Origins of Women's Truth & Justice Foundation:
How a mother of another mother turned her private pain into public action.
Every day women find themselves in positions where their voices cannot be heard. One such place is within the judicial system, a surprising reality given the modern era in which we live, where I once believed that an individual's rights for due process would apply equally across gender lines, despite factors such as disability or financial means.
The Women's Truth and Justice Foundation ("WTJF") was created from personal experience, prompting further research into cases in which female respondents in legal matters ranging from divorce and custody battles to domestic violence/control, were given disparate treatment. Due to my lack of exposure to these cases, I was naive to the inequitable gaps which still exist for women in the United States judicial system. The appalling truth of which most Americans like myself may not be aware, is the degree of inequity that plagues not only the impoverished, but also women who have struggled with a variety of mental health issues, chemical dependency or other disabilities, despite such conditions having been fought bravely and treated effectively. Shockingly, it also ignores the fact that she has lived the vast majority of her life as a highly functioning, valuable member of her community, contributed in countless ways to her household and excelled in her career.
Such is the power of "stigma", as it blinds one's ability to see beyond scandalizing sound bites. Renditions of stories years old, revised with a flair for dramatic gravitas, presented in a way that misrepresents the medically understood nature of a disease. The present fitness of the woman profiled by these accounts blurred by rear-view mirror accounts. She finds herself "tainted" by these distorted reflections, especially when subject to personal bias and misunderstanding by a single arbiter (no juries exist in domestic relations and custody cases).
Akin to a modern day "Scarlet Letter", she's ten steps behind... before having the chance to utter a word.
How Did We Get Here?
Desperate need and heartfelt conviction - the seeds of the Foundation- grew from the personal experiences of a mother and her daughter, also a mother. This grandmother watched her own daughter grapple with a grueling, prolonged divorce and custody battle during which her basic rights as a parent, and due process, were violated repeatedly. This resulted in perverse consequences harming both my daughter and her children (my grandchildren) for which there seemed to be no remedy or recourse. Sitting in on my daughter's divorce and custody hearings, I felt as if I was sitting in a courtroom 100 years ago or in a country which deemed women inherently less valuable, credible or stable.
This would have been a shock for me to witness in almost any case, but was especially surprising due to my daughter's history and the person so many know her to be. A bright accomplished attorney with an academic pedigree beyond what her father and I could have dreamed, she is nonetheless better known by the deeply sincere and sensitive spirit which has characterized the core of her personality since childhood. Hailing from a small mountain town in North Carolina, the causal authenticity in which she carries herself felt ill-fitting at times within the sophisticated, wealthy and often ruthless cultures of her Big Law Firm and DC community, but I watched her adapt as best she could while never losing sight of who she was in this different world.
Married young while in college, she went on to practice law in a prestigious international firm, which she found satisfying to a degree, enjoying the collaboration, intellectual challenges and the unique opportunities to see the world. Her role as primary bread-winner often made he career feel more utilitarian than visionary, and perhaps it was not where she found her "heart to be," and she found soon into her marriage a deeper longing emerge. It was not the lofty goals she'd fought so hard to achieve, but rather, to grow her family, nurture a secure home environment rooted in unconditional love and to build solid friendships, both casual and meaningful, shared over game nights, laughter and good conversation.
She longed to have children for years, but her husband's timeline for growing their family meant waiting 8 years into their marriage. When the time finally came, her first pregnancy brought with it an ecstatic joy and almost immediate change in her self-image. From that point on, she saw herself less "high-power corporate attorney," and more "expecting mother." She felt herself changing in enormous ways, imagining meeting this new life (dubbed "Peanut #1") face to face, dreaming of what it would mean for their family, buying outfits and preparing the nursery in their vacant large home. Passing the initial testing of the first trimester and seeing the baby's heartbeat brought relief in the knowledge of her statistically high chances of a normal pregnancy. Confident in passing this milestone, her doctor cleared her to go to London for a business trip, but on the drive to the airport, an unfamiliar pain hit her abdomen. Initially, her anxiety was tempered by the knowledge that she'd just seen the heartbeat. But as the dull pain became a gnawing grind during the flight over the ocean, denial took hold as she fought against what she knew deep down was happening. This continued for two grueling days in her firm's London apartment, and as the physical pain became agonizing, she slowly had to accept the horrible truth, completely alone. A foreigner with nowhere to turn, she found rescue in the kindness of a stranger, a colleague's wife she'd never met, who took her to the hospital and hosted her in their home for days afterwards.
