an isolated case. Since 2008, the Center for Judicial Excellence has identified 748 children who were murdered by a divorcing or separating parent. Among those are 11-year-old William and 8-year-old Nelson Schladetzky, who, along with their mother, Kjersten, were murdered by their father and Whittier International Elementary School PTO president David last November in South Minneapolis.
Once you step into family court, evidence that would be heard in a criminal court gets thrown out, said Roy, who has talked to many women in Minnesota over the years about their experiences in family court. The evidence is labeled “heresay.” Women are labeled as having made “false allegations” and in some cases children are taken away because they’re seen as “alienators” and accused to trying to alienate children from their fathers, a theory that is not supported by research, she observed. Women are even punished for cooperating with child protection investigations.
Minnesota courts are taking children away from their primary caretakers without a determination of neglect or endangerment. You can’t do this in criminal court, but it happens in family court, pointed out Roy.
This is a widespread problem, one that researcher Joan Meiers and team from Georgetown University studied in depth, pointed out Roy. After looking at more than 2,000 custody case appeals involving child abuse, domestic violence and parental alienation nationwide, researchers found that women are losing custody when they bring up domestic violence. When a woman states there was domestic violence in the home (against her, the children or both) and the man counters by claiming she is alienating the kids from him, she loses custody 44% of the time. When claims of sexual abuse is involved, the mother loses custody 81% of the time.
In family court today, claims of abuse by mothers are only believed 23% of the time when alienation is claimed by the father.
This was the case for Block, whose evidence of stalking, abuse and more that was downplayed and ignored in family court. (Read past article on Block online here)
Block was told: “‘You need to stop pushing his buttons.’
“His buttons? He was trying to kill us,” said Block.
A woman may have an order for protection in place against her abuser, but she’s still instructed by the family court to engage in co-parenting in a joint custody situation. “They don’t factor that in,” said Roy. “It is shocking to most people.”

Current law doesn’t make child safety the priority
Minnesota Statute 518.17 lists 13 factors to be evaluated during custody cases. The statute states that the court should consider the best interests of the child and should not prefer one parent over the other, and one factor deals specifically with domestic abuse. But Roy and Block have seen too many cases where domestic violence isn’t factored into a judge or referee’s decision on a custody case.
Because of that, they’re working to replace this language with the Safe Child Act.
“There is no current law that says safety of the child has to be taken first,” said Roy.
“We’re trying to make children’s safety a priority in family court by passing the Safe Child Act,” stated Block.
The Minnesota bill needs a sponsor.
“It’s not a father’s rights issue or a mother’s rights issue,” said Block. “It’s a people’s issue.”
“The issue is children not being heard,” said Roy.

‘No sense to this’
“Abusive fathers are more likely to get custody of their children than mothers,” said Roy. “In law and logic – there’s no sense to this.”
In some of the families, a Guardian Ad Litem had been assigned to the case. The guardian is supposed to assess a child’s situation and then make recommendations to the court about a child’s best interest.
However, a 2018 report by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor found that they are failing children. “There are no training standards,” pointed out Roy. “The training they have is a minimal baseline. Those who lack relevant professional education are making critical decisions that create horrific outcomes.”
The results of the audit didn’t surprise Roy or Block, who have heard story after story of how guardians without training in psychology or domestic violence ignore abuse when a mother or child brings it up. Instead, they’re told they need to get along with the father and co-parent.
“You can’t co-parent with an abuser,” said Roy.
In many of these cases, mothers end up losing custody because the guardian made the determination that a mother bringing up issues of abuse meant she was making false allegations and/or engaged in parental alienation. Decisions are also being made based on the old research that children act out when there is abuse or that women made false claims of abuse to gain an advantage in custody court.
The Safe Child Act would address some of these issues by stipulating that a common intake form is used by all guardians, and that judges would also be educated on how to use the assessment tool. The SAFeR Approach has been developed by the Minneapolis-based Battered Women’s Justice Project, and helps practitioners screen for and understand the full nature, context and effects of abuse so that they can respond with safe and workable parenting arrangements. SAFeR can be used by attorneys, advocates, judicial officers, custody evaluators, guardians ad litem and survivors, and is implemented through the use of worksheets and practice guides.
“The bottom line is that when the Safe Child Act is passed, it will change the dynamics of family court,” said Roy. “It will force the court to look at the dynamics that haven’t been recognized and the abuse cases that are labeled high conflict.
“It’s accountability on everyone’s part.”
The act builds upon House Congressional Resolution 72, which says child safety is the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications, and that state courts should improve how they manages custody where family violence is alleged.
According to the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, an estimated 58,000 U.S. children a year are court-ordered into the unsafe custody or care of abusive parents, over the objections of caring parents.
Right now, too often, “the rights of the father outweigh the health and safety of the mother and child,” said Roy. She wishes the system would do away with the word “custody,” as it becomes a tool used by an abuser. “The abuser looks at it as a piece of property. They will spend a million dollars to get custody,” observed Roy.
“Why did the mother lose custody when all she did was try to protect the child and try to protect their life?”
The Safe Child Act would prioritize keeping the main caretaker the same, recognizing that this has been shown by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies to be better for kids.
“One of the most important findings from the ACE Studies is that fear leading to stress rather than physical injuries cause most of the damage. The essence of domestic violence is that abusers use a variety of tactics to coerce, scare and intimidate the victim to do what the abuser wants. The fear that is engendered in both the mother and children causes a lifetime of health and other problems,” pointed out Barry Goldstein, who authored the Safe Child Act and wrote “The Quincy Solution: Stop Domestic Violence and Save $500 Billion.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan along with the National Institute of Justice looked at what happens when the alleged abuser wins custody and a safe, protective mother who is the primary attachment figure for the child, is limited to supervised or no visitation. “The Saunders’ study found that these decisions are always wrong because the harm of denying children a normal relationship with their primary attachment figure, a harm that includes increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide, is greater than any benefit the court thought it was creating,” pointed out Goldstein. “One reason for the mistake is the courts rarely compare the known risk of separating children from their primary parent with the often-speculative risk they are using to justify the extreme decision.”

Fit mothers losing custody under the radar
“If a divorce was not contentious, you would be able to sit down and you wouldn’t have to go in front of a judge,” pointed out Roy.
Of the 3.8% of cases that require trial, a large majority (75-90%) are domestic violence cases involving the most dangerous abusers, according to Goldstein. “These are fathers who believe the mother has no right to leave so they are entitled to use any tactics necessary to regain what they believe is their entitlement to control their partners.”
He added, “Inadequately trained professionals often fail to recognize the danger because most of these fathers have not committed the most severe physical assaults. But these abusers are willing to hurt their children by taking them from mothers who are usually the primary attachment figures, abusing the children and in extreme cases killing them. Courts rarely look for patterns to help understand domestic violence, but in the last 10 years over 700 children involved in contested custody have been murdered, mostly by abusive fathers.”
Men who abuse women are 40-60% more likely to abuse children physically and sexually, and domestic violence makes child neglect more likely, pointed out Goldstein.
Because the Saunders’ study found that the standard and required training in domestic violence obtained by evaluators, judges, lawyers and guardians ad litem do not qualify them to respond effectively to domestic abuse allegations, the Safe Child Act would require specific training.
It would also requires the use of current scientific research to inform court decisions, instead of the personal beliefs, biases and invalid theories used instead. The idea that a woman makes false allegations of abuse in family court leads to judges imposing punishments and retaliation against the mother – not recognizing the court is punishing the children, pointed out Roy.
“A fit mother is losing custody to an abuser,” said Roy. “That’s the part that is going under the radar.”



Each year, thousands of children in Minnesota are involved in court cases related to abuse, neglect, custody, and other matters. In some of these cases, the courts appoint a guardian ad litem to help ensure the child’s needs are not overlooked during the court process. Guardians ad litem assess a child’s situation and make recommendations to the court about a child’s best interests.

What does it take to be a GAL?
– 40 hours of training and and a bachelor degree (field is not specified)
– Training in child psychology, Cluster B personality disorders, or domestic violence is not required.

