Voices Against Family Violence

An ‘oppressive’ experience:’ 57 hearings, 80 court orders and 12 parenting time schedules

Family court judges haven’t been able to solve issues, and now mom on welfare is paying for special master

What do you do when 11 judges and referees, 20 therapists, 12 mediators, two parenting consultants (with 37 directives), one custody evaluator, and one guardian ad litem haven’t been able to resolve a family court case? 
Lexi* would like to be out of family court after 57 hearings over 12 years. Instead, she’s seen the Minnesota Who’s Who list of family court professionals since she filed for an order for protection and a divorce when she was three months pregnant with her second son.
Despite being well below the federal poverty level, Lexi has been ordered by a Ramsey Court judge to pay for a special master to resolve parenting time disputes. Essentially a private judge, special masters charge $400-$500 an hour. Lexi’s two sons, now 15 and 11, have refused to see their dad for nearly three years. They’ve been refusing to get out of the car at drop-offs far longer.
When the boys started running away from school to avoid being picked up by their dad and police were called to retrieve them and enforce parenting time, they added another family therapist to the mix of professionals. She began by meeting only with the parents. From those meetings, she ordered their dad to complete a number of steps to better his parenting skills and take responsibility for his actions. 
He has not completed them. 
Instead, he has filed multiple motions with the court requesting new professionals to review the case. In the last year alone, they’ve had seven judges and referees assigned to their case, and an order from over a year ago has yet to be written. He asked for – and got ordered – a brief focused assessment with a psychologist at a cost of $5,000 and a special master, who required an initial deposit of $7,000. Their last parenting consultant cost $18,000 to get fully caught up on the case, and the fees grew from there. 
Lexi has lost track of the exact total she’s spent over the last 13 years paying for attorneys and professionals (which included a few stints where she represented herself to save money), but it is over $300,000. One parenting consultant alone cost $48,000.
“I have $200 in my bank account right now,” she stated.
Lexi has found it hard to work around the varying parenting time schedules (they’ve had 11) and court hearings. It isn’t something employers want in an employee, and so she’s been doing part-time work from her home. 
“I want my life back,” said Lexi. “They keep me trapped in this chaotic place because they want him to parent. But they have taken away my constitutional right to parent. I wasn’t the one who did anything wrong and neither did the children.”
Derek* and Lexi met at a party in 2002. She was 26 and he was 28. They dated two years and married in a lovely September ceremony. They welcomed their first son in 2008, and lived on a quiet Roseville street. Inside the house, however, it was anything but peaceful. “He’d go red,” Lexi recalled. “He started throwing things at me and made threats to my life.” She never left Ethan* alone with him.
In January 2012, after discovering massive amounts of child and adult pornography on their home computer, she fled to her sister’s house. He called her 97 times in less than one hour, making threats on the recordings. She was granted a two-year order for protection (OFP). He broke it immediately, continuing to call and text her. “There were absolutely no consequences,” Lexi said.
She moved, entered the Safe at Home program and got an extension on the OFP, hoping that would protect them. Lexi slept with all the lights on in the house. While some professionals called her “hyper-vigilant,” the therapist she saw trained in domestic violence (DV) conducted a lethality evaluation with her and determined her safety fears were justified. A man’s threats and past behavior are the surest indicators of future violence, according to domestic violence experts.
As with most couples who divorce in Minnesota, Lexi and Derek used a mediator to iron out the details of their financial split and custody issues. They agreed to use a parenting consultant (PC) to resolve additional disputes, a process that grew in popularity in Minnesota at the time to keep families from returning to court over various issues such as school choices, vacation schedules, and extracurricular options. 
 The PC didn’t think that Derek could manage parenting both kids at the same time, and so he ordered that Ethan see his dad for three-hour stretches followed by a one-hour stretch with Mason*. Lexi was responsible for the considerable transportation back and forth, and paid for the necessary supervisors. The kids spent a lot of time in the car traveling back and forth. Holidays involved the same hectic schedule. 
“I spent my whole holiday catering to Derek’s holiday,” Lexi observed. This meant that neither she nor the kids could spend holidays with her family in South Dakota or even see her sister’s family one hour outside the Twin Cities.
At one, Mason was diagnosed with  rare, non-malignant mass. He was in and out of the ICU with treatments that lasted seven days at a time. In addition to caring for her sick baby, she also had to balance care for her four-year-old son – and still make sure that Derek got his supervised parenting time in. 
