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The loudest roar comes from the hardest of places

This was undoubtedly the hardest part of my life so far. I wanted to tell this part not so that you would have sympathy for our story but so that you might find strength and hope for your own battle that you are facing. I tell this story out of scars and not wounds. I've spent many hours in good counselling sessions, lots of times on my knees in prayer and an awful lot of time reading God's word.

My first contact with court was for the repossession of our martial home. I had just given birth to my daughter a few weeks before. I remember pleading to the judge to just give me two more weeks before the repossession date to enable me to find a suitable rented home to move to. She graciously granted my request. That started 9 years of litigation. Those years I almost lost my mind; my self-confidence; my self-esteem but I clung on to my faith. My relationship with God literally saved my sanity in those years.

I never denied contact at the beginning. So when my daughter was 6 weeks old I was surprised as anybody that I was sat in a mediators office talking about weekend contact. My husband was still in the Mental Health ward in hospital as a patient and he was talking about whole weekend contact with a 6 week old baby, 3 year old and 5 year old. All this happened without any talking beforehand. The letter from the mediation service landed on my doormat one day with no pre-warning or conversation. This is not where I’d planned my life to be. The case was determined ‘unresolved’ by the mediation service and my husband went straight to court in order to “have what every father was entitled to”.

The first year of my daughter’s life was an awful custody battle. First stop was supervised contact. A horrible soulless place where a parent has contact in a small room with a trained person looking on. A perfect parenting stage. I remember listening to my daughters screams as this stranger tried to console her. It was the thing of nightmares.

We then moved to supervised contact in a room full of other parents who were in similar situations. One person to supervise a whole room of parents desperately trying to connect with their birth children. A really unnatural environment that is neither helpful for child or parent.

The court system is an awful place to be stuck in. Our case was heard in the days when legal aid was freely available to all who needed it. For me, legal aid was not the best. It meant my legal fees were paid yes, but it also meant that I had a different barrister each and every time we went to court. I had a solicitor who did the paperwork and would instruct the barristers, but there is only so much of someone’s story that you can read without fully understanding the person behind the story. Every time I saw a new barrister I would have to explain the backstory and progress of the case so far because I didn’t have a relationship with my legal team. It was exhausting. I had a mix of barristers. Some would believe my story and try to defend me as much as possible. Others looked at me with distain, like I was something that they had got stuck on their shoe. The court process lasted 5 years and drained me.

During this time unsupervised contact was granted. I remember the first time that he picked up our children. He was granted 2 hours of unsupervised contact. We met in a public park for handover. He chose to take the children on a 45 minute drive to see his parents. That was one of the biggest indications that seeing his children wasn’t his primary objective. My own unofficial diagnosis is that he is a narcissist and a bully.

Unsupervised contact for the children was hell. They would refuse to go. Come home unkempt and covered in bruises. Hungry and thirsty and often in need of medical help. I remember my daughter’s nappy rash got so bad that her whole bottom was bleeding and covered in open sores. The doctor prescribed her a really strong cream to help. I pleaded with my now ex husband to use different nappies; even provided them for him to use. But just to punish me he kept using the plastic nappies that made the rash worse.

Now I know what you are thinking. Where are social services in all this? Why didn’t I stop contact? Why wasn’t any evidence shown in court?

Whatever systems we have adopted in the UK some of them are broken. In my opinion the father on the roof in the Spider-Man costume demanding equal parenting rights for fathers damaged an already broken system. Should both mothers and fathers have equal parenting rights? Absolutely yes. Should they have equal rights where abuse is found? Absolutely not no. I found that the courts at that time, were heavily weighted in the fathers favour for fear of another Spider-Man incident.

I was called all sorts of names by not only my ex husband but also his legal team and at times by the judge herself. There were times when I wouldn’t send the children to contact. Their crying became too much and their physical illness meant that it was just not in the children’s best interests to let them go. I was threatened with losing the children entirely. I was told by the judge that if the children refused to go, full custody would be given to their father. When my barrister brought up allegations of abuse with photographic and audio evidence, their defence was that my ex husband had written books that were on sale in WHSmith so he couldn’t be capable of such abuse! This was obviously way before the time of high profile child abuse cases such as Jimmy Saville.

We had social services visit the house and determine whether I was a good parent. My ex husband had convinced the judge that I was mad and incapable to looking after the emotional needs of the children. All the time it was very evident that they were being physically and emotionally abused by their father. Of course social services found no evidence of neglect in my care, but also not in their father’s care. I provided evidence, the children spoke of their abuse, but at their ages they were ignored as they were ‘incapable of giving evidence’. Like I said a broken system. A narcissist is extremely good at manipulation. They are infallible and everyone else is at fault and deserves heavy criticism.

Eventually court decided that full unsupervised weekend contact would be allowed. They determined that there was no abuse, despite the evidence presented. Crucially for me, it meant that I was able to keep custody of the children. They would live with me during the week and every other weekend their would visit their father.