Key findings of 2018 legislative audit:
– The GAL program has not had sufficient oversight.
– Not all are complying with required training.
– It has established few standards to ensure guardians ad litem provide high-quality services statewide.
– The program needs greater financial oversight and regular reviews.



25 common dangerous
mistakes caused by failing
to use current research

1) Asking abuse victims to just “get over it.”
2) Minimizing the full harm caused by domestic violence and child abuse.
3) Assuming the end of a relationship ends the risk from an abuser.
4) Assuming abuse that is not recent has little impact on children.
5) Focusing only on physical abuse.
6) Failure to understand the significance of the fear and stress caused by abuse.
7) Failure to focus on the assistance and protection children need in order to heal from exposure to abuse.
8) Mistaken assumptions that very young children cannot be harmed from witnessing domestic violence.
9) Pressuring victims to interact and cooperate with their abusers.
10) Failure to use a multi-disciplinary approach to domestic violence and child abuse cases.
11) Using non-probative factors like returning to an alleged abuser or not following up on a request for a protective order or the failure to have police or medical reports to discredit reports of abuse.
12) Failure to look for a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior to recognize domestic violence.
13) Failure to consider which party is afraid of the other in adjudicating domestic violence.
14) Failure to guard against the ability of abusers to manipulate witnesses and professionals.
15) Failure to consider factors that are associated with a higher risk of lethality in resolving domestic violence.
16) Failure to consider an alleged abuser’s past and future relationships when investigating reports of domestic violence.
17) Treating an alleged abuser’s good behavior in public as if it provides proof about his behavior in private.
18) Treating evaluators who fail to discuss ACE and Saunders or are unfamiliar with the research as if they are qualified to respond to domestic violence cases.
19) Treating any professional who recommends a harmful outcome case as if they are qualified to respond to domestic violence cases.
20) Failure to discuss which parent is the primary attachment figure and how that affects the children regarding the possible outcomes.
21) Failure to guard against gender-biased approaches and assumptions.
22) Failure to understand the importance of holding abusers accountable.
23) Recognizing that court professionals that focus on the myth that mothers frequently make false allegations or unscientific alienation theories reveals more about their lack of qualifications for domestic violence cases than the circumstances in the case.
24) Failure to understand that child sexual abuse is far more common than previously realized and most abuse is committed by someone the child knows.
25) Assumptions that men who are successful in other parts of their lives are unlikely to abuse women and children.
~ Compiled by Barry Goldstein, author of the Safe Child Act

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You don’t have to leave to seek help

Posted on 15 July 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Casa de Esperanza offers hope, resources to help families live free of violence

Local and national staff, along with Carmen Yulín Cruz (mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico), and Teresa Rodriguez, from Univision, who served as the emcee of Casa de Esperanza’s 35th Anniversary Gala, Adelante Esperanza in May 2018.

Need someone to walk with you as you get out of domestic violence? That’s what Casa de Esperanza offers women, children and men.
It’s hard to nail down exactly what the Midway non-profit Casa Esperanza does because they do a little bit of everything.
Teresa Burns currently manages the Casa de Esperanza shelter, and worked as an advocate before that. “I have done everything from accompany a mom for her ultrasound to registering kids for school,” she observed.
Domestic abuse overlaps with every aspect of life, she pointed out, including physical health, safety, mental health, public benefits, education, criminal court, housing, and more. So Casa de Esperanza does too.
“Domestic violence isn’t an isolated topic. It impacts someone’s entire life. So our advocacy matches that,” said Burns.
“I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to be part of an organization that has a dedicated group of advocates and other staff that give their all, each and every day. We believe community is the answer to ending domestic violence. We must all work together to make that happen,” stated Casa de Esperanza CEO Patti Tototzintle.

Rights and options
Casa de Esperanza offers Minnesota’s only 24-hour bilingual domestic violence helpline: 651-772-1611. Staff conduct an intake over the phone to help figure out what assistance is needed. In-person meetings are done at a location the caller identifies as comfortable and easy to access, observed Burns. Sometimes that is in their own house or that of a friend. Sometimes it is at a coffee shop that offers some privacy.
“The role of the advocate is to inform and to advocate,” explained Burns. The advocate gives information on options, and helps think through pros and cons. The advocate shares resources and encouragement. “Once a decision is made, our job is to help,” added Burns.
“Big picture, we make sure someone is aware of their rights and knows what their options are.”
Advocates attend order for protection hearings, accompany people to appointments, and help them navigate the various systems out there.
Staff work within the Hennepin County Domestic Abuse Service Center in the basement of the government center in downtown Minneapolis, and at the Bridges to Safety office at St. Paul City Hall.
Advocates help fill out and get copies of police reports, and offer walk-in hours at the Midtown Safety Center, 2949 Chicago Ave. across from the Global Market. (This office was damaged in the Uprising after George Floyd’s death.) They also collaborate with the Mexican consulate, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and the Tubman Center. They have staff at various high schools, including El Collegio (4137 Bloomington Ave.) and Longfellow High School in Minneapolis, and Agape High School in St. Paul.
Staff operate El Refugio, a 12-person shelter in St. Paul that is open to anyone in the state. While it is one of the smallest shelters in the state, it is part of the Day One network of service providers in Minnesota. They serve about 35 families each year in the shelter, and about 300 families overall through their programs.
Formed in 1982, Casa de Esperanza (or House of Hope) is recognized as the largest, most respected Latina organization in the country focused on ending gender-based violence and is increasing its capacity to respond to sexual assault and human trafficking. Through the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities, they offer training and technical assistance across the country; advance public policy initiatives; and lead community-based research on the intersections of domestic violence and Latina realities.
Casa de Esperanza staff work with clients to identify goals. They base their work on the belief that each person is the expert on their own situation. “I don’t know this person that is using abuse against you. You know this person. I’m here to talk through it with you,” said Burns.

COVID-19 effects
During the Stay at Home/Stay Safe order, phone calls have doubled, but most people are staying put for now. Domestic violence programs across the state are expecting an influx of calls after the order ends and people go back to work. They know they’re not hearing from people who are isolated, and don’t have the opportunity to make safe calls.
Calling for help is one of the things that sparks violence, Burns pointed out, and leaving is one of the most dangerous times for a survivor and children.
Some are using COVID-19 as a threat against their victims, which includes refusing to exchange children, and exposing others to the virus. Some threaten that if a call for help is made, they’ll say they have coronavirus so that no one will come assist the survivor.
If you’re experiencing physical abuse or property damage, Burns encourages you to take a photo and send it to a safe location such as a Google drive or a friend, and then delete it from your phone.
Police reports can be filed after the fact, and having evidence of scratches, bruising or damage can be part of that.
They can also be used when filing an order for protection (OFP), used when there is a romantic relationship past or present, the parties live together, or share children together. Another option is to file a harassment order, which has broader criteria than an OFP, or a No Abuse order.
Burns stressed that even with the Stay at Home/Stay Safe order, people can still seek shelter, and domestic violence programs are still operating across the state. Casa Esperanza has a webpage devoted to COVID-19 resources.
Organizations are partnering with hotels to offer more social distancing and to boost the capacity.
One of the most common things an abuser does is isolate a victim and block their ability to connect with friends and family, so Burns urges people to reach out to someone they haven’t heard from in awhile to check in.

‘All of us know someone’
“Statistically all of us know someone in an abusive relationship,” said Burns.
Domestic violence impacts all cultural and ethnic groups at the same rate of 28-33%, Burns said. “It looks different in every culture and country.”
For Latinas in the Twin Cities, domestic violence often has a component associated with the threat of deportation. “There are a lot of misconceptions about people’s rights, even when people have legal status and are doing everything according to the books,” said Burns. “There are a lot of fears and stories,” some related to the historic trauma migrant workers have experienced in Minnesota.
Language is also a barrier. Asking for help is hard, and asking for help in a language that is not your native language makes it even tougher. “The legal system across nations looks really different,” Burns observed, and many refugees come with a distrust of state institutions. Many people don’t know what their legal rights are, and don’t know that some things are basic human rights.
“People are able to seek protection under the law regardless of immigration status,” Burns said.

