A Woman of Color Single Momma’s Worst Nightmare: Navigating the Family Court System
I have tried many times to write this testimonio. Each time I cried and put it away. I was and am afraid of sharing this with the world. I fear being judged and criticized. However, I felt that I had to write and document this because it is my truth. For my daughter’s safety and my own, I need to remain anonymous.
Earlier this year, my worst nightmare came true— a judge declared an ex-boyfriend my daughter’s presumed parent. It is important to note that the ex-boyfriend is NOT my daughter’s biological father. We were in a very complex and toxic relationship off and on for ten years. Much of our relationship was long distance because I was attending graduate school. However, within those ten years, I experienced emotional and psychological abuse. This individual constantly lied and cheated and made me feel inadequate and worthless. I think at some point he did tell me that I would never be at his level. Then he would apologize and be this amazing and loving person. I now understand that this was all abuse. Overtime, my spirit was broken and I had a hard time leaving his cycle of abuse because I really believed that I was unlovable and worthless.
My ex-boyfriend and I broke up a few years ago after he revealed he had impregnated someone — again. He already had a child with this person while we were dating. Yes, I stayed with him for reasons that I am still making sense of. After the breakup, the ex-boyfriend had no contact with my daughter. We reconnected at some point to discuss pending medical bills from a car accident we were both in, money he owed me, our relationship, and of course, my daughter. He expressed interest in seeing my daughter and wanting to re-establish a relationship with her. The ex-boyfriend shared that he was going to therapy to help him understand himself and his actions. I thought he had changed and was at a much better place. I thought he had learned from his mistakes and that he was genuinely invested in living a healthy positive life for himself and others around him.
I decided to allow the ex-boyfriend to see my daughter. I believed that this was a good decision for my daughter and that she would not be harmed in any way. This decision was of course made with certain expectations and boundaries that the ex-boyfriend agreed to. The ex-boyfriend spent time with my daughter for about a year. However, within that year, he did not respect or follow our agreement. The ex-boyfriend eventually began to say that he was going to take me to court since I was not accommodating to his needs. He wanted more time and flexibility with my daughter so that it would be easier for him to also see his biological children. The ex-boyfriend also wanted to take my daughter on trips and have more overnights, something that I was not comfortable with. I would get this strange feeling in my stomach every time he asked if my daughter could go with him on a trip outside of the country. Now I know why I would get this feeling. Perhaps it was where he wanted to take her to or how he would react when I would say no— he would become so upset and angry. He wanted full access to my daughter which no limitations or boundaries which can be translated and understood as control and another form of abuse. The ex-boyfriend would mask his response or desire to take my daughter on trips as him wanting my daughter to have these experiences and him wanting my daughter to spend time with his other kids—which he referred to as my daughter’s siblings.
The ex-boyfriend often accused me of being selfish and careless since I did not take into consideration all the driving that he did. I would often respond to him that I did not have to accommodate his needs and take HIS children into consideration.
The ex-boyfriend filed paperwork for child custody and a motion to add his name to my daughter’s birth certificate a year ago. I immediately contacted a lawyer for legal advice and was given some guidance about the process. The lawyer also helped me complete a trial brief that detailed why the ex-boyfriend should not obtain any rights based on family case law— which were clearly cited throughout the trial brief.
On the date of the court hearing, I arrived at the courthouse on my own. I did not take any witnesses with me that day as I felt confident the judge would not approve the ex-boyfriend's requests. The ex-boyfriend took his mother, sister, friend, and the woman he cheated on me with. They all testified on his behalf and told the judge how much he cares about my daughter even though none of them knew my daughter’s birth date and did NOT meet my daughter until she was TWO years old. Before we went on a lunch break, the judge told the ex-boyfriend that he was focusing on the actual time we lived together which was off and on from November 2014-September 2015. I left to lunch feeling confident that the judge would not grant the ex-boyfriend any rights. I even called my dear friend and current partner during lunch to share what I thought was good news.