Unless it's has happened to you, it's hard to relate to the profound grief of losing a child at any stage, but driven to get past it and resume her "motherhood" identity, the blessing of her daughter came shortly thereafter and refocused her attention away from the events she wanted to forget. However, years later she reflected on what it meant to lose of Peanut #1, admitting she was never was quite the same afterwards and felt as if part of her died alongside the baby within her. In tragic irony, 7 years later, she again faced the same grief - similarly shocking and unexpected, again endured alone, away from the security of her home, support system and all she'd known her entire adult life.
What We Never Saw
Since graduating law school, my daughter supported her family generously for 13 years, working in the private sector, while her husband's career in government, academia and as growing public figure became a dominate priority, taking him away from the home much of the time. They had two beautiful children that she adored and who adored her, but juggling her career while being mother of two small kids presented challenges which she often felt like she had to cope with alone. Always independent, she was surprised by how this effected her emotionally - feeling hurt not only by his absence but more so due to how much he seemed to enjoy being "one the road." She began to see herself as less and less valuable, not only to him, but inherently. He often said "You want me home only because you don't want to have to manage the children alone." She was made to feel guilty for wanting an integrated home of shared responsibilities, which she interpreted to mean that not only was she less valuable, so were her voice and opinions.
Unlike physical forms of abuse that can be easily documented, reported and deemed more relevant to child safety, the subtle nature of other forms of abuse (categorized below in the "Power & Control Wheel") can be highly insidious the ways it remains hidden for years, allowing it to continue unabated, unknown and minimized by the courts. Already reluctant to raise such sensitive topics for the fear of repercussion, during her divorce my daughter was repeatedly discouraged from raising her concerns not only about what had happened to her during their marriage, but also as they might translate to the children's treatment in her absence. She was told that to raise such issues in a divorce or custody dispute would be deemed petty, insignificant and never be taken seriously, and to date, not one detail of these concerns has been mentioned during her divorce and custody case.
Exploiting Vulnerabilities and Hidden Violence
The first area of concern which her father and I became aware was surrounding the family finances. For years, my daughter's husband insisted that all of her income (and later her disability payments coming from her insurance policy) be deposited into a bank account of which he was the sole owner. She had no access to these funds whatsoever other than small amounts granted to her for expenses such as groceries, but these funds amounted to a tiny fraction of what was accruing from her six-figure payouts into her husband's accounts.
She felt she had no choice but to accept the arrangements enforced by her husband, she authentically wanted to trust her him, hoping for the best and fair treatment should something happen to their marriage.
But this ongoing pattern of compliance led to her financially compromised position contributing to the situation she found herself in during the court proceedings.
Her father and I were concerned with the financial arrangement, but other than hunches and observations, we were not directly aware of the hidden forms of abuse occurring within the home. Financial control was only one area in which her voice was not heard within the home, but other areas of her life became increasingly micromanaged by her husband over the course of their 17 year marriage. After my daughter's disability surfaced, it became a "reasonable justification" to exert further control as shown in the image below.
Although we could not see the daily life within the home, and were largely cutoff (due to her husband's request), we personally witnessed and/or are now aware of the following categories listed above:
The Privilege (Ableism) wedge: “Overprotects,” “Makes decisions alone,” “Creates physical barriers to getting around, “Keeps tabs on partner for ‘safety’ reasons because of disability.”
The Coercion and Threats wedge: “Threatens to leave or to take children,” “Threatens to have partner arrested or institutionalized (or actually attempts to have her arrested).”
”The Withhold Support or Treatment wedge: “Steals or throws away medication,” “Doesn’t provide medicine or support when needed”, “Doesn’t allow needed medical treatment” and “To increase dependence, does not let partner use support methods and devices (phone, internet, etc.).