Why don’t they just leave?
“There’s not one specific reason,” stressed Burns. It’s a combination of factors.
Finances are one barrier, especially in an economic crisis when unemployment is high. “The idea of picking up and leaving – especially with children – may just be unrealistic,” she pointed out. Within the Latina community, many people are already working two to three jobs to make ends meet. Plus it is often still expected that a woman will stay home, so she will need to build a whole new skill set to be formally employed. That might include language access, education and training – which costs money to get. Many Latinas had high-paying jobs in their home countries but can no longer work at those in the United States because they have to re-earn their certifications.
Throw in kids, school, and activities on top of the low-paying job and it can be very difficult. A two-bedroom apartment at market rate is $1,100 a month, and to afford that a person needs to make a liveable wage of $19 an hour.
Women don’t leave because things are not black and white, and there’s a lot of gray matter, Burns observed.
“Life is complicated. Abusive relationships are not abusive all the time.”
The partner who uses abuse isn’t always like that, she stressed. It isn’t that every minute has been miserable. There are genuine good times. So, the good memories and the idea that the person can change keeps women in a relationship. “We all have a desire to love and be loved. It’s normal for a person to be torn,” she said.
Burns continues to believe that people who use abuse are capable of change – if they want to and it is self-initiated.
That said, she thinks people instinctively know that leaving will be very dangerous, and they recognize there will be consequences to splitting up.
“A survivor once told me: ‘The physical stuff, the bruises go away with time. What someone has said does not,” remarked Burns.
Women are told,”You are too dumb to learn English. No one else will ever love you. I’ll kill you if you leave.”
This emotional and verbal abuse, along with the physical, financial, and sexual abuse, also work against a survivor when they try to leave.
What is abuse? “It’s power and control over another person,” explained Burns. Much of this is achieved through fear, intimidation and threats. They may be told if they don’t stay, their vehicle will be damaged. The partner may punch holes in the wall so that the other has to pay the damages, which affects their financial well-being and ability to get another apartment.
Those who do leave often suffer post-separation abuse when the children are used to manipulate and threaten the other parent. The person who uses abuse may also turn the extended family and church community against the survivor so that they are cut off from support and resources. They may harass them at work, via social media, through cyber stalking, and through text messages. Because they are co-parenting, the survivor can’t block the abuse.

You don’t have to leave to seek help
Casa de Esperanza staff are mythbusters.
One of the most common swirls around the idea of “abandonment.” If someone leaves the home in Minnesota, they will not suffer any consequences associated with “abandonment,” which is common in other countries, said Burns. In Minnesota, property is owned jointly by both married parties and remains that way even if someone leaves.
On the other hand, if a child is born to an unmarried couple, the mother automatically has full legal and physical custody.
Those who don’t want to get divorced for religious reasons can opt for a legal separation instead.
And maybe the biggest myth is that people don’t have to leave a relationship to seek help.
More at casadeesperanza.org or call the 24-hour bilingual helpline at 651-772-1611.

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that can include physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or financial abuse. Some abusers are able to exert complete control over a victim’s every action without ever using violence or only using subtle threats of violence. Domestic violence is a pervasive, life-threatening crime that affects millions of individuals across the United States regardless of age, economic status, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ability, or education level. In a 24-hour survey, NNEDV found that U.S. domestic violence shelters and programs served 74,823 victims and answered 19,459 crisis hotline calls in one day alone. ~ Information from NNEDV

Bridges to Safety
>> Bridges to Safety provides personal and legal advocacy, filing of Orders for Protection, civil legal services, police and prosecution consultation, child care while participants are receiving services, and referral to shelter, permanent and transitional housing, employment, supervised visitation, personal counseling, and other community partners.

>> It is a collaborative of 18 St. Paul and Ramsey County agencies, bound together by a long and successful history of working together and by an interagency agreement.

>> It is located at the Saint Paul City Hall in the heart of downtown, 15 West Kellogg Boulevard, Room 140.

Helpful apps
Casa de Esperanza is developing an app. In the meantime, here are two others to consider:
>> DocuSAFE is a free documentation and evidence collection app recently released by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).

>> VictimsVoice provides a legally admissible way for victims to document abuse incidents in a safe, secure, consistent, and complete manner through an annual subscription. Financial help available. It can’t be found in an app store but is available at victimsvoice.app.

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Current Law on Custody & Parenting Time

Assume mothers get custody of kids in domestic abuse cases? Think again.

Posted on 10 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Violence Free Minnesota Executive Director points out abuser more likely to get custody in contested cases than mom

Over the past 40-year history, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW) has witnessed huge changes in how society thinks about domestic violence but there is still more work to be done, according to its executive director Liz Richards.
There are still plenty of myths to be dispelled.
“While we are proud of our history, the landscape of our work and the movement to end violence is more complex and challenging than ever. The movement to end relationship abuse must be highly iterative and adaptive,” said Richards. “As advocates and survivors, we continuously search for new and innovative ways to end relationship violence in Minnesota and beyond. This is why we are excited to embrace our new identity as Violence Free Minnesota: The Coalition to End Relationship Abuse.”

Fathers getting children more when mothers bring up domestic violence
Richards is proud of the progress her organization has made for women in Minnesota.
“In 1978, if you were experiencing domestic violence, you had few options,” she pointed out. “If you fled, there was no place to go. If you called the police, there was no crime.”
Today, there are shelters, organizations aimed at helping survivors, support groups, and laws that protect those in abusive situations.
Yet, there still remains a disconnect between that progress and family court. “What goes on in family court doesn’t mirror that,” remarked Richards.
Instead, new research done by Professor Joan Meier at George Washington University Law School shows what is actually happening in family court.
“The general presumption is that moms get custody in divorce cases,” observed Richards. While that may be true when you look at all of divorce cases, those where couples can agree on what to do about their kids, it isn’t true when domestic violence is a factor.
Current Law on Custody & Parenting Time In contested cases, a father is just as likely to get custody as a mother, Richards pointed out, citing Meier’s research.
And what shocks people is what happens when there’s domestic violence.
“If you look at the contested cases with domestic violence against the mother or child abuse by the father against the child, fathers are more likely to gain custody,” said Richards.

The study looked at more than 2,000 custody cases involving child abuse, domestic violence, and parental alienation nationwide. There is no study specific to Minnesota and no state agency that looks specifically at domestic violence, but Richards believes that Minnesota mirrors what has been found at a national level.
“When there are contested cases and domestic violence, fathers are receiving custody more frequently,” stated Richards.

Why is this happening?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but Richards thinks that part of the answer lies in how the family court system has evolved.
She began her career as a family law attorney who worked in Hennepin, Ramsey and Chisago counties before taking a job with the MCBW 10 years ago.
Richards believe that part of the problem is that so many parties are unrepresented by legal council, and lack the knowledge and guidance of an attorney. Part of that is because of high fees for legal services that stretch over years. “You have parties showing up not understanding the system,” observed Richards.
At the same time the caseload of judicial officers has grown tremendously. Ancillary court services have been cut – Hennepin County is the only one in the state that still offers custody evaluations. These were the people who used to be able to spend more time with cases and provide the court with more outside data to determine what was happening within a family.
“We’ve got this perfect storm,” Richards remarked.
There’s been a movement within family court to streamline the process. “They keep looking for the thing that will make it better,” Richards said.
One Hennepin County judge began sitting down with both parties within a week or so after they filed for divorce to figure out what they could agree upon, and then set up a process for managing the finances and custody. It worked so well for that one judge that the county and then much of the state instituted it for everyone, giving it the name of Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC), which is followed by the FENE (Financial Early Neutral Evaluation) and the SENE (Social Early Neutral Evaluation). However, things are so backlogged now, it can take months for an ICMC to occur, and longer for the ENEs.
“Now instead of becoming a way to make things smooth, it’s become a roadblock,” observed Richards.
Then there’s the issue with requiring mediation between an abuser and a victim, she pointed out. It doesn’t account for the power imbalance found in abusive relationships.
Plus, it is set up in a way that further abuses the victim.
At an FENE or SENE, each person gets to tell their side of the story without comment from the other – even to correct blatant lies. And each side is paying for their attorney to be there but the attorneys aren’t allowed to speak as there is an attitude that they augment conflict. “The process in and of itself can be very damaging,” said Richards. It is only natural to want to respond when you hear mistruths, but participants have to ignore that.
“It’s just insane as a process,” said Richards.

