Every week a group of a dozen or so women gathers online to share information, support each other and help strategize for upcoming court hearings.
They’re all divorcees. Some are in the midst of an ongoing court battle with their ex-husbands over child custody and child support payments; others have already been through the system and have come out on the other side with experience and knowledge to share. They’re an off-shoot of a much larger group of women who number in the hundreds and meet for the same purpose.
These women – and other groups like them – were brought together following the murder of Jennifer Dulos by her husband, Fotis, during a bitter battle in Connecticut’s family court system, which saw more than 500 court filings in just two years.
The Dulos case, which garnered national attention when Jennifer went missing four years ago, was seen by these women as emblematic of the dangers women face when going through a divorce, particularly when their husbands have been abusive.
And, they say, Connecticut’s family court system is not only ignoring those abuse allegations – some substantiated by police and social workers, others not – but enabling it. They claim their exes use the court system to exert control over them and their children through its web of judges, attorneys, and guardians ad litem (GAL) who dismiss their safety concerns in a concerted push to side with fathers, even in cases when there is abuse against both the children and mother.
“What I’ve been experiencing with the family court system since around 2009 and on is favoritism,” said “KC” who says she was twice strangled by her ex-boyfriend with who she had a daughter. “I’ve noticed a huge shift starting around 2010, 2011 in our case where I was being completely ignored on the abuse my child and I have suffered from, told not to discuss it in court, judge hushing me, not allowing me to speak. Literally just focusing more on father’s needs, father’s rights and access, things of that nature.”
KC was forced to get a total of four restraining orders and a protection order over the years. She was awarded sole custody of their daughter in 2008, and in 2011 she changed her identity and relocated out of state with the help of a domestic violence agency after the father had repeatedly tracked them down.
“They walked me through everything and then they paid to have me relocated,” KC said. “It was supposed to be out of the country, but I was too afraid after the years of abuse I’d gone through, and I still believed in my country, I still believed they would protect me as long as I was telling the truth and that is not what happened.”
What happened instead was that five years after being awarded sole custody, the GAL – an attorney charged with representing the child in a custody battle – who had been assigned to her case contacted the State Police alleging KC had skipped out on court dates – which she disputes – never mentioning that KC had sole custody and essentially making the claim she had kidnapped her child, although no arrest warrants were filed.
A state trooper was able to track down her location, called her ex-boyfriend who was living in Hawaii, and gave him the information. Her ex then tracked down KC and her daughter. “He has constantly located us since that happened and that was 2013,” KC said. “He’s constantly stalking us and threatening us ever since, causing my daughter and I to move practically every year since. We moved a total of 18 times.”
Another woman, Lisa, is still in the midst of her divorce for going on nine years now. She’s racked up over $400,000 in attorney’s fees alone and has cycled through numerous attorneys who she says have all stuck by her even when she wasn’t able to pay. She also has a protective order against her ex-husband after he threatened to “bash my head in.”
Lisa says she’s owed roughly $200,000 in child support and alimony payments and despite orders from a judge, her ex continues to file motions, and file for payment modifications sending them both back to the drawing board again and again.
“It’s just been a nonstop situation of psychological abuse and harassment and from one attorney to the next,” Lisa said. “It’s hard to put into words because it’s gone on for so long and your motto is you tell the truth, you present the facts and what else is there because this is a court of law? I just wanted to be as amicable as possible in a divorce situation. I have three kids and I didn’t understand that someone was capable of pursuing all of this through the judicial system.”
Sue, whose case has seen roughly 500 motions filed, was threatened with jail if she didn’t get her 15-year-old son to visit his father, who has abused them both in the past. Her son, larger than she, refused and Sue told the court that she couldn’t force her son to go. Finally, the judge threatened her with jail time if her son did not visit his father.
“The judge put a gun to my head. Either I kick my son out and I get DCF called on me, or I go to jail. Either way, I don’t have a choice but to hand him over,” Sue said. “My son did it because he didn’t want me to go to jail, but my son is not going to able to last much longer.”
Sue says at least one visit with the father resulted in the police being called when her son told employees of a gym he attended that he wasn’t comfortable with the man. “He cannot stand his father,” she said. “He’s trying to keep his cool because he doesn’t want to start a fight.”