”The Emotional Abuse wedge: “Insults and shames about disability,” “gives conflicting messages by both helping and hurting,” “Sneaks up to startle,” “Abuses more as partner becomes independent” and “Talks down to partner,”
”The Isolation wedge: “Pressures to give up disability payments,” “Confines and restricts access to others,” “Exposes disability (AIDS, mental illness, etc.) to others to isolate,” “Limits contact with others,” “Threatens/manipulates friends to further isolate victim.”
The Minimize, Deny, and Blame wedge: “Lies about abuse to others (says partner is crazy, is forgetful),” “Blames disability for abuse” and “Twists reality, says abuse did not happen."
”The Sexual Abuse wedge: “Forces sex when partner unable to physically resist,” “Makes decisions about birth control/pregnancy” and “Cheats with pornography/others and lies (does not think partner will know because of disability and/or has no right to ask),”
"The Economic Abuse wedge: “Controls all money,” “Uses partner’s disability income for self,” “Does not share expenses because being partner to person with a disability is a ‘favor’” and “Does not allow partner to work and be economically independent.”
An Ongoing Battle
During the past two years and half years of their separation and eventual divorce, my daughter was barred from her home, never allowed inside to get her belongings. Her husband kept and made sole use of their vehicles, as well as the shared assets and financial savings accrued over their marriage (funded primarily by her private law firm salary). She nonetheless volunteered to pay him extra support from her law firm salary, but once she no longer could afford to continue the payments, she came home (not coincidentally) to divorce papers taped crudely to her door.
For reasons which still remain a mystery, her husband waged an at-fault divorce case which can be described in no other way than a full-fledged character assassination. l have watched my daughter try to hold herself together with dignity despite the aggressive and humiliating tactics waged by her husband and his attorney against her character and personal and professional reputation, even criminal allegations, all within the context of the family court.
This was a divorce case, not a criminal trial. My daughter has never been charged with a crime, arrested or prosecuted, but as we sat in the court it felt as if she was a criminal defendant, without an attorney to represent her. Due in part to tragic events in the life of one of her attorneys, her team of attorneys dropped out of her case two days before the most crucial hearing. Her combined legal fees had mounted to over $250,000 by last July, which she could not afford to pay in full, let alone afford to hire a new lawyer in two days,
She requested continence for just a few days at the start of the hearing to give her opportunity to get representation, which the judge denied. Her husband (a very skilled trial lawyer) and his attorney were able to hold a six-hour, one-sided hearing, which went unchallenged, because not only was my daughter not afforded the right to address the allegations that day- she would was forced to face the hearing and allegations without legal representation present. The Judge allowed the one-sided monologue by her husband and his attorney to proceed, concluded the hearing by ruling in favor of her husband's motion that she pay all of his attorneys fees accrued to date, and granted his request that her visitation rights with her two small children be suspended indefinitely.
The entire hearing and basis of the ruling was based on word-of-mouth allegations by her husband and his attorney, for which my daughter had convincing forensic evidence to rebut that she brought with her that day, but was unable to present, due to lack of legal counsel present. The distinct bias of the judge toward her husband was evident not only in his ruling, but in the extremely inappropriate and insulting comments he made during the course of the hearing and at its conclusion. Since the date of the hearing almost 18 months ago, she has not spoken to nor seen her children.
We Thought The Worst Was Over. We Were Wrong.
As my daughter was getting ready to challenge the court's ruling that had suspended her visitation privileges, she faced a shocking new blow Her husband served her with a "contempt" summons, claiming she owed $38,000 in "back child support" for the period in 2016 during which she had not paid child support because she had been out of work and not earning an income. My daughter scrambled frantically to find ways to collect and earn the funds, demanded be paid to him cash, in less than two weeks. In a herculean effort, she miraculously came up with the funds just in time and believed she prevailed meeting this ridiculous demand. But as usual, the story was not over.
The contempt hearing scheduled for 10 am would have been obligatory had she not come up with the funds. At 9:30 am, minutes after she'd emptied every expendable dollar in cash from her bank account and upon seeing that her husband had counted out the $38,000 in cash, my daughter believed she'd satisfied the order. As they walked out of the bank, she told her husband she was going home. He stopped her. And as he placed the bag of cash in the passenger seat of his Lexus, he informed her that he was heading to the courthouse, that the hearing would still be taking place because she had not fully satisfied the demand because that she still owed him $7500 in attorneys fees that he'd accrued in the process of seeking the contempt charge. Speechless and in tears, she stood on the sidewalk as she watched him drive away.