‘We need a smorgasboard of options’
She doesn’t think there is one magic answer to the problems in family court. “We need a smorgasboard of options,” Richards said.
In some cases, the domestic violence that occurred isn’t relevant to a financial division or custody. It could have been an isolated incident that occurred at the end of the relationship when it was most stressful. But in other situations, the domestic violence played out for years through coercive control, financial manipulation, and psychological, sexual and physical abuse of one partner by the other. Sometimes there was direct physical and sexual abuse of the children, and other times emotional and psychological.
Richards believes the system needs to ask about domestic violence immediately, gather information on it, consider the context, and factor it in. “Who is doing what to whom, with what impact?”
That should be followed up with this question in custody cases: “What is the impact and effect on children?”
The Battered Women’s Justice Project in Minneapolis has created a system focused on this, pointed out Richards. Termed the SaFER Approach, staff are working to educate family court professionals across the country.

Kids affected when moms are abused
“We know there is a high correlation between those that engage in domestic violence and child abuse,” observed Richards.
Plus, research has shown that domestic violence in a home affects the children who live there, whether or not they are physically hurt.
“What we know about resiliency of children is definitely linked to support of the non-abusive parent,” said Richards.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t think the system in place is set up to adequately account for that.

‘It takes two’ is a myth
There is the idea in family court that there are two equal parties in a divorce. “The mantra is that it takes two,” observed Richards, and that both parties are engaged in conflict. These are then termed “high conflict” cases.
That doesn’t factor in the reality of domestic violence. Where there’s intimate partner violence, one person is exerting power and control over the other and is engaged in manipulating the system. “If you have a father who has been engaged in coercive control, they’re highly skilled in using these same tactics in the family court system,” said Richards.
For example, the abusive party may sets things up to make the other parent look inflexible when they’re trying to keep things consistent for the kids. The abusive parent works to create chaos by trying to change the schedule, not show up, or move the pick-up location.
“What is the other party supposed to do?” asked Richards. “It is assumed that both parties have the best interests of the children at heart. In a situation with domestic violence, one is trying to use the children as a tool for the manipulation. It’s just a set up.”
Richards said, “If you have one parent who is working to abuse and manipulate, what does it mean for the other parent to go along?”
She pointed out that some judicial officers do a better job than others at recognizing this dynamic. There aren’t any standards for training in domestic violence dynamics for judicial officers, and the system overall isn’t set up to adequately understand and recognize domestic violence.
The domestic violence organizations in the state are primarily shelter-based, and they’re dealing with the emergency shelter needs of their clients. There aren’t any that have the resources to also manage what happens after the emergency when the victim is in family court fighting an abuser.
“Some of these cases stretch on for years,” observed Richards. “This is a problem across the country.”
She believes that Minnesota’s 12 best interest factors in statute 518.17 used in determining custody arrangements are supposed to place the focus upon kids. But Richards acknowledges, “There is a breakdown in what the law says and how it gets implemented in court.”

Does a child need a parent who is not safe?
Part of the problem is the insistence that every child needs to have two parents, a belief Richards says is deeply ingrained in society. To that, Richards asked, “Do you think it matters if one of the parents is sexually abusing a child? Do you think it matters if one of the parents is physically abusive towards a child?”
What is best for children is to have two safe parents, stressed Richards. “But if it’s not safe parenting that’s happening, it’s not in the child’s best interest.”
She doesn’t believe that the standard should be equal access to both parents, and doesn’t support any change in state law that would make 50/50 parenting the base assumption.
“I think safe parenting has to be the standard,” Richards said.
Some argue that women make false claims of abuse to get their way in divorce cases. “I have yet to see one person claim domestic violence and it made their life better,” said Richards. “Most people who talk about domestic violence do because it’s happening in their lives.”
The incidences of false allegations are extremely rare, she said. “The parent most likely to make false allegations are fathers and not mothers.”
But this idea, like many others that show up in family court, are not driven by evidence. They’re driven by emotion, according to Richards. They’re myths that society has adopted as true.
“It plays out in people’s lives and it’s devastating,” she said.
Contact editor at tesha@MonitorSaintPaul.com. Read more articles in this series at http://monitorsaintpaul.com/category/voices-against-violence/


“HIGH CONFLICT” – To the court, “high conflict” can refer to cases that just won’t settle. To many mediators, it can mean that parties are unable to communicate effectively. To custody evaluators, it can refer to anything from frequent disagreements to severe, long-term domestic violence. Labeling a case as “high conflict” can often distract from what is actually going on, according to the Battered Women’s Justice Project. It can also disguise things as “high conflict” that are not conflict at all, like intimate partner abuse, child abuse, and child sexual abuse.

CONTESTED CASE – When parents can’t agree on custody and parenting time arrangements, it becomes a contested case and the court is involved in making the decisions.

“Alienation” – Sometimes called “parental alienation syndrome,” this theory has been rejected by the psychological definition book, the DSM-V, as it lacks any scientific basis. However, it is still being used in the family court system. Often used to limit protective mothers to supervised or no visitation, it assumes that problems in a relationship between an allegedly abusive father and the children must be caused by alienation. The most common context of alienation claims is that fathers accused of abuse counter with claims of alienation.

ICMC – The ICMC is the first appearance in Family Court. It is supposed to happen about 3 to 4 weeks after a filing for divorce.

FENE – A Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE) is part of the Alternative Dispute Resolution process in Minnesota divorce cases. An FENE involves a half-day session (or more) with a court-appointed neutral. This neutral is typically an experienced family law attorney, or a CPA familiar with the financial issues.

SENE – A Social Early Neutral Evaluation is a voluntary process parents may choose to participate in when they disagree about custody or parenting issues. Typically the SENE will involve both parties, both attorneys, and two court-appointed custody evaluators (one male and one female). During the session, each party (and his or her attorney) is given the opportunity to explain what they would like for a custody and parenting time arrangement, and why.


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What we’ve learned: Highlights from Intimate Partner Homicide Report

Posted on 10 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Diving deeper


Now in its 30th edition, the Femicide Report has a new name: the Intimate Partner Homicide Report coinciding with the renaming of the Minnesota Battered Women’s Coalition to Violence Free Minnesota.
Over three decades, at least 685 people were killed due to relationship abuse. The youngest victim was just 22 weeks old; the oldest was 88. Homicide victims include not only the victim of abuse, but people who tried to intervene to stop the violence: bystanders, first-responders, neighbors, friends, family, and children. Such victims represent the ripple effect of domestic violence and how it permeates communities. In sharing their stories, we chip away at the discredited notion that domestic violence is a private, family affair to invite public discourse and action towards a violence free future.

Power and control
While public perception of relationship abuse often emphasizes long histories of physical violence and noticeable injuries, relationship abuse is about a larger pattern of power and control.
People who abuse feel entitled to use physical, sexual, financial, and emotional tactics to control, isolate, and trap their partners. Relationships that have not previously involved physical abuse may involve long histories of humiliation, intimidation, and gaslighting that can culminate in an act of homicide. These tactics are used to instill fear in victims, increase compliance, and cause psychological injury. Victims who experience such abuse may gradually lose access to support services, become isolated from social networks, start to blame themselves, and believe they do not deserve better.
Abuse can look different in every relationship but always ties back to the same motivation: to gain and maintain power and control. Abusive partners may become horrifyingly creative in their tactics, including knowingly transmitting infections to victims and endangering their health; threatening or injuring their children and loved ones; responding with severe violence to rejection; monitoring their location and movements; controlling their access to healthy relationships; and undermining their mental and chemical health by sabotaging their recovery efforts. Many victims who have experienced pervasive levels of abuse report feeling helpless, confused, “crazy,” and defeated due to a gradual breakdown of their sense of self.