“What it comes down to is there’s no neutral people regulating the behavior of judges attorneys, GALs, it’s basically the wild west in our courtroom and the judge knows that he can say and do whatever he wants and there’s zero accountability and no ramifications for whatever they do,” said Jessica, a woman from Texas who now says she has been trapped in Connecticut for 8 years after she fled here with her son to escape her abusive ex.
“I had a thriving career, my family lives in Texas. Every time I try to move there, he files a motion to restrain, and the court keeps granting, forcing me to remain here against my will,” Jessica said. “I could tell you a million abusive things my ex has done to me, but the issue is the people who are enabling it. He’s still gonna be an abuser at the end of the day. If not me then somebody else, but it’s the people, the key players, that are enabling these abusers and enabling this to keep going on.”
Those women and their stories are just a few, but there are hundreds if not thousands more like them who say the family court system is rigged against women, particularly those who have suffered abuse by their exes and are now in long-standing court battles. Those court battles, they say, are used by their exes to maintain control over their lives and their children’s, threatening them not only financially, but also physically, emotionally and mentally.
Betsy Keller, a public relations professional who underwent her own extensive divorce battle in family court and helped push through Jennifer’s Law in 2021 – a redefinition of what constitutes domestic abuse spearheaded by former state senator Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich – says these kinds of “high conflict” divorce cases are different from a typical divorce.
“What happens in a normal divorce is it’s acrimonious, it’s adversarial, it doesn’t feel good. Rarely is it a mutual, good feelings for one another but you get through it,” Keller said. “They say that 95 percent of people, even though it’s adversarial, they figure it out. They end up signing the divorce decree, they mediate, they collaborate, and they get the hell out of there without spending, in Fairfield County, it could be a million dollars.”
“The 5 percent of cases that end up in a courtroom, in a trial, whether its finances or whether it’s the children, there’s a problem,” Keller said. She estimates, based on judicial statistics, that there are roughly 30,000 divorces in Connecticut each year, leaving roughly 1,500 cases that are high conflict, ending up in trial court. “It’s a red flag for an abuser, it’s a red flag for somebody who has a personality disorder. You can’t possibly be empathetic and not see that if you harm the mother, you harm the child.”
Following the Dulos case, Keller created CT Protective Moms and says she now has 400 mothers who are going through or been through acrimonious divorce cases.
“Five years ago, I founded Connecticut Protective Moms as I realized there was a need to reach out and support moms in family court and explain to them the chaos in their cases was not justice, but a industry built on the 5 percent of ‘high conflict’ cases which never end and are so lucrative to the appointed ‘professionals,'” Keller said. “What I found was none of the other mothers were talking to each other to lend support to lend information, not legal advice, but advice about how to deal with allegations of abuse. In my opinion from the thousand foot view, yes, the court is completely ignoring allegations of abuse and abuse in the past. It’s not physical harm in the present, but its coercive control and all the things that encompass that is being ignored.”
The mothers interviewed for this article also say abuse is being “swept under the rug,” in the court system and are often advised by attorneys to not even bring it up, even when there are arrests and substantiated cases of abuse because they’re afraid that they might actually lose their children if they “step out of line,” which keeps them silent as court proceedings continue for years on end.
Family court is a difficult topic to cover. Individual cases are rife with allegations on both sides, hundreds of court filings, and, generally, both parties feel they have been wronged – not just women, but men – and the truth is difficult to ascertain.
But the belief that Connecticut’s family court system is broken is shared widely among those who have been through it. When word got out through various groups in late 2022 that Connecticut Inside Investigator was looking into the systemic issues of family court, our editor was so inundated with emails, texts, and late-night phone calls that he had to change his voicemail and shut off notifications. Calls, texts, and emails have been received at our newsroom almost every day since. Further tips on this or any other topic relevant to the people of Connecticut can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The women from those groups interviewed, however, say they rarely talk to the media for fear of retaliation, fear of losing their custody battles.
“Many of these women in Connecticut, especially in the larger group, have already lost their children and they’re fighting desperately to get their children back. They’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars but they’re not going to come forward and jeopardize that one bit of hope,” one of the women said. “They’re not going to waste that and talk to any journalists. That’s why you’re not hearing from women, and you won’t until they’re out of the system. It’s the women that are out of the system that are helping the women in the system now.”
