Q&A: Is it abuse?

Ellen is struggling with a problem with her ex-husband, the father of her children. Dave (in the email) is her new husband, who also has a child from a previous marriage. She writes:

"I guess my question is one of what truly constitutes abuse in the minds of most parents.

My ex is a bit of a bully, always has been. He yells, cusses and calls names when he gets mad. He does this with my boys too (6,8,10,13). More so with the older one…but he gets rougher on all the boys as they get older. When he is angry, he gets in their faces…will back them up against walls and scream at them. He also does this thing where he grabs their face and squeezes their cheeks really hard while he's yelling so they can't move or turn their heads. He also does childish stuff like call my 10 years old, who is chunky and very sensitive about it, "fat ass" and "chubs" when he gets mad. I know exactly what they are talking about because he used to do it to me when we were married.

Anyway…this past week he smacked my 13 years old twice. I wasn't there but I have a good idea of what happened. My 13 year old does not respect his father at all…because dad yells and hollers but never really implements any true form of discipline. So, they got into an argument and my 13 year old was being really disrespectful, calling his dad names (loser, bully, etc). He doesn't do that here but I know he can get a pretty bad attitude towards his dad because I've heard it on the phone. His dad lost his temper and started yelling and getting in his face. Instead of backing down like usual, my 13 year old challenged him. My ex threatened to pay a kid to come "beat his (Alex, my son's) ass" and this made Alex really angry so he didn't back down. My ex ended up slapping him twice in the face. My son says hard enough for his mouth to bleed inside because of his braces. I get a call from my ex and he is yelling "Where are you? You need to get here right now before I beat him". I have to drop what I'm doing and head over there asap. In the 10 minutes it take me to get there I get 2 more calls from my ex…all along the same theme. "Hurry up before I knock his fucking teeth out"…all the while I hear my son in the background crying and yelling "hurry mom, he's gonna' hurt me".

I have talked to 2 attorneys and 241-kids and because there were no external marks it is not considered abuse. I quote "A parent has a legal right to physically discipline their child".

Now, I have lived with some form of abuse my whole life so my views on what is really abuse are somewhat fuzzy….and I am aware of this about myself.

Dave is certain, 100% that, whether it legally is or not, this is abuse, plain and simple. And I agree. Since we don't really have a legal leg to stand on, we have decided to move away from him as far as we legally can to limit his time with the kids. He is lazy and won't make a 40 minute drive to get the boys a couple time/week. He will probably become and every other weekend (at best) dad. Right now he gets them 2 1/2 days each week.

Here is my question…is this abuse bad enough to take his kids away from him? The younger boys really love him and are torn up about the thought of moving. Alex is totally on board with it and wants to move right away. He refuses to go see his dad at all right now. He says he really believes that his dad is capable of hurting him. My gut says that he would never escalate it any further (i.e. punch them or anything) because he is a cop and knows not to cross the legal line.

So now I have vented on an unbiased party and just need to know what you would do if these were your kids…and what other parents would do.

Would you move away?"

I would move away.

I am in complete agreement with Dave. There are all kinds of abuse, and for many people, emotional and verbal abuse is at least as bad as physical abuse is. This is very clearly verbal abuse and emotional abuse. Even if he'd never physically touched Alex, your ex is bullying him (and the 10-year-old) and saying vicious, nasty things that no person should say to another person, let alone an adult to a child, let alone a parent to a child.

I don't think that you could prove physical abuse, but if you involved a psychologist I'm wondering if you could prove emotional abuse.

But at the least, moving will help alleviate the situation. If, as you predict, he fades out of their life, then that's yet another bad choice he's making. Plenty of people grow up under horrible circumstances and make the choice not to become abusive. He makes a choice, every time he says something hurtful or threatening, to abuse his children. You need to protect them until they're old enough and physically big enough to draw their own boundaries for interacting with him.

Readers? Thoughts? Empathy? Stories? Am I on the right track? Should Ellen and Dave move?

73 thoughts on “Q&A: Is it abuse?”

  1. Move. This is abuse even if it doesn’t fit into the legal definition. I agree with everything Moxie wrote above.

  2. My instinct would be to get away from this “man” as quickly as possible. He seems to have established a pattern of emotional abuse and bullying, which would be enough for me to want to shield my kids from. The physical stuff is just the icing on the cake.I would trust Dave’s view on this and involve a psychologist to establish some record of these happenings. maybe someday it could be used, if necessary, to make custody changes in court.
    All the best to you, Ellen. I’m so sorry your family is experiencing this.

  3. I’m so sorry. The fact that the ex-husband is a cop makes me inclined to say, “move.” So long as it doesn’t trigger an escalation or retaliation, move.Under some circumstances, I might want to involve the authorities in a negotiation. I don’t know how long divorced parents can rely on the courts for mediation, intervention, etc. (I thought it was until custody agreements ended, i.e. when the youngest child turns 18?) but in most circumstances, I would turn first to those people.
    In this case? An emotionally, physically abusive cop who “knows how not to cross the line”? My alarm bells are ringing and I recommend the move.
    Also, counseling for the kids, if it’s financially feasible. Or through a social worker at school. They definitely deserve some help working through these issues.

  4. Yes, move. Even if the ex never escalates to worse than what he does now, don’t put teenage boys (who don’t have the impulse control of adults) into a situation where they could lose control and try to hurt their dad. I hesitate to say it, because God forbid, but if he is a cop there is probably a gun in the house. Sorry.And document every little thing!
    All the best to you and your boys!