Children affected
Intimate partner homicides have a devastating impact on children, as well. CDC-Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations of the impact of childhood experiences on life-long health and well-being. The ACE research demonstrates that exposure to domestic violence can increase risk for physical, mental health, and substance abuse conditions. The impact of chronic domestic violence exposure in childhood was found to have long-term effects throughout the life span.
Impacts on minor children are seen throughout our 30 years of data: children who witnessed the homicide of a parent (22% of cases); children who were killed alongside their parent (16 children); and children killed as a method of coercion by an abusive partner (17 children). This data does not include the number of adult children who may have witnessed or were murdered alongside their parent. In many of the cases involving minor children, the need for protection was raised in a court proceeding or made known to another professional.
While some children are injured or killed as part of the relationship abuse against their parent, many more children are harmed by witnessing the violence. Over three decades, 151 cases of domestic violence homicide occurred with a child witnessing the murder. While experiencing and witnessing relationship violence negatively impacts children, research shows that children are most resilient and have the best emotional recovery when there is a strong relationship with the non-abusive parent. Safety of children is directly linked to the safety and support of victim-parents.
Selection of report above. Read the full report at https://www.vfmn.org/reports.

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Four murdered in Twin Cities

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Tesha Christensen

19 killed in intimate partner homicides in 2019

On Thanksgiving Day 2019, Raven B. Gant’s ex-boyfriend shot and killed her in front of her minor daughter in North Minneapolis. Later, over the holiday weekend, Kjersten Marie Schladetzky, and her two sons, William and Nelson were killed in a triple murder-suicide by their father and Kjersten’s ex-husband, David, in south Minneapolis.
Raven, Kjersten, William, and Nelson are Minnesota’s most recent confirmed intimate partner homicide victims. There have been 19 confirmed intimate partner homicide victims as of press time on Dec. 21.
On the morning of Dec. 1, David Schladetzky, 53, shot and killed his two sons, William, 11, and Nelson, 8, outside of their home at 2738 Oakland Ave. He then entered the house and shot and killed his ex-wife, Kjersten, 39, before killing himself. Police officers responded to calls of gunshots and found the two boys in the front yard. As officers arrived, they heard shots coming from inside the house. Kjersten and David’s bodies were later found inside the home. A divorce was finalized between the two in June 2019.
Randall Watkins, 41, faces a second-degree murder charge for the killing of 27-year-old Raven Gant, who was shot in the back. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office says it will seek an enhanced sentence in this case due to the presence of the child.
Intimate partner homicides have a devastating impact on children. Children are injured and killed. Additionally, witnessing the murder of a parent due to intimate partner homicide can have long-term adverse effects on children. In the Violence Free Minnesota 30-year retrospective on intimate partner homicide in Minnesota, a child witnessed the homicide of their parent in 22% of the 685 cases from 1989-2018.
“The safety of our children is directly linked to intimate partner violence of their parents,” said Violence Free Minnesota Executive Director Liz Richards. “Protecting our children is an essential part of our work to end intimate partner violence. We must find the words – and the solutions – to say that these deaths are the fatal result of power and control; and we can take action as a community to end intimate partner violence.”
Raven Gant, and Kjersten, William, and Nelson Schladetzky’s lives will be honored at an intimate partner homicide memorial on Jan. 28, 2020, and included in the 2019 intimate partner homicide report to be released on Oct. 1, 2020.
If you are a victim experiencing abuse, contact Day One at 866-223-1111 to connect with services.
Information courtesy of Violence Free Minnesota, formerly the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

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‘It should never have happened’

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Tesha Christensen

St. Paul mother warned officials ex-husband was dangerous before he killed child and himself


Leigh Ann Block visits the bench in Mattock’s Park in St. Paul dedicated to her daughter, Mikayla Olson Tester, who was murdered by her father on Labor Day weekend 2004 at age 5. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

Mikayla Olson Tester might be a happy 21-year-old woman today if the family court system had listened to the warnings of her mother.
Instead, it’s been 15 years since she was murdered by her own father, and the weight of not being believed by the court system still weighs heavily on mother Leigh Ann Block (fomerly Olson). She has spent the last 15 years putting together the pieces of this tragedy, trying to figure out how to prevent this from happening to anyone else.
“Fifteen years later I’m trying to protect women and children from going through what we did because I can’t save her,” said Block.
“It should never have happened.”

Calculated murder 2 weeks after he took daughter on
It was her father’s turn to have the five-year-old on Labor Day weekend 2004, right before she was going to start kindergarten at Randolph Heights School.
The Ramsey County court had given St. Paul resident John Tester, age 41, joint custody and over 50 percent parenting time, over the objections of Block.

Her ex-husband prevented Block from caring for Mikayla and threatened and intimidated them both. But the people she tried to get to protect her and Mikayla failed.
The police, a custody evaluator, mediator, attorneys, Referee Earl Beddow Jr., and Judge Michael F. Fetcsch didn’t pay attention to his threats, coercive control or post-separation abuse, and instead gave him the standard custody and parenting time schedule.
“I tried to do everything within my power to protect her but the law was not on my side,” said Block.
On that day 15 years ago, when Block answered the door of her home she shared with Mikayla, and saw two St. Paul police officers, she knew the news was bad.
It was the news a battered woman fears most.
“Mikayla is dead, isn’t she?”
Block knew without being told. She had received a strange call from her ex-husband earlier that day. He had instructed their only child to call Block and tell her they were going on a journey in a new car.
Tester then took his daughter to a rural Wisconsin road outside of Osceola on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004, shot her in the head, and then turned the gun on himself.
It was over three years since the couple had split up.
Tester’s sister-in-law, Gina, told the Star Tribune that Tester had done it to get back at Block.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Department called it a “cold and calculated murder” that took months to plan.
“I had warned the courts that Mikayla’s life was in danger,” said Block, a smart, capable and responsible woman.
But no one in the family court system believed her in time to save her daughter. The fact that no one in the justice system did anything to protect her daughter still haunts Block.
“Despite a well-documented history of threats to abuse me and my child, my ex-husband was allowed to have unsupervised visitation with our daughter,” said Block. “John’s abusive behavior did not affect the custody/parenting time decisions. It was clear to me that the domestic violence and threats to harm me and our daughter had no impact on the court.”
Mikayla’s funeral was held on the day she was supposed to start kindergarten.

Mikayla Olson Tester would have been 21 on Nov. 29, 2019. Because of her spirit, her mother Leigh Ann Block is still fighting for other kids in abusive situations with an unhealthy and dangerous parent. She was her mother’s “sweetie-girl.” Her daycare provider called her Cinderella and brought her to Mattock’s Park to play. She called herself “Mika” when she was little because she couldn’t say “Mikayla.” She loved her family, music, Disney princesses – especially Ariel, dressing up, playing with stuffed “aminals,” and her cat Smokey. Her mother remembers going on walks with godmother Kris, and Mikayla’s blond hair flying in the wind. “Feel the breeze, Mikayla Nicole,” Block would say.

Court wouldn’t let her protect daughter from father
Block’s attorney, Mark Anderson of Burnsville, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press shortly after Mikayla was murdered by her father that Block lived for her daughter. “She was a very, very dedicated mother; and she did everything she could to protect that little girl from people, but it was the one guy she could never do anything about because he had court-ordered visitation,” observed Anderson.
In their divorce decree, they shared joint legal custody. Tester was granted parenting time of 4.5 hours with Mikayla on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as from 9 a.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday on alternating weekends. “Even though I had sole physical custody, Mikayla’s father had over 50% of the parenting time and spent more quality time with our daughter. I ‘agreed’ to this arrangement because I had no choice,” said Block, after her first attorney, Martha Eaves (SMRLS), told her to “quit pushing John’s buttons.” Eaves also told Block that the courts would grant him 50% custody anyway.