At the hearing minutes later, her husband claimed that the $38,000 she'd just paid fell short due to the attorneys fees he accrued while bringing the contempt charge that he claimed naturally were owed by he. And then he brought an additional charge. He claimed that she owed him the full amount of the debt remaining on a joint Citibank credit card, a credit card they opened in 2003 for the purpose of transferring her husband's law school debt with a generous balance transfer offer that allowed a 0% interest rate for the life of the debt. She did not know these charges were coming, nor were not mentioned in the motion that lead to that day's hearing. Moreover, because she thought she had satisfied the child support contempt charge and did not expect a hearing would even take place, she had not arranged a lawyer to be there that day and was therefore again alone before the court.
Unsure exactly how to respond to this turn of events, her corporate law background informed her enough to point out that the credit card debt was a joint liability, not hers alone, which was owed to third party creditors, not to her husband. And because third party credit card debt is governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), any claim on this matter fell outside the jurisdiction of the family court. At the very least, she said, further discussion on this issue would require a continuance since the matter had not been placed on the docket for that day's hearing. She was abruptly cut off by the judge, who made the astounding claim that the remaining credit card debt "canceled out" the enormous child support payment she'd made less than 30 minutes earlier. He claimed that since a similar amount was outstanding on the joint credit card, it made her child support payment "a wash," finding her "in willful contempt" of the child support order. He immediately sentenced to 30 days in jail, and before she could even process what had just happened, she felt the handcuffs click behind her back as she was taken through the courtroom's side jail door.
My daughter had not committed a crime, nor charged or accused of one. In a matter of days, she'd barely slept as she scrapped to work to come up with a sum of money larger than most American's annual salary, to pay a child support claim based on months in which she had earned no income whatsoever. Since their separation over two years ago, she'd not received one penny of their joint property, physical or financial, accrued over the 17 years of marriage during which she was the primary wage earner. Although she'd not been allowed to enter the home for the past two years, the home she adored and found seven years prior and moved into alone with the two kids while her husband was on a business trip, she continued to jointly carry the near million dollar mortgage without complaint, which naturally prevented her from over buying her own home or qualifying for a new mortgage. And now because her husband complained that their joint credit card debt had a negative impact on his credit score, she was locked up among felons, wearing a jumpsuit emblazoned with the word "PRISONER." These thoughts and many others haunted her as she sat alone in her solitary cell, wrapped in the burlap blanket that served as both her mattress and pillow. She was housed within the block of solitary cells previously occupied by notorious inmates such as John Walker Lindh, Zacarias Moussaoui and others kept out of "general population." She was not told why she was kept in solitary during her stay, but I told her after she was released that the reason given when I inquired was there had been a concern for her safety in general population due to the fact that inmates whose profession as an attorney became known had been previously subject to bullying and violence.
Grateful for her relative physical safety, this also meant that she was isolated 24 hours a day, got no fresh air or opportunity to move more beyond her cells quarters. Her cell's florescent light never dimmed, glaring 24 hours a day against the white cinder block walls. With no clock to measure time, no words to read, no pen to write and no one else present to help process her thoughts, she felt the hope she had striven hard to maintain slipping away. How could this possibly happen? Was there no rule of law? No procedural standards? No modicum of basic human rights? What scared her the most was the arbitrary power the court seemed to wield with impunity and what that meant for her chances of finally getting back her children.
My daughter and I formed the WTJF as a way to directly engage the aforementioned issues of which many American may not be aware. We pray the Foundation will serve as a means of redeeming the pain and anguish we faced, in the best way possible -through outreach and service -to help women in similar situations and to create awareness of what is happening behind the marble columns and under the gavels of unscrupulous judges who otherwise have no accountability. This must be addressed. It must be stopped.
If we help one women avoid total isolation and alienation,
If we can give even one woman hope,
If we can be the reason she feels the support of having someone at her side who
understands exactly what she is facing,
If we can help one child reunite with the mother they long for:
Our PAIN will be redeemed through a PURPOSE well worth the cost.