  5. I don’t understand how this isn’t abuse in the legal definition — if your son’s mouth was bleeding, there’s obviously a wound, and even if it’s in his mouth, a peek in there should be enough to make it an “external” wound — if you can see it without opening him up surgically, isn’t that external? (I’m also confused about this “external” thing because if he’d pushed him down the stairs or something and caused internal bleeding, would that not be considered abuse? Pretty significant abuse? And yet, the bleeding would not be visible from the outside. I think this whole “external” thing needs to be rethought …) I DO think that if Alex still has any sores in his mouth from where your ex hit him, you should take pictures just in case this happens again. I really don’t see how repeated incidents like this would be overlooked legally even if the injuries are on the insides of his mouth.At any rate, Dave is absolutely right. Take those kids and run. Moxie is right that this is, at the very least, emotional abuse, and while legally that may not be something you can prove, if Alex and your 10-year-old are hurting physically and/or emotionally, that’s abuse and you are fully within your rights to move away. If Alex was on the phone saying, “Mom, I am afraid of him, he has already hurt me and I’m afraid he’ll hurt me more”, I would be very, very surprised if your ex could find a lawyer or judge who would succeed in stopping you from moving away, even if he wanted to.

  6. I would move. Not only to protect them physically but also so that psychologically, they get the message that Mom can be depended upon to keep them safe.The fact that the ex is a cop makes me think that he knows the law in his state and knows exactly what he can get away with, legally. Disgusting. But just because the law says it’s okay doesn’t mean it isn’t doing harm.
    Thinking of you, Ellen. This is tough stuff.

  7. Ellen here…my error was not taking him to get examined or checking his mouth right away. I waited until the next day because, once I got there, Dad didn’t want him to leave and he had worked his “guilt magic” on Alex so Alex decided he wanted to stay. He always gets super nice after, as my son calls it, one of his episodes. I called 241 KIDS right away but they said that slapping a child for mouthing off is not illegal. They would not even take an official complaint without proof of injury (medical report, pic of bruising, etc)…they actually said that if he hits him hard enough to “really hurt him” next time and I can get documentation then I should call back…gee thanks.

  8. This is exactly the way my stepmother treated me throughout my childhood — threats and emotional abuse, and physical contact that walked a very thin line. She quite often did the cheek thing, or grabbed my upper arms tightly enough to leave finger-shaped bruises. It was the type of thing that she could do in public and get strange looks, but no one would intervene. It was awful; it was psychological warfare.Once I turned 13, the violence escalated. Maybe it was because she thought I was big enough to handle it? Or that we were equals? I’m not sure. This made the daily, smaller abusive actions worse, knowing that she could truly hurt me. I woke up afraid every morning. I deeply resented my father for not intervening when this was happening right in front of him — but he never thought it was bad enough, you know, she couldn’t get arrested for it.
    Please help your sons to get out of this situation before it gets any worse. Please get them therapy and help them to develop coping mechanisms and establish boundaries with their father. It’s your job to protect them. It’s your job to stop the cycle of abuse from continuing. Please.

  9. Every red flag is going off in my mind. Move. Get out. It’s abuse. The “guilt magic” made my stomach flip. Emotional warfare.

  10. Yes. This is abuse. The emotional piece can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse and it is just as real as being hit. You and your children are worth more than this kind of treatment. Get out.

  11. Agree with everyone else to move. And mention it to whoever is your legal/family court contact (if you have one). And please DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. You think you’ll remember details, but you won’t. Dates, times, places, witnesses, comments, injuries…everything. Write it down. Write it down. Write it down.

  12. The question I would have for Ellen is: Are you planning to move within your city limits or really far away? Many ex-spouses will put up a fight in court if they feel that a move will jeopardize their ability to see the kids, although it is tougher to mount that argument if the residence is within a reasonable distance, like within the city limits. It is just that a court battle over mobility could be an additional stressor for your family – just something to consider.This sounds like a very difficult situation. Sorry to hear this is happening to you and your boys.

  13. Move. Please. From the perspective of someone who has been those kids. Give your kids as much love as you can and let them know it’s not okay that he treats them that way. You might want to get them counseling.

  14. I’d also like to say, the physical stuff my mom did (the kind of stuff he’s doing to your kids) didn’t really effect me much. It’s the emotional and verbal abuse that really messed me up.

  15. If you do move, I’d be careful that your kids don’t know much information about the move. They could let things slip to their dad. If he hears you are moving, it might be no big deal, but if he hears you are moving to try to get away from him, that might become a big fight.

  16. 1. Document, document, document. Write everything down including dates, times and who else was present or was able to overhear anything. Print out copies of phone records or retain cell phone bills as they come in.2. Get a psychologist or social worker involved if only to give a professional opinion on the abuse. I was very surprised to read that since he hadn’t left external marks, it couldn’t be considered abuse. If you know what you are doing and are trying to hide it, you can truly give someone a beating without the “evidence” showing up on the skin.
    3. Move. And strike that balance that other posters have written about moving far enough for him to not want to make the drive while also not making it SO far that he puts up a stink.
    4. It sounds like you are very aware of the fact that your perception of what makes for good boundaries or appropriate treatment is skewed. It is TERRIFIC that you are reaching out to check in with others about what is healthy or appropriate. PLEASE keep doing that. You will learn more for yourself and your boys will reap the benefits.
    5. There will be so many of us out here thinking about you/praying for you/holding you in the Light. You are not alone. You got out of a terrible situation. You have the tools to help protect your boys. Use them and know that so many of us out here are rooting you on!

  17. If there’s a next time, then calling 911 and getting a first responder involved seems like a good idea. Even if he can talk his way out with a colleague, there’ll still be a recorded phone call.The “please come pick up the kids before I hurt them” dance sounds like it’s positively reinforcing for him – he can still make you jump, and he may like that enough to do it again. Since “not jumping” is going to be really hard for you, you need a plan to make the consequences for him less pleasant.
    With a 40min drive between you, but the situation otherwise unhandled, he might have even more fun making you drive the distance on short notice, while calling you every 5min on the way there.