Nightmare began after baby was born
Block graduated from Central High School in St. Paul in 1985, the same school her grandparents and mom had attended. She got a good job at Montgomery Ward, and met John Tester a year out of high school through mutual friends.
They dated off and on between 1986 and 1998, when they got married at Como Conservatory because they had a baby on the way.
Block remembers that Tester was competitive and compared himself to others constantly. He really enjoyed boating, and they had lots of fun on the weekends. But it wasn’t until she gave up her apartment and moved into “his house” on Palace St. (he never called it theirs even after they got married) to save money, that she felt trepidation about marrying him.
Things started gradually. Like many men, he didn’t really start showing his abusive side until their daughter was born when the focus was no longer on him, although Block can look back now and see some earlier red flags.
“It’s supposed to be the happiest time in your life when you have a baby,” observed Block, “but that’s basically when my nightmare began.”
From the time Mikayla was born, Block remembers that her ex-husband would get angry at the amount of care and attention Block gave her.
Sometimes he would pin her down on the bed and make her listen to their daughter’s screams in the next room.
They both agreed that Block would stop working when their daughter was born, and care for the baby, as well as manage the care for Block’s dad who was battling Stage 4 carcinoma cancer and lived with them. She was dependent upon her husband, and that was just how he wanted it.
She timed her trips out of the house to fall when Tester wasn’t home, and made sure she was back before he was. It wasn’t easy, though, as he called her regularly to make sure she was at home. He wanted to know exactly what she was doing when he wasn’t around and who she was with. He followed her from room to room to listen to her phone conversations. She started keeping journals to track what her husband was doing, and asked her best friend to hide them.
He started threatening to kill Block and their daughter on a weekly basis, sometimes while holding a large knife in his hand, and mimicking killing motions. Ten minutes later he would deny everything. The gaslighting became more regular.
“He was very smart,” said Block. “He never physically left marks.”
He told her she was fat and made fun of her crooked teeth. He told her that she’d never find anyone as great as himself if she left him. She remembers suffering from the cognitive dissonance of hearing him talk about how great he was and listening to the terrible things he said to her.
At night, when the baby was hungry and started to cry, he screamed at Block to “shut her up! Some of us have to work.”
Due to his rages and his frequent marijuana use, Block avoided leaving Mikayla home alone with him. “It’s a horrible thing to not want to leave your children with their father,” Block remarked.
At home, Block did all the childcare while Tester went boating or snowmobiling with his friends almost every weekend, but out in public Tester was a doting dad. In fact, five months before he murdered Mikayla, he took her to Disney World.
He tightly controlled their finances, and gave her a paltry $20 a week allowance. Friends and family helped Block buy diapers and other baby things.
She told herself that she was going to “stick it out” until Mikayla was in kindergarten.
Then came the day in March 2000, when she couldn’t stop herself from calling the police because she was so scared. It was a Saturday, and she had planned to buy tickets for “Bear in the Big Blue House.” Tester refused to let her leave the house, so she called her sister-in-law to tell her she couldn’t go. Angry, Tester ripped the cordless phone out of her hands. She ran to another room to use the old-fashioned wall phone, and told her friend that “things aren’t ok right now,” and returned upstairs. His behavior was so threatening that she grabbed the cordless phone again, ran out on the porch, and called 911. The phone went dead when he ripped the line out of the wall.
When the three squad cars arrived, Block asked herself, “What have I done? He’s going to kill me.”
She obtained her first order for protection (OFP), and he was banned from the house except to pick up Mikayla for visits. Angry that he’d been kicked out of “his house” due to an order for protection, Tester filed for divorce. Block had no money for another home, daycare, or an attorney.

Post-separation abuse
Fearing what Tester would do despite the OFP, Block put a baby monitor in the garage. Tester worked third shift, but one night she heard a noise in the garage and called the police. The cops found him inside with the hood of her vehicle up and a quart of oil sitting by the open gas tank. He told the cops he was just there to pick up some tools. He was arrested for violating the OFP.
The morning after Halloween, Block looked out the window of her new apartment, and her Blazer was missing again. She had changed the vehicle’s door key after an earlier suspicious incident, but not the ignition key. She reported it stolen, and three weeks later it was found wrapped around a tree in Rochester. It had been involved in a vehicular homicide when two kids took it on a joyride despite the passenger seat having been cut out.
Shortly after, Block flipped through the notebook she and Tester exchanged with their daughter, recording important details to share with the other parent. Inside, she found the ignition key to her Blazer.
Tester was letting her know he could get to her, despite the OFP and their divorce papers.
Before he murdered Mikayla, Tester quit his job in order to get his child support reduced, and then worked secretly for cash while receiving unemployment benefits.
Tester put Mikayla in the middle of Block and himself, because he couldn’t control Block any more as she started a new life with Mikayla. Mikayla started asking her mother distressing questions like, “why is Daddy mean?” One day Mikayla asked her mom if she was going to die. “No,” Block told her. “Why do you ask?” “Because Daddy said you were,” replied Mikayla. He told her that if mom starting dating that she wouldn’t love Mikayla anymore.
He stole and refused to return their daughter’s favorite stuffed animal, even though she had trouble sleeping without Hippity. He told their daughter she was fat.
Block was always on alert, waiting for the next thing to happen.
Tester continued to threaten Block and yell obscenities at her during exchanges of Mikayla. But when she told the officials involved in their case – the people she thought were supposed to help her – they didn’t give him any real consequences. After Tester tampered with Block’s vehicle, he had been instructed to see Mikayla at the Children’s Safety Center for supervised visitation. After a month or two, Tester wanted to take Mikayla to a family reunion, and Ramsey County custody evaluator Kelly Gerleman allowed it, despite Tester’s threats to take Mikayla away from Block and despite his threats to kill them both. Moreover, Gerleman removed Mikayla from the Safety Center indefinitely. Gerleman told Block, “John needs to be given the chance to demonstrate good behavior.”
Block was warned by officials that if she fled with her daughter, she would be arrested for kidnapping. And then, Tester killed Mikayla.
Block called each one of these professionals after Mikayla was murdered, but she never got an apology, nor did any suffer consequences in their jobs for their role in Mikayla’s death.
“They failed miserably,” said Block. “I didn’t get any help. Nobody listened to me. I was not some crazy ex-wife. I was a loving mother trying to protect my child. This is what parents are supposed to do – keep their children safe from harm. There’s something really wrong with the system and that’s an understatement.”
She added, “They were minimizing. I still feel like I’m being minimized because I didn’t have any bruises.”

Not hit, but still victims of abuse
Block is tired of hearing the common myth that “it takes two to tango.”
She’s tired of the stereotypes about the kind of woman who gets abused. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make or your status,” she observed. She doesn’t think people want to believe that someone with a few kids who lives in a nice house could be an abuser or a victim, but that doesn’t stop it from being true.
She’s tired of hearing that women are vindictive and make up abuse to get back at their spouses. She’s ready for people to start believing women and children.
“Abuse survivors are constantly trying to prove themselves,” she observed. “There should be no question.” She supports a national resolution, H. Con.Res.72, “expressing the sense of Congress that child safety is the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications, and that state courts should improve adjudications of custody where family violence is alleged” (115th Congress [2017-2018]). This resolution makes it standard to put the safety needs of children first rather than parental rights, and Block and friend Bonnie Roy are pushing for state legislation that will also support putting the safety of children first through the Minnesota Chapter of the Stop Abuse Campaign.
Block began recording her abuse in journals in the spring of 1999, and now it’s 2019. Kids are still not being protected, despite the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research on how much kids are affected by threats, intimidation and physical violence.
“I may not have been hit, but Mikayla was still a victim of domestic violence,” she said.
“There’s still no law that protects children in abusive situations.”
Minnesota has nine best interest factors, and only one is related to domestic violence. “The best interest is not putting your children with an abusive father,” said Block. She believes that if a parent is abusive, they should not have joint custody. They should not have access to their children.
“I want to be part of a positive change that will prioritize these kids’ lives,” said Block.
And so she keeps telling her story.
“We shouldn’t have to beg for these laws to protect our kids,” said Block.
“We need to start looking out for each other.”
She has devoted her time to promoting prevention, testifying at government hearings against 50/50 custody laws, and speaking out so that no more children die because of domestic violence.
According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, at least 728 children have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2011. Seventy-three percent of the perpetrators are fathers. Many of these children are killed in murder-suicides, as Mikayla was.
In the 30 years that Violence Free Minnesota (formerly the Minnesota Battered Women’s Coalition) has been tracking femicides, at least 685 people were killed due to relationship abuse. The youngest victim was just 22 weeks old; the oldest was 88.
“Mikayla was mentally and physically abused by her father, as was I. And we dealt with it basically from her birth in 1998,” said Block.
“I don’t want any other child to have to go through what Mikayla went through.”
Contact editor at Tesha@MonitorSaintPaul.com.