However, they do write letters to the governor, the attorney general, really, anyone who they think might listen and be able to enact some kind of change in the law. But they say they know the court system won’t change itself – there’s too much money at stake and too many personal associations.
“You can take all the time to file complaints against family service people, judges, attorneys – it all goes to the bar association and these people are heavily intertwined into the court system, some of them are even GALs,” Jessica said. “So, you’re going to complain about a judge to a GAL that’s supposed to hold these judges accountable when these judges are putting tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets? It’s never going to happen.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the family court system was skewed in the opposite direction – toward mothers. Known as the Tender Years Doctrine, the policy was a product of the 19th-century women’s rights push in Great Britain and was used by U.S. family court throughout most of the 20th century. It is probably the idea that most are familiar with when it comes to divorce: the mother gets the kids, especially if they are young, and the father has to pay.
But that doctrine has gradually fallen out of favor, with “best interest of the child,” now the main philosophy of the court system. Included in that transition away from the Tender Years doctrine, is the push by men’s rights groups with fathers who want to retain full or partial custody of their children.
For the most part, that is considered a positive development. Children tend to do better with both parents in their lives and actively engaged in their upbringing. However, that shift has had unintended consequences, according to these women, who say that push to keep fathers in the lives of their children at all costs is enabling their abusers to continue abusing them, albeit in different ways, and putting both them and their children at risk.
Connecticut established the Fatherhood Initiative in 1999 to “promote the positive involvement and interaction of fathers with their children,” according to the legislation. It was particularly focused on low-income families to encourage fathers, married or not, to remain active and engaged in the lives of their children – a noble idea, to be sure. The legislation was also tied to changes in how child support is determined and meted out in family court.
By 2003, it became the John S. Martinez Fatherhood Initiative, named after late state representative John Martinez, deputy speaker of the house, who passed away in 2002 and was an active member of the Fatherhood Advisory Council, according to the state’s website. That initiative became tied to federal funding in 2006 with a five-year, $5 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to promote responsible fatherhood in Connecticut. By 2009, legislation was enacted whereby the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services was to seek out federal and private funds to help support the state’s fatherhood initiative.
That shift toward promoting fathers in the lives of their children – again, not a bad thing in the majority of cases – was not limited to Connecticut, it was part of a broad federal push as well, particularly under President Barack Obama’s administration through the establishment of Fatherhood.gov, a website created by the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, funded by the Office of Family Assistance.
It is a “national resource for fathers, practitioners, programs/Federal grantees, states, and the public at-large who are serving or interested in supporting strong fathers and families,” according to their website.
In 2010, numerous Connecticut state agencies, including the Judicial Branch, signed onto a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to “continue to actively participate in efforts that further the objectives of the John S. Martinez Fatherhood Initiative of Connecticut, both within our respective agencies and as interagency partners,” according to the MOU. The MOU also involved actively seeking funding to promote the initiative.
The MOU encompasses a wide swath of Connecticut’s social agencies and their activities, including workforce training through the Department of Labor, assistance to incarcerated fathers through the Department of Corrections, education curricula through the State Department of Education, and to “provide Magistrate Court services for non-custodial parents, especially fathers, as it relates to access via the long established Federal Grant collaboration with the Department of Social Services,” among many other things.
So, there is clearly federal funding for Connecticut agencies tied to the fatherhood initiative, and the mothers who were in the family court system at the time of the MOU say they saw a dramatic shift in the years following: “It’s now become a bias and sexual discrimination problem,” one of the mothers said.
Danielle Pollack, policy manager for the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, says that over the last 25 years, there has been a special emphasis on shared parenting and what’s called the “pro-contact culture,” but that doing so at all costs is not safe, particularly for children at the center of a custody case.
“Certainly, it’s a laudable goal to have healthy safe parents involved in kids’ lives whether the parents are divorced or separated or something in between,” Pollack said. “The problem is when you have domestic violence or family violence situations, and overwhelmingly the people who are perpetrating intentional and severe harms in family violence situations are predominantly male caregivers. That’s just a fact, there’s nothing ideological about it.”
“When parents can’t agree and they’re in court fighting about it, the majority of those cases have family violence allegations, whether it’s against adults or the child or a combination thereof,” Pollack said. “So, if you approach the idea that children should be equally shared amongst both parents and that should be the primary mission and the primary goal, rather than child safety and child well-being, you’re going to have some bad outcomes in those cases where children are in danger, if your primary goal is to ensure contact at all costs.”