  18. I am moving well within the limits. The paperwork says within 60 miles and I am only planning to move 25 miles away, however, with the traffic, etc it’s about a 35-40 minute drive. Currently, on the days he gets them, he drops them off to me in the morning before work (he has to be at work at 7 and they don’t go to school until 9), I get them ready for school, then I get the 6 year old off the bus at noon and stay with him until the sitter comes at 12:15. I do all of this because he claims to not be able to find a sitter and has always said things like “If you don’t want to help me I guess I just won’t be able to see the kids…OR You know I’m all alone and I am only asking for some help so I can be a good dad”.So, if I stop helping him and make him drive, I am confident that he will claim he can’t find a sitter to help him that early in the morning. Even if he moved too he would still have to find someone to watch them in the morning before school and someone to get my little one off the bus…I doubt he will do this. He will claim that I took the kids from him and he will play victim. That is my prediction anyway, I could be wrong.
    Yes, my views on abuse are a fuzzy. I struggle with “normal bad” vs “too bad” vs “bad enough to act”. I grew up without a dad so I always thought that having a bad dad would be better than having no dad…
    The stories that everyone has shared regarding the emotional abuse they experienced and the effects of that abuse have been really helpful and I truly appreciate everyone sharing and keeping us in their thoughts.

  19. My concern would be that you move, and he sees them less, but he still sees them and next time he calls and says to come get them it takes you a long time to get there. I think I would talk to a lawyer about what else can be done to limit his time before moving. See if a psych can show emotional abuse, what rights does a 13yo have wrt refusing to visit, etc.

  20. I think you’ve gotten good advice, but want to add that I think it’s awesome that you ended up with a 2nd husband willing to move to protect your kids. It sounds like Dave is a blessing and a good male role model for your kids.I’ll be praying for you!

  21. Move- don’t regret not acting on something your son wants. I would also make sure that you don’t live in his jurisdiction in case the cops are ever needed. Make sure that the father can still see the kids dont make it seem like youre taking them away or things could get ugly. Maybe stay around close by when he has the kids in case you get another scary call.Where I live I’ve been told that the courts listen to what children at age 13 want for custody. It sucks that he pulls the guilt thing (we have that situation for someone in my family) an it really messes them up. And like most others have said document everything!

  22. I absolutely agree with what Kimberly said above – you’ve gotten good advice and it’s speaks very well of your husband that he is willing to relocate in order to protect your kids.

  23. This is abuse. Period. I don’t know what attorneys you talked to or what state you live in, but I work in family court and this would definitely be abuse and legal action would be possible. Don’t wait for a next time.

  24. Driving 40min to spend some time with his kids may not really be worth it to him, but driving 40min may be well worth it for a chance to make his ex-wife jump to his call.I’m totally with you as far as not going to trouble to enable him to spend time with his kids; he should absolutely need to hire a babysitter to cover the work overlap. But, when you pull back, and stop being at his beck and call on the days he has the kids, he’s likely to look around for another way to jerk you around, and in that respect, adding physical distance may just change his tactics.
    The dynamic I see (in the limited description) is that he’s found a new and rewarding way to abuse you, and that with the history of an abusive relationship between you, that’s likely to be a potent reward for him (perhaps so potent as to have the qualities of an addiction).
    You should also explain to your kids that if you’re called to come pick them up, then they must go home with you. “I need you to come get me – oops, no I don’t want to go home with you” is a bad thing for you to be taking from anyone… better if they don’t get a lesson in jerking their mother around, directly from the expert.

  25. I consider this abusive, whether or not it constitutes legal abuse. Calling a chunky child “fat ass” is cruel, and likely to cause self-esteem issues. Your ex’s handling of anger is incredibly poor, and is not helping the kids. I would never let an adult treat my children in this manner without trying to stop it- which is what you are doing, so good for you.The advice to document everything and create a paper trail is good. I think moving as you plan is a good move, too, although it sounds like that will be hard on your younger sons.
    I can’t tell from your post whether or not you have a decent working relationship with your ex-husband. Would you feel comfortable asking him to get some help for his anger issues, for the sake of the kids and for his sake? Whatever you do, it is likely that his behavior is hurting his chances of having a good relationship with his sons, and I suspect that will cause him pain. It will also cause your sons pain. They are young enough that he has time to fix this, particularly with the littler kids. As a cop, he probably has access to some sort of counseling for this sort of problem. Is there any chance that he would take advantage of it? If you don’t think he would listen to you, is there a mutual friend to whom you think he would listen?
    I also really like the previously mentioned idea of getting the kids some counseling help to work through their emotions. Your 13 year old in particular sounds like he is really struggling with how to handle this situation.
    Good luck. You are in a tough spot.

  26. Let me be very clear, THIS IS ABUSE! If the law says what Dad did isn’t bad enough to be considered abuse, which is highly likely, then know it *is* abuse of love, abuse of parental trust and abuse of parental safety.Under no circumstances should a child EVER have to think about whether or not they’re safe in a parent’s care. They should NEVER have to worry about their physical safety, being called names, or being man handled, NEVER.
    I’ve had some experience with Police officers. Several clients of mine are cops and firemen. They’ve been very open with me about this. We’ve talked about the brotherhood of cops. Cops all know that stress at work can cause some cops to go home and be really firm, to edge of abuse, with their kids so their kids never behave like the men they deal with on the street. Some cops think it’s okay to be tough as nails, and be a badass to their kids as long as it stops *their kid* from going down the wrong path.
    There are those of us who feel the every day sting of low self-esteem due to being screamed at, threatened and smacked etc. We know what your children are feeling, and the emotional work it will take for them to let go of having been treated that way as a child. The sooner they’re removed from Dad’s influence, the better. In other words MOVE, now.
    What does legal aid say? What do the police support groups say? As a former cops wife, you must know how you can anonymously check out how the force wants you to handle something like this. This may not be anything the force can deal with, as it isn’t “big enough” for them to take action. Which is ridiculous, but probably true.
    One last thing to factor into your decision to move is the fact that boys at this age are emotionally dethroning their fathers.
    Dethroning is something that happens to all boys around 13-16. They’re beginning to become men and they see their father for who he really is. They challenge him, disregard him, and if Dad has been physical in any way, it can become a situation of, “what goes around, comes around.” As someone mentioned, there is a gun in the house, locked or not, you don’t want anything to happen.
    Also brothers can be very protective of siblings. If Dad stops railing on the oldest because the oldest has emotionally/physically made it clear to Dad this isn’t going to happen anymore, Dad may begin to go after a younger one. Now the older one will feel his protective feelings, his adult instincts kick in, which is appropriate. BUT he doesn’t have enough adult wisdom or control to see all the possible life long ramifications of his actions if he chooses to really defend a sibling. He won’t be able to stop himself from going after Dad to protect a sibling, and that could have a devastating impact on his life.
    As long as your divorce decree states you can leave the area, do it, now! The younger kids need to be told, in a way that won’t frighten them, that Dad’s could get really mad one day and begin screaming at them. You need to say something to the younger ones so the other children don’t hate their older brother for making them leave their Dad.
    I hope this helps. Best to you.