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Posted on 29 December 2019 by Tesha Christensen

After 50 years, she’s encouraging others

Editor’s note: The text below was from a speech Nadine wrote and gave at two Twin Cities churches during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We have used just her original first name and not her new name to protect her and her daughter.
My name is Nadine. I am 77 years old. I was married for 47 years. My daughter and I are in a protection program through the Minnesota Secretary of State and share a home. I work three part-time jobs, I assist my daughter who has a chronic illness. I am active in my church and community.
I’m telling my story not because it’s unusual, but because one in every three women will be faced with a similar story. It happens in every neighborhood, religion, nationality and workplace. Today in the time it takes me to tell my story over 200 Minnesota women will be abused.
It’s difficult to put 50 years into a few minutes.
I married this good humored man who came from an abusive background. His parents and grandfather were murdered by a family member.
We moved to Nebraska, where he was going to college, far from my family and friends. The first week, he came home from school and went into a rage because I fixed creamed corn when I also made gravy. He cleared everything from the table, leaving food and broken dishes on the floor, walls, everywhere. I was shocked! I had never seen anyone do such a thing. This was not the last time.
When I learned I was pregnant, I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to tell him. He became very angry, called me terrible names. “How could you be so stupid as to get pregnant!” He grabbed me by the hair and dragged me across the room and pulled out a handful of hair from my head.
We moved to Minneapolis. He became Comptroller of Hennepin County Department of Social Services for 25 years. He learned the system well. At home, he controlled everything. He controlled what, when, where, and if we ate. He controlled when we went to bed and when we got up. Often in the middle of the night, he’d make us get up to do something he wanted done now. He went on lavish fishing and hunting trips, but there were no family vacations.
At Christmas, we opened gifts and ate, if and when he said we could. My daughter and I were nervous wrecks before holidays. His expectations of our daughter were totally unreasonable. Nothing we did was ever good enough. Everything that went wrong for him was someone else’s fault.
A friend told me he had purchased three airplanes. He didn’t even have a pilot’s license. When I asked why, he became very angry. He shouted, “I am the financial expert in the family and I’m not going to let you make the financial decisions. You are so dumb, you think 2+2 = 5. He threatened that he would take my daughter and I’d never see her again. “I have friends in high places. No one will believe you. You are nobody.” He threw me against the wall. I had large bruises on my legs, hips and head.
One day, my daughter and I went shopping. It took longer than he thought it should. When I took her home, she had a message on her answering machine that he was coming over with his .357 Magnum. Soon he was at her house yelling and waving a loaded gun at us. We were terrified. We were too afraid to call the police, for fear it would just get worse. I was threatened with a loaded gun on many other occasions.
I started having panic attacks every time I got in the car with him. He called me names, swore and yelled at me, and I felt trapped. One day alone he yelled at me over 74 times. I quit counting.
For over 40 years, I managed the accounting practice we started, but I was never allowed to get a salary or any benefits. He said,”I’m the accountant, so it’s my money.”
When he touched me, my stomach turned to knots. It was not affection. If he showed anything, it was a signal to go to bed with him. If I didn’t, I was called crude names and was told I was worthless.

Why didn’t I just leave?
• I feared what he would do to my daughter, my family and anyone who helped me.
• I feared that no one would believe me.
• I didn’t know who I could trust to turn to for help.
• I felt paralyzed, overwhelmed and couldn’t think clearly. All I could focus on was surviving each day.
• I didn’t know if I had the strength to leave.
•I was over 70 years old, with not a lot of technical skills or formal education. Who would hire me?
I had no job, no money, and I had no idea how I would survive financially.
• I feared my church would abandon me.

What made me leave?
Through counseling, I realized the real danger I was in. Have you ever seen someone with a loaded gun in his hand in such a rage that their face does from red to gray? It was like seeing pure evil. I felt if I didn’t leave, I would be carried out in a body bag.

So I prepared to leave
I joined a support group, I prepared a safety plan, I packed a suitcase. When I shopped, I wrote the check for more and hid it. I coped important documents. I opened a checking and charge accounts in my name only.
In November 2007, with very little besides the clothing I had and the help of my daughter, I went to the Alexander House battered women’s shelter with the support of my family and his. They not only provided me a place to collect myself, by assisted me in finding housing, resume writing, resources and support.
My ex harassed my daughter. He called her doctor and said she was missing and wanted them to help him find her. He had people stalk her, take pictures of her and her home. One of the stalkers strangled and killed a woman three blocks from her house. She and I moved six times in five years to try to feel safe. She sold her home where she had lived for 30 years because she no longer felt safe.
After I left, he did everything possible to destroy me emotionally, physically and financially. He broke into my house twice, destroying things, got rid of gifts that were sentimental to me, left loaded handguns and ammunition in the house. Had people drive by my house, take pictures, report what lights I had on and who was in my driveway. A dead deer was left by my back door.
He sold our accounting practice to a friend for $1. He changed titles on properties we jointly owned. He sold a car that was titled in my name, without my signature. He removed me as a beneficiary on all of our life insurance. He filed joint tax returns without my signature and took all the refunds. He took all the equity in our home, even though our line-of-credit required both of our signatures. He is in contempt of court of nearly every court order. He moved to Arkansas to avoid enforcement by Minnesota courts.
And I thought none of this could ever happen!
In support groups I learned how many women have gone to their pastor or priest and left feeling hopeless, trapped and rejected. It is important to me to share with you my experience with my church. Over the years, I spoke with many priests and basically was told to pray – pray harder – be a better wife, love more, turn the other cheek, be forgiving. But when I left, I went to my priest, his first question was, “Are you safe now?” He told me to contact a shelter and do whatever they told me to do. Each time I went to court, he gave me a blessing and prayed with me. Knowing my church was there to support me meant everything to me. And I wish every abused woman would have this kind of experience.

How do I manage?
I work three part-time jobs. I’ve gone to a food shelf. Family, friends, and my therapist pray for me. I have reminders throughout my house: “I am with you always, signed God.”
One day at a time, I have seen miracles unfold in my life. I have a roof over my head and I can actually laugh and celebrate holidays. It wouldn’t have happened without the support of a shelter, the support of my friends, daughter, family and God’s every present help. I know God loves me and I am worthy of peace.
I don’t believe I am here to just survive a marriage. I am here to encourage others.

Read her daughter’s story. Click here.


October is

‘No one will believe you’

Posted on 29 December 2019 by Tesha Christensen

Abused for years by her dad and a troubled system, Renee and mom are finally free

Renee and mother Nadine fought for some normalcy during her childhood despite her father’s abuse. Today, they are happy to say they are survivors. (Photo submitted)

To the outside world, Fred* was a model citizen who worked at the top of the Hennepin County Social Service department as comptroller.
To his family, he was a dictator who was abusive and impossible to please.
His moods were up and down, he was controlling, manipulative, critical, blaming, cruel, rageful, isolating, hateful, belittling and unethical, recalls his daughter, Renee, now age 57.
She and her mother, Nadine, now 77, finally escaped into hiding in 2007 and go by alias identities.

He was careful to never leave visible marks
As comptroller, Fred was in charge of finances for the Social Services Department and Crisis Management.
“He knew the ins and outs of how to work the system,” said Renee.
He’d throw things at his wife and daughter, pulled his wife’s hair, and whipped Renee with a belt, but he was careful to never leave any visible marks.
Diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), anxiety, and depression, Renee doesn’t remember much about her childhood. She’s blocked out most of the memories.
“But I do remember the feelings they provoked, and how the abuse has affected me,” she said.