Part of the philosophical shift in the family court system, both in Connecticut and nationally, has to do with parental alienation and reunification therapy.
Parental alienation is a term that originated from the late Dr. Richard Gardner and, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), is defined as “a collection of one parent’s behaviors aimed at causing the child to become alienated from the other parent.” Effectively saying that one parent is brainwashing the child against the other. However, proponents of parental alienation concept say the term does not include instances when the child is alienated from the other parent due to behavior such as abuse, addiction or abandonment.
Gardner’s work was largely self-published, lacking peer review and scientific rigor, but Pollack says it has taken hold in family courts throughout the country, particularly when there are allegations of abuse, and, as a legal strategy, it has been quite effective – part of the reason mothers now shy away from mentioning abuse in family court.
“In essence, it’s a concept that says that when moms allege abuse, they’re making it up or they’re hysterical or they’re mentally unstable or they’re vindictive and there’s not any abuse actually happening,” Pollack said. “That concept is still being used a lot in family courts everywhere when a parent, usually a father although there are exceptions, is accused of abusing the child and or the former partner. In response to that, the alleged abuser will claim the mother is alienating the child and that’s the reason the child is actually resisting contact, not that the child is actually at risk or has reasonable fears. It’s a very effective legal strategy.”
A study published by GW University and co-authored by Joan S. Meier who heads the National Family Violence Law Center, looked at 2,000 court opinions and found that courts are extremely skeptical of abuse allegations. When fathers make claims of parental alienation the courts frequently reject the abuse claims, and the mother often loses custody of the child.
“Analysis of over 2,000 court opinions confirms that courts are skeptical of mothers’ claims of abuse by fathers; this skepticism is greatest when mothers claim child abuse. The findings also confirm that fathers’ cross-claims of parental alienation increase (virtually doubling) courts’ rejection of these claims, and mothers’ losses of custody to the father accused of abuse,” the authors wrote, adding that the same did not hold true when the mother accused the father of parental alienation.
“Finally, the findings indicate that where Guardians Ad Litem or custody evaluators are appointed, outcomes show an intensification of courts’ skepticism toward mothers’ (but not fathers’) claims, and custody removals from mothers (but not fathers),” the study said. A similar finding was made in a report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, published in April 2023 and to be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in July of 2023, which labeled parental alienation a “pseudo-concept,” by author Reem Alsalem.
“In the United States of America, data show that rates of custody losses between mothers and fathers differ significantly, depending on which parent alleges alienation,” Alsalem wrote. “When a father has alleged alienation by the mother, her custody rights have been removed 44 per cent of the time. When the situation was reversed, mothers gained custody from fathers only 28 per cent of the time. Thus, when alienation is accused, mothers were twice as likely to lose custody compared to fathers.”
“The consequences of biased custody decisions can be catastrophic, resulting in specific incidents when contact has been awarded to fathers with a violent history, in the death of children and women and children being placed at gunpoint,” the report said. “In some cases, women have been imprisoned for violating custodial rights and protective restraining orders have been overturned.”
A 2011 study financed by the U.S. Justice Department found judges, attorneys, custody evaluators and other judicial employees believed that 26 percent of abuse allegations made by women were false, and 31 percent of abuse allegations made by fathers were false. Critics, however, say the actual percentage of false abuse allegations by women is significantly lower.
“Among custody evaluators, the belief that allegations of domestic violence (DV) by mothers are false was strongly related to four other beliefs: (1) DV survivors alienate children from the other parent; (2) DV is not an important factor in making custody decisions; (3) children are hurt when survivors are reluctant to co-parent, and (4) DV survivors falsely allege child abuse. Similar results were found among judges,” the study said.
The redress for parental alienation in the court system, even when there are confirmed instances of abuse against either the parent or the child is “reunification therapy,” a concept that Pollack says migrated from the family welfare system.
Essentially, when a child was removed from a parent and placed in state or foster custody, the state would attempt to reunify the child and parent to get the child out of foster care or a congregate living situation – a way to save money for the state and allow the child to rejoin their family and community for the best outcome.