And despite being on immune suppressants with a doctor’s order to avoid groups of children, the PC and Derek insisted that Mason attend ECFE classes with his dad in the neighboring city, exposing him to the many germs there. He kept getting sick and running fevers that were over 104 degrees, requiring further hospitalization.
Their PC at the time ordered that Derek could contact Lexi by phone and text in order to talk about the children, despite the order for protection that prohibited it.
“The PCs almost polarized things more rather than helping,” Lexi remarked. “They tell me it will make him a better parent. I’m still waiting for that better piece.”
Over the years, Derek has gone through domestic violence programs, including one through Tubman. A therapist was brought in to teach him age-appropriate environments for children. He’s attended parenting classes. They’ve both been ordered to attend the Bridging Parental Conflict class, and they use the locally-owned Our Family Wizard app for communications. 
“None of it has helped,” said Lexi.
A mental health evaluation found Derek had a thought-processing disorder, paranoia, obsessive-compulsive issues, and a personality disorder. He’s like a poorly-wired computer that can’t be rewired.
Their second PC testified that Derek was focused more on his own needs – fairness and what he was entitled to – as opposed to what was in the kids’ best interests. 
There were no issues discovered during Lexi’s mental health evaluation. Yet, over the last 13 years, Derek, his attorneys and other professionals who never even met her have said she is “high conflict.” Few of the professionals have had training in domestic violence as it wasn’t previously required in order to be certified as a mediator, custody evaluator, parenting consultant, judge, referee or special master. Instead, most have training as attorneys.
A federal law, termed Kayden’s Law after a child killed by her father, would require judges, referees and others working on family court cases to have training in domestic violence, child abuse or coercive control, but it has yet to be implemented in Minnesota. 
“What is ‘fair?’” asked Lexi. “The courts have put undo financial stress, ordered me to pay for supervisors, phones, Our Family Wizard, and medical insurance. They imputed me with a salary I have never made. All the while, he sold our family house and made money and bought a bigger one, and his business is thriving. Is that fair? The constant money-draining litigation has hurt the whole family over the last 12 years. Even when they found that he is a vexatious litigant and ordered him to pay, he didn’t and there were no repercussions. Our judges never revisit that. 
“If the roles were reversed, I wonder if I would be treated the same. I cannot pay for a Special Master or a BFA. The retainer for both cost more then what I make in half a year. And yet I am ordered to do it because the courts refuse to hold him accountable. The courts are a pay-to-play game.”
Ethan was three when he bit through a water glass while talking to his dad on the telephone. He started chewing through his shirts. Between ages six and eight, paid transporters dropped Ethan off at his dad’s house. He laid on the floor when he got back and wouldn’t get up. Mason left a vibrant kid, and returned such a different kid that the transporters questioned if his dad was drugging him, and shared their concerns with the PC. 
Ethan began having trouble reading, and showed signs of having a brain injury that required OT and PT. By second grade, he had fallen behind in reading and math. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the domestic violence, and an individualized education program (IEP) was created at school. After supervised parenting time was lifted and he began doing overnights with his dad, he was diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder, anxiety, and Child Affected by Parental-Relationship Stress.
Mason also had an IEP focused on speech and stuttering. 
Their PC ordered them to do exchanges at a family friend’s house six times a week because her ex-husband accused her of being intimidating at exchanges. The PC didn’t check with the homeowners before making the order.
“He writes stuff that sounds plausible, but it is all fiction. If any of the professionals would look at the facts instead of taking it at face value, they would see that it isn’t real,” remarked Lexi.
Then a guardian ad litem ordered exchanges at a police station .9 miles from Ethan’s school. It would take Derek 30 minutes to drive less than a mile to pick up Mason, making Lexi late to work. 
He wouldn’t remember to bring their son’s medication or to give it to him. She’d have to arrange to meet him again to get the medication. He didn’t return winter jackets. One year, they went through 12 jackets. “Thank goodness for Cornerstone, family and friends,” she said. “They kept giving me more jackets.”