  27. It is definitely abuse. Not only that, it is escalating. I have been there, and it’s terrifying.However, I can’t tell you to move because only you know your situation. What I would recommend for sure is to put some safety measures in place for your kids: a code word for the phone, or cab fare in case they need to get out of there and you can’t get there fast enough, or at the very least lots of conversations about calling 911 and what to say if they need to do that.
    The legal advice you got is probably strictly accurate, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t options. I don’t know what state we’re talking about, but it is a good idea to become intimately familiar with the local domestic violence and child abuse statutes. I would get a therapist involved IMMEDIATELY, both for your sons’ mental health and as a legal precaution.
    Begin documenting every single thing — every conversation you have with your ex, every report you get from your kids about inappropriate behavior, what happens every time they spend time with him. Does he get them to school on time? What does he feed them? When do they go to bed? Does he facilitate them spending time with friends? Help them with homework? Make it completely objective and factual, no emotion at all, and as much as possible don’t even mention yourself. It’s all about the kids and what is best for them. Judges are irritated if they think you are claiming spousal or child abuse out of spite or self interest (or even self protection, sadly).
    Every. Single. Thing. And remember to back it up. This is a terrible, tedious, depressing task, but if you need it it will be invaluable. It will probably not be admissible in court, but as a document that you can hand to lawyers and therapists. It will be so much easier than retelling the story to everyone, and it is evidence of your clearheadedness and your seriousness. And in all likelihood your ex will not have anything like it, so you’ll have an advantage with whatever professionals you need to deal with.
    Finally, keep looking for a lawyer. It took me seven tries to get a lawyer who would help me. There are very few people out there, lawyers and cops included, who understand what abuse is and the damage it does, and who are willing to do anything about it. It’s shocking how few lawyers understand the laws.Even when they do, you have to convince them. You have to show them it’s not a losing case. There are helpful resources online about abuse, physical and emotional, that you may need to find for your lawyer. There are online documents designed for lawyers to use to explain the laws to judges.
    If you would like to email me, feel free. I know how hard this is, and it’s wonderful that you are protecting your children. My address is maria (at) davidgrover (dot) com.
    When you talk to a lawyer or a therapist, be professional and direct. Do not be emotional even though it is completely natural. Save the emotion for safe people.

  28. In case you need one more person to validate that this IS abuse, you can add a former domestic violence counselor to your list. (That would be me.) Something I can state with firm assurance is that emotional abuse and “smaller” instances of physical abuse virtually ALWAYS escalate to more significant physical abuse in time, if nothing changes in the equation. Your move is the change that will keep your sons from further abuse. Please – do it for them and for yourself. You have gotten EXCELLENT advice from all of the commenters before me: document constantly, find a good attorney, set limits, and MOVE. You have escaped this abuser – I have worked with women who were not so fortunate – in two years, 3 of my clients were killed. Don’t allow him to continue to abuse your beautiful boys. Light and love to you – contact me if I can be of any help or support.

  29. I echo the call to move, get professionals involved, and do whatever you can to document this behavior so that you can act upon it using legal channels.But I also wanted to say how impressed I am with how much you listen to and value the opinion of your 13 year old son. I think that says so much about your parenting, and will truly make the difference. The fact that he can already see how warped his dad’s behavior is is a testament to how much you have done in your home to fill it with love and healthy parenting.

  30. As the child of divorced parents who had a father who clearly didn’t really want to be bothered with taking his kids on his days of having us I can see that your ex feels the same way. Honestly, and I know many might disagree with me here, but between the abuse and the babysitter issues, I’d say move and if it’s too far that he won’t take the kids, it’s his loss. The second my sibling and I turned 18 was the second we stopped talking to our father and he has never attempted to contact either one of us since.This man is abusive and I def agree that him being a Cop could result in some incidence involving a firearm.
    Take the kids and go and don’t look back.

  31. In my state, hitting a child on the face is considered abuse. Can the mother call CPS and report the abusive dad to the authorities? That would be a good start.

  32. This is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE behavior for a parent or anyone. Screaming, grabbing, etc. … NO.Get your kids a phone with a video camera on it and tell them to use it. If the younger ones are scared to point it at their dad/brother when this abuse happens, tell them to just turn on the camera and set it down on the table, and it will record the audio.
    MOVE.

  33. I write this as an experienced therapist and a new-ish mom:1. Not sure that moving will change things. His dad is still his dad; if you move far enough away, there will week-long (or longer) visits during summer/winter break. And if he’s that far away, who will be your sons’ safety net when he gets abusive again?
    2. I would recommend seeking therapy/counseling for your son(s) to help them deal with his behavior and hope like hell that the therapist finds the behavior abusive and reports it. You could report it to child protective services yourself, but without marks or bruises it will end up being a he said/she said situation.
    3. If this ever happens again, accidentally ‘miss’ the second or third phone call from your ex (while you’re going to rescue your kids) so he leaves his threats on a voicemail and then you have evidence.