‘No one will ever believe you’
“Imagine being in an environment so abusive and stressful that as an infant in the womb I did not even want to come out!” Renee said. She was a month overdue, and wasn’t born until her mother had been induced.
At three, she was so stressed and nervous that she had failed to thrive. She was underweight and her hair came out in hand fulls.
She was fearful all the time, didn’t get her needs met, and rarely talked.
“My father controlled everything from when we slept and when, what and if we ate,” recalled Renee. She remembers a house full of yelling, name calling, swearing and threats. Plus, her dad threw things and broke them.
“We walked on eggshells constantly in our home never knowing what would send him into a rage,” said Renee. One day something might be fine, but the next day the same thing would be a major offense. “His rules were always changing, throwing us off on knowing how to behave to prevent one of his explosions. Everything was always our fault (never his), and we were the cause of everything wrong for him.
“We were stupid, lazy, worthless, oversensitive, crazy, emotional cripples and weak. We were told no one would ever hire us, want us or believe us.”
She worked hard to stuff her feelings and emotions so that they weren’t used against her.
“Sometimes my feelings became so intense because of not being allowed to express them that I had to find a way to release them,” she remembered. “I started burning myself when feelings became more than I could possibly hold inside.
“I felt like a teapot about to explode and the burning of flesh felt like letting off steam.”
She didn’t start talking in school until junior high. Her grade school teachers were always telling her mother, “She doesn’t talk.” Her mom wanted to know what she could do. Now they both know that’s a symptom of abuse.
Renee remembers that kids at school thought she was stuck up, but she was just afraid to have friends. She didn’t want others to know what happened in her home, and felt ashamed and embarrassed. She didn’t want to subject any one to her father’s abuse.
She had made that mistake before. She had invited friends over, and Fred accused them unjustly of stealing from him. He caused such a stink in the neighborhood that after that no one was allowed to play with her.
Renee didn’t get to do the usual after-school activities that other kids did, and she wasn’t allowed to work outside of the house. It was another way to control her and keep her dependent financially upon him.
“He was great at finding a person’s weaknesses and using it against them,” observed Renee.
If Renee or her mother enjoyed anything, they paid dearly for it. “I never was sure if it was because dad was jealous or if he just really enjoyed making us miserable,” remarked Renee.
He anticipated any question of leaving by telling them that no one would believe their story. After all, he was a successful comptroller in the social services department. If they couldn’t go there for help, where could they go?

Still paying dearly as an adult
As an adult, the abuse continued although it looked different. When Renee called home to talk to her mom, he would lie and say she wasn’t there. He’d threaten Renee that she couldn’t have anything to do with her mom if she didn’t do what Fred wanted.
When Renee’s husband died, she was left to raise her two stepsons, who were initially treated much better than she was because they were males. At first, Fred spent time and money on them, recalled Renee, but eventually he started to use them for his personal gain and the abuse began for them, too.
“He would often make me chose between my stepsons or my parents and extended family,” said Renee. “I would end up paying dearly for trying to be a good mom to the boys.”
Finally, one day her youngest stepson and the most laid back of the two, did what everyone dreamed about but never had the guts. He punched Fred and left.

Finally, they went into hiding but he used system against them
As he aged, Fred didn’t get any better. Instead, he escalated to threatening them with knives and loaded guns. He manipulated or “bought” friends to carry out some of his dirty work, as well.
Finally, Renee helped her mom leave Hennepin County and they went into hiding together in a new county.
They decided to leave at a time inbetween his rages because they thought he wouldn’t be watching them as closely. To their dismay, they discovered that their local police didn’t understand that line of reasoning. “I think the victim knows the situation best and when to leave,” remarked Renee.
To retaliate, Fred started hiding and getting rid of their assets, along with the things he knew Nadine and Renee cared most about.
“The legal battle in the divorce was a joke,” stated Renee. “My dad blatantly lied through the court hearings and was in contempt of nearly every court order. He was rarely held accountable or punished for refusing to obey court orders.”
He used the court system to harass them by filing false accusations, wasting their time and money to defend themselves. “Nothing was done to stop him from doing this,” said Renee, who is still shocked by how things played out in the court system. “When finally threatened by the courts for jail time, he moved out state so he wouldn’t be arrested.”
Both Renee and Nadine filed for orders of protection, but Fred appealed them. Renee’s remained but her mom’s was removed by Hennepin County Judge Bruce Peterson. This was despite Fred pointing a loaded gun at them both during a rage. “Apparently, leaving a threatening message on my voicemail, confronting us, screaming, and pointing a loaded gun at us was not reason to give my mom the OFP because my dad didn’t say he was going to kill us (that time),” stated Renee. “Apparently, perpetrators have to tell you they are going to kill you before they pull the trigger.”
She was also frustrated by the family court insistence that her mother attend mediation with her abuser in the same room. “How is this going to be productive when the abuser is abusive and controlling?” she asked.
Her parent’s divorce was messy, ugly and complicated, Renee observed, and is now studied by law students.
“We found that the legal/judicial system we always believed in is not just. Victims keep getting re-victimized by the system,” said Renee. “How do we fix a broken system?”
She advocates, “Get involved, have a voice, educate and contact your representatives!”

Shouldn’t be ‘Why doesn’t she leave’ but ‘Why does he do that?’
Renee is working to help people understand the dynamics of abusive households and to recognize what’s happening.
“I feel most people do not understand abuse or people would not ask why doesn’t she leave him? Why not, ‘Why does he mistreat someone who loves him’ or ‘Why is this acceptable in society?’”
She added, “Most people think the abuser is mentally ill because certainly no one in their right mind would behave as the abuser does. But actually, domestic violence is a learned behavior.”
Renee has found support and help at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (now Violence Free Minnesota), the Alexandra House in Anoka, Home Free Community Program, the Domestic Abuse Project, and DomesticShelter.org. She’s also grateful for the various domestic abuse support groups she has been a part of, therapists she’s worked with, doctors and some educated priests. She and her mom benefited from the local food shelf and community action groups.
She recommends that others check out the free app InsightTimer for its meditations, and Lisa A. Romano’s talks.
Today, Renee knows that she is still affected by the abuse she’s lived through. It is part of how she lives and her relationships with others. She’s found it difficult to trust in herself or others. Her self-confidence is low, she has trouble expressing emotions, she replays memories, and doesn’t always want to be touched, and can be jumpy, nervous, and easy to frighten. She suffers from a chronic illness.
But she’s a survivor. One who is working to transcend the wounds of the past, to learn to love herself, and to be comfortable in her own life. She’s got a future filled with hope, laughter and freedom. She believes her future is a gift from God.
* Name changed for protection.
Contact editor at Tesha@MonitorSaintPaul.com.

Read her mom’s story. Click here.

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Get help

Get help

Posted on 12 December 2019 by Tesha Christensen

Cornerstone Services ‑
Ongoing groups meet regularly for women, children and men
24-hour helpline: 952-884-0330

Domestic Abuse Project ‑
Sessions offered regularly for women, men and children
612.874.7063 ext.232

Day One MN Emergency Crisis
HotLine: call or text 1.866.223.1111
LGBTQ Domestic Violence Hotline
Teen Dating Violence Hotline
866-331-9474, LoveIsRespect.org
Native Domestic Violence Helpline

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Defining abuse

Posted on 12 December 2019 by Tesha Christensen

Domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence (IPV), domestic abuse or relationship abuse) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.

Domestic violence does not discriminate. Anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender can be a victim – or perpetrator – of domestic violence. It can happen to people who are married, living together or who are dating. It affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

Domestic violence includes behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. It includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of domestic violence/abuse can be occurring at any one time within the same intimate relationship.

It’s not always easy to tell at the beginning of a relationship if it will become abusive.

In fact, many abusive partners may seem absolutely perfect in the early stages of a relationship. Possessive and controlling behaviors don’t always appear overnight, but rather emerge and intensify as the relationship grows.

Domestic violence doesn’t look the same in every relationship because every relationship is different. But one thing most abusive relationships have in common is that the abusive partner does many different kinds of things to have more power and control over their partner.
~ From www.thehotline.org

Gaslighting: A form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Named after a movie called “Gaslight.”

Coercive Control: An act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten victims.

Cornerstone Services ‑
Ongoing groups meet regularly for women, children and men
24-hour helpline: 952-884-0330

Domestic Abuse Project ‑
Sessions offered regularly for women, men and children
612.874.7063 ext.232

Day One MN Emergency Crisis
HotLine: call or text 1.866.223.1111
LGBTQ Domestic Violence Hotline
Teen Dating Violence Hotline
866-331-9474, LoveIsRespect.org
Native Domestic Violence Helpline

Wear purple clothing and change outdoor lighting and décor at homes to purple during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October.

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