Later, they started doing exchanges in a gas station parking lot, and then things were switched to Derek’s home. Lexi was ordered to open the doors and leave the car so her ex-husband could talk to the kids, despite a therapist pointing out that she was at high-risk due to Derek’s past threats against her life. She tried to always bring a third party to witness things, and Derek accused them of intimidating him, as well. (When she started taking video of the exchanges to show what was actually happening to people who weren’t there, she was court-ordered to stop.) The boys shut the doors and refused to go while she stood outside and encouraged them to go. Exchanges lasted hours. 
“We’ve lived every schedule in the system,” said Lexi. 
For many years, the boys had a different parenting time schedule and saw their dad at different times. It was tough on their relationship. The times they saw their dad varied according to the day, and transfer times ran into meals and bedtimes. 
Ethan’s therapist stated that he needed a sense of stability and predictability, which included a consistent schedule, regular bedtimes, fewer transitions, and consistent visits with his brother, as well as the ability to resume his regular activities which were being interfered with by the inconsistent parenting time schedule. 
In 2016, a judge ordered 50/50 parenting time with a 5-2-2-5 schedule, keeping sole legal custody with Lexi. 
Their dad didn’t allow them to attend parties on “his time” or see their friends. They couldn’t attend Boy Scouts events or do other activities during “his time.” He took their phones away and wouldn’t let them use their school tablets to contact friends or family. 
Ethan told his mom, “I have to live a full life in 50 percent of the time.”
“That was hard on him,” said Lexi. His friends tried to rearrange their birthday parties and events so that they fell on mom days.
Ethan told his principal that his dad drove the kids to Wisconsin, bought a knife, and set it on the center console where the kids could see it. It scared him. He pushed Ethan sometimes, and trapped him at other times. He punched Ethan in the chest. He’d threaten to take things away if he told anyone what happened. 
Ethan wrote on school assignments, “I can’t go to my dad’s. Please don’t make me go.” He asked his therapists to not make him go. He told his school principal that he was scared to go to his dad’s house. 
Mason reported to his therapist that his dad hit him and his brother with a closed fist.
Two child protection cases were opened. Like many cases that involve parents in family court, CPS staff determined they could get services in family court and family therapy was ordered. The CPS cases didn’t prevent Derek from having parenting time.
In September 2020, both boys walked to their mom’s house. They described their dad’s behavior as bizarre, erratic, and frightening.
Two and a half years ago, the boys started leaving school to avoid going to their dad’s house. Their dad got a court order for police to retrieve them.
The younger boy was told by school staff and a police officer that he would be placed in a foster home or a facility, and not able to see him mom if he didn’t go with his dad. He went that day. But the next time he was supposed to go to dad’s house, his older brother came to school and snuck him out. Two law enforcement agencies and a state patrol helicopter joined 30 school staff to search for the boys, who were located four hours later at a friend’s house.
 Law enforcement was called eight times in September 2021 to assist Derek in exercising his parenting time.
Eventually the school and law enforcement filed motions with family court to move parenting time exchanges away from the schools, citing safety concerns and the use of resources. 
After these incidents, Mason struggled with feeling safe at school, and it was difficult to get him to school on time. He had 17 tardies in two months.
The boys have since refused to go at all. They want to know when they get to say they’ve had enough. They want the court to let them make the decision to be done with parenting time at their dad’s house. In Iowa, a child’s opinion is factored in at age 11, but there is no policy in Minnesota for when a child’s preference matters. Instead, court rulings continue to prioritize contact with parents, with one going so far as to imprison a mom from Iowa whose daughter refuses to see the dad she said sexually abused her. (See past Voices Against Family Violence stories detailing Dani’s case on our website.)
The rulings of forced contact from those involved in family court go against standard psychological advice, according to clinical forensic psychologist Dr. Catherine Barrett of Los Angeles, Calif., who has spoken nationally about reunification therapy and camps.
“Nowhere in the literature of psychology does it state that forced compliance improves a relationship. When a parent persists that a child should be forced to reunify against their will, the best interest is not in the child,” stated Dr. Barrett.
She points to a confirmation bias in family court that believes women coach children to make up allegations of abuse, and then acts on that belief that children are lying about abuse. “We need to listen to kids,” said Dr. Barrett. “Kids don’t make this stuff up.” According to a study by Dr. Joan Meiers and George Washington University Law School that was funded by the National Institute of Justice, in family court allegations of abuse are not believed 75 percent of the time. “The confirmation bias is that victims are lying,” said Dr. Barrett.
“This is the generation of voice and technology,” she observed. “These kids aren’t being coached.”