  34. @ susan has a good idea about letting the threats go to voicemail so that you have evidence. Threatening messages like that could be very helpful in obtaining a restraining order.The part about “his dad is still his dad” troubles me though. I can’t tell you how many times I heard this when I was trying to protect my child from the abuser. As I said above, you are the one with the best sense of whether things will get better or worse if you move – but it IS possible to prevent long visits with an abusive parent, particularly if your instinct is right that your ex will not make the effort to get his scheduled parenting time.
    It’s really a question of which battle you decide to fight. Any choice you make based on what is best for your family is valid – maybe being closer and being able to keep good tabs on him is best, or maybe being farther away and fighting to keep your children away from him is best. No question, they all SUCK, and you will be exhausted and scared and enraged that you have to protect your kids from their own father. I’m so sorry that you have to do it, but full of admiration that you’re willing.
    You may have to go against professional advice in order to do what you know is right. I did, and faced being held in contempt of court as well as opposition from lawyers and therapists and friends. It is their responsibility to tell you what the law requires. It is your job to do what is right for your kids, and as a conscientious, aware mother, you are in the best position to decide what that is, when you have as much information as you can get.

  35. I was both verbally and physically abused as a child and I will tell you without question it was the verbal abuse that hurt the most, the scars that ran the deepest. Years of therapy and anti-depressants and even separating myself from my family as an adult and I still have baggage. And I’m one of the lucky ones.Things are better now, but man, I wouldn’t wish that treatment on anyone.
    I don’t know if moving away is the answer, but the abuse, verbal, emotional, or physical, NEEDS TO STOP. I cant bear the thought of children growing up believing they’re worthless or undeserving, as I did.
    PLEASE stop it NOW.

  36. A lot of excellent points have already been made, so I won’t reiterate them. One thing to add – consider letting your oldest son’s school know what’s going on, even if obliquely, and all your sons’ schools if you do move. Family stress on its own, let alone this kind of abuse, can cause kids to act out, and getting in trouble at school is the last thing your kids need. If you let them know, they can help if needed.

  37. I don’t get why a move is the magic solution here. Even if you move he still spends time with them at some point and that point is going to be a problem unless you do something else. If it were me, id get a lawyer ASAP and anything similar happened again, I’d call 911, cop or not. I would not drive to pick up to “rescue” to avoid calling police. I’d call police and then show up. I’d let threatening repeat calls go to voicemail. I’d prep my kid in advance that things could get worse and make sure he knows what to do — call 911, leave, take bros with him. I would not move as a first option.My parents divorced when I was 14. I was able to refuse visitation with my dad, as was my older brother. My younger brother was not as lucky and it was tough for him as my now-step mother was very difficult. As soon as he was able he too refused visitation. We have relationships with him now as middle aged adults. I’m glad though I put distance of my own in place during that time.

  38. Like everyone else has said, this is abuse. The emotional abuse will stick with someone for years and as someone who grew up with an abusive father, the physical stuff was nothing compared to the emotional stuff. There is behavior I learned from living with an abuser that I am still unlearning.Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to not fall into certain patterns brought about from being in that environment.

  39. I haven’t read all the comments, so maybe someone has expressed this point of view already, but I hope that you do everything you can to protect your children from their father, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of your relationships with them. My dad was emotionally abusive while I was growing up (in similar ways to what you are describing, although not even as bad as what is going on in your situation), and although my mom would try to diffuse situations, etc. she never actually did anything to put a stop to it. Now that I have a child of my own, I am very angry with her for not protecting us from that as we were growing up, and I don’t think our relationship will ever completely heal from that. Let your son (and your other children…it’s surely going to escalate with them as they get older too) know that you are there for him, that you don’t want this to happen to him, and that you’re trying everything you can think of to prevent it.

  40. This is abuse, but I also don’t think moving will solve the problem. I think an abusive manipulative personality will try to manuever the situation so you drop off and pick up. In other words, more work for you.And the other boys still love their dad. I would search for some way to improve their relationship. To somehow show the dad, that his behavior has already tainted the relationship with the oldest son, and that will happen with the other sons as well. Hopefully a therapist can do this — even if s/he only sees the boys. But perhaps there is a neutral 3rd party who can get this message to the dad??
    And finally, the oldest son doesn’t have to see his father any more does he?? That sends a pretty strong message.

  41. One way to document the conversations is to jot it down in an email to yourself or to someone you trust with the info.I’d encourage Alex to see the school Social Worker. It’s free, it’s available, and the SW will be a Mandated Reporter. (I think that’s what they’re called.)
    Talk up a *real* reason for why you’re moving to this new location or why you’re moving out of your current location *besides* getting away from him. He might think it’s because of him, and that’s fine, but you don’t want that to be the only reason — should you ever end up in family court, regarding custody, etc. — and you don’t want the kids to feel pressured to lie or manufacture a reason.
    *hug*

  42. I strongly agree with the comment above by @Sarah.To me moving away is just running and running doesn’t fix anything. I was abused year after year by a relative I was taken to once a year. Not emotional abuse but all abuse is abuse. Just increasing the distance in the hopes that that decreases the abuse won’t work in my experience.
    Also beware. During the fraught toddler/preschool years my mother was violent and I am lucky to be alive.
    The emotional abuse and name calling went on always. I thought I was called Youuglymaliciousbitch for years as a kid. But the violence went.
    But when I became a teenager and began to separate from home as you do the violence returned.
    Verbal abuse and threatening to beat someone, knock their teeth out, smash their face in, bounce them off walls is a stepping stone to physical violence. If not by the bully than by the victim retaliating.
    Don’t wind up on the evening news. Call the police. Leaving the parent/child thing out of it threats of violence are not legal and you can get the police.
    The parent/child thing skews perspective. Less now than then but think on it. My mother struck me with her ” health” wooden sandal with high heel and my leg split so it made a deep shin wound that exposed the bone. I ran off crying and the first neighbour who saw me said ” Oh, you must have been really naughty! ” before taking me back. If I would have been injured by accident he would have helped. Nice enough man.
    Call the police. Don’t just move. That’s what my father did with his father who abused me every year. Say no.
    My mother was not mentally well. I can understand that. It’s the people looking the other way and thus colluding that I don’t now. And yes, doing what the ex does is a choice.