When we returned from lunch, the ex-boyfriend continued with his testimony which included pictures of him with my daughter and also made inaccurate statements that made him look like “the dad of the year.” When it was my turn to testify, I was a complete mess. I was crying so much I could not talk. I tried to emphasize what was included in the trial brief which outlined the reasons why the ex-boyfriend should not be considered a parent for my daughter as related to the state’s family case law—he is not the biological father, we were never married, and we did not live together for a significant amount of time. In addition, the ex-boyfriend was not physically present in the critical years of her development when we lived in different states. In fact, during the times I would visit him,
he would become upset if my daughter’s toys or any of her belongings were in the living room when he would come home from work.
I also highlighted that the ex-boyfriend was emotionally, verbally, and psychologically abusive throughout our entire relationship. I mentioned that part of our agreement was for the ex-boyfriend to not to take my daughter around the mother of his children because of some of the concerns I had and continue to have about her. I was not heard by the judge. All the judge heard was that I did not want my daughter around the mother of the ex-boyfriend’s children. I believe I was perceived to be a jealous ex-girlfriend, a brown single mother who did not have her child’s best interest in mind. I am not sure if the judged remembered any of the facts that I provided. After the eight hour day, the judge made a decision that has and will impact my daughter and me in so many ways.
I have hired two lawyers to help me with my case. One lawyer focuses on the family court matters (i.e. current weekly court ordered visit, etc.) and the other lawyer is preparing an appeal that will be submitted to the state’s court of appeals. I am now required by law to allow the ex-boyfriend to see my daughter once a week until a decision is made on the appeal or until the family court judge makes any changes to the court order. I have paid a total of $13,000 dollars and will probably continue to have to pay more until the case is resolved which may take anywhere from three months to several years. My goal is for the appeal to be approved which would reverse the judge’s decision.
My and my daughter’s well being and future is at the hands of the courts and also at the hands of the ex-boyfriend. While I take full responsibility for allowing the ex-boyfriend to see my daughter, I also hold the court accountable for declaring the ex-boyfriend a “presumptive parent” despite my testimonio and the current family law which I believe was not applied appropriately to this case. The judge’s decision can also have a huge impact on family law since it is completely broadening how a “parent” is defined. From what I understand, it is not that easy for biological family members to obtain custodial rights over children. This judge’s decision can put children at risk of abusers to children, like my daughter.
The thought of the ex-boyfriend having parental rights over my daughter terrifies me. I fear that he will be abusive towards my daughter and break her spirit as he did with me. I am also in constant worry about the cost of this case since I do not have full-time employment and have student loan debt in addition to other monthly payments.
The ex-boyfriend has now hired lawyers and has become more assertive and aggressive. He also blames me for this situation for filing an appeal and for “wasting time and money.” The ex-boyfriend also accuses me of being “heartless.” Each time he refers to my daughter as his, I get nauseous. I now understand abuse and control in ways I did not before. This situation is definitely challenging me and making me grow in so many ways and directions, some of which I did not expect. I have had to explore and understand my own traumas to better understand how I was ever involved with an abuser like the ex-boyfriend for such a long time. Perhaps in the midst of all of this, I am on a healing journey that I know will also help my daughters’ healing.
My relationship with my daughter is my top priority now more than ever. I have to make sure that I provide her the support and tools to for whatever may come next. If the appeal is approved, my daughter will never see the ex-boyfriend which may have some impact on her. If the appeal is denied, I have to provide give her the tools to protect herself from his abuse.
I know my heart and my intentions are pure. I know what is best for my daughter and he is NOT IT. Each week I have to endure his abusive and manipulative ways. I am tired and exhausted. My anxiety has increased and my depression is becoming harder to manage. My patience, strength, and hope is tested.
As a single mother of color, I know that the court failed my daughter and I. Rather than protecting my daughter and I from abuse, the court chose to uphold and protect patriarchy and its misogyny. This is not new. Mothers of color, including gender nonconforming parents of color, relationships with their child/children are constantly in danger of being disrupted or controlled by the courts which includes family law. Additionally, abusers like the ex-boyfriend are never held accountable by the courts or by their own families and friends.
I hope this testimonio continues or initiates conversations about emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse and the ways in which the courts continue to fail single mothers of color and their kids.