Dr. Barrett serves as an expert witness in family court and has read through many custody evaluations in the eight years she’s been doing this work. The reasons why children don’t want to see a parent are usually in those reports, she observed, but the evaluator reaches different conclusions from the data and pathologizes the parent the child wants to be with (who is usually the mother). “The behavior of the father isn’t even on the table to look at,” she said. “It gets completely ignored.”
Dr. Barrett is concerned about the harm that courts are doing by not understanding coercive control. She said, “It is undeniable as proven through research that a child’s right to be safe is undermined by the minimization of abuse reports. Courts often maintain the parent-child relationship at all costs, contributing to the perpetuation of abuse by choosing to ignore it. 
“Family law remains primitive in the belief that children are always best served by having a relationship with both parents regardless of the child’s right to safety and autonomy.”
Derek and his string of attorneys have regularly accused Lexi of “alienating” the boys from their father. 
Professionals stated that both parents needed to learn to get along, and said that both were creating the problem. Her therapist was disregarded because he sided with her and believed her when she detailed the power and control dynamics of the relationship during and post separation.
When Lexi brought up issues or asked that Derek follow the rules in place, she was scolded. “I’m creating issues because I’m trying to hold him to things,” she said.
Two years ago, Lexi learned from a letter written to her attorney that Derek was getting remarried. The letter demanded that she drive the kids to his house, leave the 12 year old and eight year old in her car, hand the keys over to him, and find a way home.
She was told to lie to the boys and not tell them where she was driving them when she brought them to an exchange.
Lexi worked with therapists and came up with a plan: she drove the boys three hours north to attend their dad’s wedding. She walked them in and then waited in the hotel lobby, far from the ceremony. Derek later wrote in an affidavit to the court that she interfered with his wedding and wrecked his day. 
“The kids are not going, but it isn’t me that made that decision,” said Lexi. “They’re just done.” 
They’ve also had to attend therapy to repair the mother-child relationship because the kids have been angry at Lexi for not listening to them, and for “forcing” and coercing them to go to their dad’s.
They have pointed out that there’s something wrong if their dad needs to involve the police to get them to go with him.
“How much is enough?” asks Lexi. “I have done all the things. I’ve had the top of the top on my case. When do they decide enough is enough? I can’t afford it. It would be one thing if any of this stuff has helped. But it hasn’t.”
Minnesota is testing out a new program using special masters in complex family court cases. Essentially a privatized judge, a special master has the authority of a judge and fees are $400-$500 an hour. They aren’t supposed to be used for cases like Lexi’s, but that didn’t stop a judge from ordering it.
Lexi has in forma pauperis (IFP) status with the court in recognition of her low wages and need for state assistance programs. She was ordered to pay $2,450 to the special master immediately as a deposit and $1,750 for the brief focused assessment. That’s a substantial part of her annual income.
She provided documentation of her income to the special master, who ordered the payment to herself and the therapist doing the BFA be made anyway. In court filings, Derek accused her of blocking the process and keeping him from his kids because she didn’t make the payments.
Lexi doesn’t own a house and isn’t sure how she can pay her rent. Her retirement accounts are empty, in part because she had to assume the $170,000 in medical bills from Mason’s medical issues. She’s on a payment plan with her attorney.
Meanwhile, Derek lives in a $550,000 house that he owns, and has three cars. Derek pays $162 a month in child support, although she’s had the two boys full-time for nearly three years. 
“I want to rebuild my life and be financially stable, but the court orders keep preventing that,” she said. “I have literally nothing left and he does – and they keep adding all these other professional fees. Is that justice? Or is that abuse perpetrated in a different way?”
“This whole experience has been oppressive,” said Lexi. 
They’ve come full circle again, as he’s been ordered to go through another psychological exam, one that looks at his inability to retain information and learn if there is a biological reason for why his narrative keeps changing.
“They need to come up with some kind of solution so we can be out of this chaos loop,” said Lexi. “There are no checks and balances.”
She added, “This will be the 57th hearing I’ve had. And it doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon.”
*Editor’s note: In writing the articles in this series, I have reviewed dozens of court documents, and reports by professionals. In recognition of the sensitive nature of these articles, we have opted to refer to people by their first names or aliases, and have not used details that can be used to identify the family. Some information from Fiercely Embraced, www.fiercelyembraced.org.


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