  43. I agree with Sarah above that moving does not seem to be the answer because the children will still see their father and then you won’t be nearby should you need to get to them.You could start by setting your own limits about whether he gets a babysitter, etc. If he has certain responsbilities and is not living up to them, then you do not need to bail him out. He can learn to live with the repurcussions of his actions.
    Also, is he a police officer in the town in which he lives? If not, I would not hesitate to call the police on him. If he is, you could still call but expect less. And the idea of letting the angry calls go to voicemail is brilliant. I never would have thought of that.
    I do like the suggestions of talk therapy for the kids. Our elementary school has a club called the banana splits for kids of divorce. They might have something like that for your younger kids. If they ever mention anything vaguely disturbing in that group situation, the social worker will get the child off to the side, do individual counseling and may even need to report it to the state as a mandatory reporter.

  44. document EVERYTHING. Does your son have a cell phone he could get video on or at least audio? I’d see if he could get some real evidence of how awful his father is.Do the courts take into account what the children want when they are older? It seems like if the children are scared of him and berated and emotionally abused, they should have some say in whether or not they WANT to see their father.
    I’d move as far as you can. But I’d got to the courts first to see if you can do something legally. Bleeding seems to be enough IMO, but I’m no lawyer. Sorry you are dealing with this. I can’t imagine knowing my kids were in such danger like that and not being able to do anything.

  45. Yes, it is absolutely abuse. Emotional and verbal abuse are very real and one of the main reasons I left my first marriage.Document everything, call the cops on him whenever possible to create a legal trail, and get the kids in the see a psychologist on a regular basis. The psychologist can then make a recommendation on whether or not the children should see their father and, if so, whether or not that time should be supervised. This information (the documentation, the legal trail, and the psych history/recommendation) can then be used in court. The judge will make the final call but all of your hard work should pay off with limited/restriction of access for him with the kids.

  46. Just a quick note re: Jill’s suggestion of audio. Audio recordings are not allowed as evidence, although video is permissable. Consider investing in a cell phone with video capability for the two oldest children. Can’t hurt, could help.

  47. This is abuse. Smacking is abuse. Bleeding gums is abuse. Squeezing cheeks so they hurt is abuse. Bullying is abuse. In every meaning of the word abuse.I would talk to more attorneys. Get all kids in counseling. Document every interaction, phone call, everything. Build up an arsenal of evidence of how he abuses your children whether its physical or not.
    And move.
    So wonderful that you have a supportive husband who clearly cares for you and your littles.

  48. Ellen again…I really want to thank everyone for their advice and feedback. It has helped more than you will ever know. It has allowed me to take the actions I need to take with a lot less guilt than I was feeling…and that is a tremendous relief!
    We have decided to take a mixture of all of the suggestions. We are moving but only 25 miles away (40 minute drive). While it may not be a solution, getting some distance can’t hurt.
    In addition, I am getting a lawyer involved even if just to assist with documentation. I have decided to get the boys in counseling right away. They are definitely going to need some guidance on how to best deal with their father on an on-going basis.
    I have been documenting things for about a year now so I have that on my side and will use it if things escalate further.
    I also did talk to my oldest 2 about the fact that I will call 911 for any future incidents and coached them on how to do it if they feel scared or threatened. Often times he will not allow them to use the phone but if they can get to one they know what to do…
    Once again, I truly appreciate everyone that shared their abuse stories and experiences. It has given me the push I needed to know that it IS THAT BAD and that it is ENOUGH to take action…I don’t have to and shouldn’t wait for it to get worse, even if the law disagrees.
    It has also let me know that I may need to explore some of my own issues regarding healthy boundaries…and I plan to do that also. It’s never too late to learn 🙂
    You guys ROCK!

  49. I haven’t read all the comments yet, but a few thoughts come to mind.1) If ex-hb calls again to say, come pick him up before I hurt him, your FIRST call should be to the police (911) & say exactly what he said. You are 40 min away, but the police in his jurisdiction are NOT that far away.
    Leave a clear paper trail that you are concerned by what the child & the adult are telling you. DO NOT TRY TO DO THIS ALL YOURSELF.
    2) If you decide to move, be sure to get legal counsel in advance, and consider restructuring the visitation agreement, because you will then be that much farther away from the children & unable to just hop in the car to rescue them. If you have a record of having to call 911 XYZ number of times prior to moving away, you will have more ammunition toward getting the visitation agreement amended, even perhaps ultimately requiring supervised visits?
    3) Do not buy into guilt-trips that YOU got him in trouble with his job — it would be HIS behavior that prompted the 911 calls. Tell the kids that if they are frightened that he will hurt them, THEY can also call 911.

  50. Ellen, I’m so glad you gave us the update. It sounds as though you are doing a great job sorting through all the options and possibilities and making reasonable decisions that you feel good about. Again, please feel free to contact me if you want to vent or run anything by someone who understands.And yes, Moxie readers rock! I got invaluable support and help here when I was in the thick of it.

  51. Everyone has already written what I would have, but I wanted to comment on the “any Dad is better than no Dad” concept. I’m not a therapist, so this is just my opinion having grown up in a volatile family situation. I think if relationships turn toxic, it shouldn’t matter what the relationship is. In other words, being without your ex might be better for your kids. It helps that you seem to have a positive male in their lives in your new husband.I admire your courage in writing to the group and taking the action you already have…it must be terrifying and very difficult to be in this situation, particularly if you’ve experienced abuse yourself in the past.

  52. My ex was the one who actually moved, but it did make a huge difference. Then he got married and his wife isn’t interested in having a kid around, so they only take him 1 night e/o week, and generally it isn’t long enough for anyone’s temper to get triggered. Move and then see. But I suspect it will mean less visits. And make it clear to their dad that you are willing to keep them whenever he can’t. He’ll probably buy into it.

  53. This might possibly sound a bit harsh, but: you need to move, or your sons will not only continue being abused, they will learn that their mother cannot and is not willing to protect them. I dont know the specifics of your custody arrangement, but if I were you I’d talk to a lawyer ASAP and try to get full custody, with supervised visits ONLY for their father. Seriously. He could really, really hurt them–he already has, but he could hurt them beyond repair, physically and psychologically.Also I’d get all of you therapy as soon as possible.
    Good luck. I will be thinking of you.