We learnt to manage these weekends. I would prepare the children as far as possible. They would cry. We would pray. They would go. They would come back with evidence of neglect as well as physical and emotional abuse. It would take a while for them to readjust to being at home. I heavily leaned on the promise that God would look after them when I was unable to be there. The Bible says that God loves our children even more than we could ever love them. I clung to that promise.

In 2015 my new job meant that we had to move out of the area that we’d lived in for the past 7 years. I have always tried to teach the children about adventure, the greatest one being that you walk closely beside God. If He asks you to move, you move. I felt a very clear calling to this new area of ministry. So we packed up our house and moved. Not as big of a move as some families experience, but to us moving counties and an area that we’d known for a long time was a big step. It was like a new start for us.

However, contact and more importantly, the emotional, physical and financial abuse that we were all facing went with us. Contact became more and more distressing. My middle child would literally run away from home so that he could feel in control of what was happening with him. The bruises became more prominent. The cries to not go got louder. Then one day, my ex husband announced that he was moving house. He wouldn’t let me know where to nor the children. This started ringing all sorts of alarm bells.

My middle child was particularly showing signs of distress. He’s a guy that likes routine and order. Throw something unordinary like a house move in the mix and there is the potential for a full on melt down. When we had our own house move I spent months preparing him. We visited the school, house and church several times; spoke about it a lot; met with new families and had a countdown chart at home. He was prepared. However this move with a man that he had no trust in and was under the sufferance of abuse, was disastrous for him. I tried to explain about our middle child’s needs to my ex husband, but he was having none of it. The children would move house when they next came to stay (the following weekend) and no preparation was necessary.

There have been times in my life where I have remained quiet for keeping the peace sake. There are times when I have roared like a lioness protecting her cubs. This was a definite roar time.

I sought legal advice and booked myself into see a family solicitor for an appointment. Because I was in a new area I had to find a new firm. The advice I was given was amazing and suddenly jolted me awake to fight for the children instead of being scared of losing them.

There was no legal aid available so I chose to represent myself. Lots of people in the family court system were representing themselves due to the lack of legal aid so why not me? I had done a post graduate diploma in law and worked in the legal world for a number of years so I had some experience. Not only that, but my previous experience of being represented by somebody else was that nobody knew my family like me. Also because we had moved counties it meant that the judge that had heard our case for the previous 5 years was no longer able to hear it as it was out of her district. So I made an application to vary the terms of the court order and got ready to fight.

Something had changed in my spirit. I was no longer worried about losing the children. I was more worried about the continuation of abuse and how that was affecting them. Don’t get me wrong, I was always worried about their safety, but the thought of losing them and having them face an eternity of abuse at the hand of their father was greater than them having to face a weekend of it every 2 weeks.

I prayed and prayed. Then God just dropped this verse into my heart one day. “The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.” Exodus 14:14. Just stay calm! I just knew that God had my back. He was the one that gave me the strength to face another court battle. He would stand beside me in the court room. Whatever the outcome, God had my back. Every time I stepped into the court room I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. Even when the legal defence team tried to tear me apart in the court room, declaring I was insane and demanding a psychiatrist’s assessment of me I stayed calm. Not only had the location and judge changed, but my heart, mind and soul had changed. I finally allowed God to take full control of the battle I was facing. This didn’t mean that I just held up my hands and did no work. It just meant that instead of worrying all the time, I handed over everything to God. Every worry, every thought, every plan.

We had a psychological report for all 5 of us. The report clearly showed firstly that I was sane and a good parent and secondly that the children were clearly suffering abuse. The day I read the report I cried. Huge big thankful tears. I cannot even describe the relief that I felt. For years I’d been told by my ex husband, his legal team and the judge that I was insane; that the children weren’t being abused; that I was coercing them to say that they were being hit, neglected, swore at, made to sit in their own sick, denied food and water and a list of other horrendous acts of abuse. The report blasted all those myths to the side and spoke the truth. I was sane and the children were victims of abuse.

I remember the day that they were presented in court like it was yesterday. The legal defence team scrambled about trying to discredit the report. Social services scrambled about trying to cover their mistakes. I just sat in shock like it was all happening to somebody else. The judge mentioned a custodial sentence and we were dismissed. Our next court appearance just before our 3 day trial saw a complete change of events that I hadn’t seen coming. The legal defence team had gone and now it was just my ex husband on his own. He told the judge that he was withdrawing his case and wouldn’t fight for contact or residency of the children. Another day in court that I’ll remember.

I came out of the court room completely in a daze. My dad had been to every single court appearance with me. He had taken time off work and travelled to court with me. Even though he couldn’t physically go into the court room with me his physical presence in the waiting room was so important. On the odd occasion that my dad couldn’t make it my mum would stand in his place.

My story will be different to your story. I don’t think there are any direct comparisons with anybody’s story. But I hope that you find something in my story that gives you hope, determination and courage for your own battle.

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