  54. I’d move farther than 40 minutes, but not so far that she has to report it to any custodial judge. My sympathies to the family.

  55. When you talk with a lawyer, ask about a guardian ad litem “G.A.L.” investigation. You might need to open a new post-divorce action, like a complaint for modification, in order to get a GAL assigned, but if you move, then you might need to do that anyway. A GAL is usually an attorney of social worker assigned by your judge to investigate your family’s living situation to help assess what might be in the best interests of the children. There can also be special GALs assigned to assess whether it is appropriate to waive therapeutic privilege, which means that, if your boys are in therapy (go do that ASAP), then if their privilege is waived, the therapist can disclose information as well.This kind of process varies state by state, but you should at least inquire about it.

  56. I think it doesn’t matter so much whether your gut says your ex would or would not hurt the boys — rather, what matters is what the boys think, feel, and fear, and what it’s like to live with those thoughts and feelings.I think you’re perfectly justified in protecting your children — I think the situation is alarming, and protecting your children from harm, rather than waiting for it to escalate, is a wise and caring move. It speaks to your love and commitment as a parent that you’re willing to uproot your home to protect your kids. Take comfort in that.
    I really hate the idea that you are “taking his kids away from him.” I think that’s the sort of thing that people say to make someone feel bad for standing up to abuse, or simply because they’re gossips who don’t know the half of it. You’re protecting the kids, not taking them away. And let’s face it: the ex is perfectly capable of getting anger management counseling or taking other steps to enable him to be closer to his children. It’s not you doing the taking: It’s him putting the distance in their relationships.
    In addition to moving, I’d let the kids make their own call on whether they want to see their dad, as much as possible. The older kids can have activities those days.
    Trust yourself on this one.
    (I’ve just read your updates: good on you for taking action.)

  57. @ Ellen, you rock too!Without the flooding emotion and ire I should say that I can still, years after his untimely death, hear my father say ” you should live far from your family” to great acclaim. He meant his father by that as it happened.
    My experience just taught me that living far away is good, but not the solution. Because you can live next door to the abusive party as long as you say NO and it is a clear no to said party.
    In which case it is much, much better not to live next door but a way away. Moving is a good thing in such circumstances.
    Be warned though, some seemingly lazy and housebound abusers, particularly male, can become active and pursue. My grandfather did after I said no and honestly he seemed rooted to to the spot of home before.
    Counselling is good, and will help in lots of ways. Documenting is good too. So you’re doing all the right things.
    It is intensely frustrating. Anything in the quaintly named domestic violence sphere. If you read cases you can clearly see this escalation. In hindsight. And often the victims sought help before the escalation. And were fobbed off.
    Nobody would do anything about my mother until she attacked social workers/ health workers who were not family members.I did run for self preservation long before.
    And @ Schwa de vivre wrote a very true thing I think. Your ex can change his behaviour. If he wants contact with his children and they want contact with him he can work at his anger management!
    So keep fighting the good fight. And I concur that it is absolutely the most priceless thing you can do for your children. Standing up for them, taking action, giving them a voice through counselling and not looking the other way and rationalising and continuing the cycle.

  58. Ellen, you’re on the right track. Keep up the advocacy on behalf of your sons…Attorney here, with only a handful of family law cases and family mediations under my belt. So don’t take this as legal advice…
    (1) Does your State allow Amendments to Parenting Plans/Custody Agreements? My Rocky Mountain State allows them when there has been a substantial change of circumstance and/or there’s a threat to the child. You could try to file a Petition to Amend Parenting Plan (or whatever similar doc applies in your State) and ask the Court for supervised visitation, reduce custody, reduce duration of custody, etc. You can also ask the Court to *require* your ex- to take parenting or anger management classes. These types of classes are typically available at very low cost. Also, the Court is likely to take your oldest sons’ desires into account.
    (2) Ask your atty. if there’s an age when the child’s custody desire will govern. In my State, the Courts will almost always grant a child’s custody request once they turn 14. Your oldest son may be very close to meeting that age requirement. (Not that that is much solace but at least it might lead to a definitive end for him much sooner than you think.)
    (3) If I heard this story in a family mediation, was able to gauge your ex’s reaction/temper for myself, and I thought there was imminent danger to the children, I would probably report it to CPS. That step is drastic for a mediator because we want families to feel safe to share unflattering details without threat of CPS involvement, but we’re also ethically bound to break certain confidences, of which the parties are aware. It would be a close call so I would definitely follow the mediation group’s protocol.
    So bottom line is: this sounds like dangerous behavior to me and I’m surprised you didn’t get a bigger response from the attorneys and hotline you first consulted.

  59. Ellen,Yes, you ROCK too!! I’m so impressed by your clear-headed sorting out of all this, and I know how overwhelming and frustrating it can be. You are a great mama!!
    Really glad to hear you’re finding your way to a solution that works for you and your family. In terms of counseling I suggest you contact your local domestic violence (DV) service agency to ask for names of counselors who work with kids AND who are fluent in dealing with abusive parent issues. (Amazingly there are still counselors out there who don’t “get it” about abuse and can be less than helpful.) Abuse is about power and control, and there are great tools out there to help your kids see what is going on with their dad, to understand it is NOT their fault, and to assist them in making the best choices about how they can respond. I spent five years working in the field and know there’s lots of help out there for your family, but the first step (which you’ve taken) is calling it what it is: ABUSE. Here’s one tool to get you started: http://www.theduluthmodel.org/pdf/Abuse%20of%20Children.pdf
    And while I hate to say this, finding a good therapist can be a real challenge. DON’T GIVE UP! Giving your sons a safe place they can go to unload everything and get support is the greatest gift. There may be things they don’t feel they can say to you, because they don’t want you to worry, or they feel responsible or confused about what has happened. And a good therapist can get them to hear things about their strengths, and re-enforce their good choices, in a different way than you can. Also, age appropriate reading material about living with abuse can be very helpful for kids. Some kids get far more from a story than they can from therapy. It may be easiest to start with resources about peer bullying, and move on from there. Again, your local DV services agency may have titles to suggest.
    The first thing DV advocates always do is work out a Safety Plan, which you’ve started doing with your sons already. In addition to coaching them on calling 911 you may also want to explore things they could do in addition, such as running to a neighbor’s house. It seems obvious, but in moments of crisis we forget to just RUN. Also, since you made the comment in your update about your ex not letting the kids use the phone, I’d echo what some of the other posters have mentioned about getting a mobile phone for at least your oldest kid. You can decide if coaching him about using the video function is a safe idea, this sounds risky on a few fronts. As a cop, your ex has a lot to lose if he’s charged with a domestic violence assault. And he certainly knows this. The first priority is keeping the kids safe, so making sure they know how to call for help if he’s escalating and denying them access to the phone is most important. But obviously they would need to keep the phone’s existence secret from him, which is why running to the neighbor’s might be more practical.
    In the state I worked in getting a parent’s visitation terminated for abuse was nearly impossible. Thus, we learned to help the healthy parent give lots of support to the kids, and teach them how to stay safe during their visits.
    You are doing a great job. Your instincts are excellent. TRUST YOUR GUT and keep reaching out for help when you need it. Best of luck.

  60. Hi, Ellen,It’s fantastic that you are doing what you need to do to keep your kids safe. Your new husband sounds like a real gem!!
    In case you need more convincing that your instincts are correct, these are my two cents:
    The red flags for abuse that I see in your story about your ex:
    1) You described the “honeymoon” period after the abusive episode–and implied that it is typical of him. The cycle of violence (see this site: http://www.domesticviolence.org/cycle-of-violence/ )
    is: Tension building > Abusive episode > Remorse > Calm Period > [and back to] Tension building . Often victims of violence don’t press charges (or drop them) when the abuser is in the remorseful stage. Don’t fall for it!!
    2) You said “he’s a cop and knows what line not to cross.” Yep, abusers know just how far to take things without getting into trouble. Kind of puts that “I lost control!” excuse into perspective, doesn’t it?? It’s a lie.
    3) He blames you and the kids; he doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions. That seems reminiscent of the “You made me hit you because you…” excuse. Alarm bells are going off in my head. I agree with everyone else that says it is going to get even worse if you don’t change something about the situation.
    I agree with the people that tell you to contact a domestic violence organization for help. They are familiar with laws in your state and have ideas about escape plans and safeguards you can have. Please do consider talking to one of those organizations if you haven’t already done so.
    Thinking of you!

  61. Move. This is abuse, and he probably will escalate the violence, regardless if he’s a cop. The little ones love their dad, but that love will turn sour as they get older and their he starts heaping more abuse on them. That is not a safe or healthy environment for them to be in, and time spent with him should be severely limited (maybe supervised visits) or non at all. It’s better to grow up without your biological father in the picture at all (I did this) than to be subjected to an abusive bully.

  62. I also wanted to mention that your son was being disrespectful because his father has never shown him respect. Your son is merely behaving in the way he has been taught by his father. He needs to be separated from his father and to be shown that yelling, name-calling and hitting are not how people should be treated.

  63. “I don’t get why a move is the magic solution here. Even if you move he still spends time with them at some point and that point is going to be a problem unless you do something else. If it were me, id get a lawyer ASAP and anything similar happened again, I’d call 911, cop or not. I would not drive to pick up to “rescue” to avoid calling police. I’d call police and then show up. I’d let threatening repeat calls go to voicemail. I’d prep my kid in advance that things could get worse and make sure he knows what to do — call 911, leave, take bros with him. I would not move as a first option.”This. This x1,000. There is no way in HELL I would willingly allow my children to go back to visit this man without third-party supervision. I would call my lawyer and take this to court IMMEDIATELY. I would fight his rights for visitation tooth and nail with every fiber of my being. It is NOT okay for kids to be handed over simply b/c it is their father. Also, as someone else pointed out, further distance just means YOU have further to go when Dad calls to complain. If you are going to uproot your life, uproot it with a fight to end unsupervised visitation, not to run away, which might not work. Next time, call 911. If a screaming match between two adults is grounds to call 911 (and it is, I’ve called the cops on neighbors, it’s called domestic disturbance), then it’s grounds when it’s between an adult and a child.

  64. what Foster posted and the commenter quoted in Foster’s post.and I hear you on not having a clear sense of what’s a problem due to your background. it sucks to not trust yourself to make the right call. However, you have your current husband and the wisdom to check in here to get perspective so BRAVA.
    Good luck & keep us posted as you’re able. I remember worrying about other people from this community as they went through similar things.

  65. Don’t know if someone else said this already because I didn’t have time to look through all the comments. But can’t you ask a judge to review your custoday arrangemtns and/or sue for full custody without proving physical abuse? Judges award full custody for many different reasons, some of which would surely involve the emotional treatment of these kids, and as they get older, their feelings about what parent they want to live with. Unless I am totally off base here. But you don’t have to get him charged with abuse to take custody away, I would think.I feel so sad for your kids (for having a parent they don’t feel safe with), and I commend you for working so hard to do the right thing.

  66. I would move as far away as I could and never answer the man’s phone calls ever again. That is just too far and if it could get that far I believe that he could hurt him even more. This is so sad and terrible. If it were me I would protect my children even if it isn’t enough for legal abuse it is definitely abuse.http://myamaternity.blogspot.com

  67. To Ellen,I truly hope that the move will keep your children safe. I am glad to hear that you have a lawyer involved and that you have documentation – you know, just in case. That’s something that you’d want to have and not use, than to need and not have.
    Children are precious and it is my wish that their lives will be filled with love and gentleness.

  68. Could you give the kids a “safe word” in case the ever call you that you know that they feel uncomfortable but your ex won’t know?

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