But Pollack says such a system doesn’t translate well to private custody cases, where there isn’t the choice between state or foster care and an abusive parent, but rather a choice between an abusive parent and a protective parent.
In these situations, the child is required to attend this reunification therapy, even against their wishes, in order to bond with the supposedly alienated parent, something that can be damaging, coercive and troubling even in cases where there isn’t confirmed abuse.
“That’s a big business and it is also not supported by science and the purveyors of it are unregulated and they duck licensing requirements by saying that they’re ‘psychoeducational’ rather than real psychology or therapy,” Pollack said. “It’s something that has really become a cottage industry and they charge upwards of thirty or forty thousand for five days of treatment. It’s not treatment that’s valid or can be proven to be effective or beneficial for kids.”
ProPublica has documented several cases arising out of a reunification camp in Texas that children forced into those sessions said are abusive.
But the push of parental alienation and reunification therapy is deeply embedded in the court system, despite scientific misgivings.
For instance, retired Judge Lynda B. Munro previously served as the Chief Administrative Judge for Family Matters for five years in Connecticut. She developed the training process for GALs and was the Presiding Judge for the Family Division of the New Haven Superior Court.
She was also a founding board member of the Connecticut chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), a national trade association that provides services-for-hire to family courts through its members, which include judges, lawyers, mediators and custody evaluators. They also provide training for judicial employees, including in Connecticut.
AFCC has been instrumental in the push toward courts recognizing parental alienation and pushing for reunification therapy. The Connecticut chapter subsequently went defunct after it was revealed they had never registered as a business or nonprofit in the state and hadn’t made any tax filings.
Munro, after serving as the top judge in Connecticut’s family court system, continues to list her professional affiliation with AFCC and served on the Connecticut Bar Association’s Family Law Executive Committee. She then worked for Pullman & Comley, one of the largest law firms in Connecticut with deep ties to the capitol, in their Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), family and appellate law groups. She currently serves as a GAL in addition to her own legal practice.
Notably, Munro is listed as a team member for Overcoming Barriers (OCB), an organization out of Massachusetts that, up until the COVID-19 pandemic, ran reunification camps.
According to OCB’s website: “Both parents, including the favored parent and the resisted parent must attend Family Camp and other OCB programs, because each member of the family has a role to play in any solution to move the family forward. In our experience the problem is a shared and very complex issue.”
The organization now focuses on education for “clinicians, lawyers and judges who work with families in high-conflict divorces,” according to their website.
“It’s quite a business. A lot of times the courts will abdicate their decision-making power and give it to the reunification therapist,” Pollack said. “So, if the child and or the protective parent don’t meet their demands, it’s stipulated the child can never come back. In many cases, the child goes into this reunification treatment and it’s premised on a custody switch, so the child just remains in perpetuity with the alleged abusive parent.”
Casey is still embroiled in a divorce proceeding, even though it technically is over. After four years of a marriage that included escalating verbal altercations, he threatened to kill her. Shortly thereafter, he broke through a locked bathroom door and trapped her in the bathroom, physically not allowing her to leave as she screamed for help and taking away her phone so she couldn’t call the police. Casey says she thought he would kill her right then.
Casey says she managed to get out by throwing a glass bowl onto the floor “to create a distraction,” and was then able to get away. When she broke the glass bowl, her husband actually called the police. The responding officers let her stay at the house with the children and made her husband leave.
Pictures provided to CII show severe bruising on Casey’s legs following her restraint. Additionally, text messages show her husband apologizing for making the death threat.
Although no one was arrested at the time of the incident, Casey says she filed a complaint against one of the officers, at the encouragement of a Department of Children and Families (DCF) worker. The officer had made disparaging remarks about women in domestic abuse situations. Following the complaint, that officer filed an arrest warrant for both Casey and her husband. The charges against Casey were immediately dropped, but her husband was required to attend a domestic violence program.
Casey filed for a restraining order. DCF was involved because her two young children witnessed both the initial death threat and the incident in the bathroom. Casey’s husband then initiated the divorce proceeding by filing first. It was determined there should be a GAL for the children. Her husband’s attorney submitted a list of GALs to choose from, even though the court should have provided such a list. Her husband’s attorney pushed heavily for Adam Teller, an attorney with a law firm out of East Hartford.
“In no way did I want anybody they were recommending,” Casey said. “I had an attorney at the time who told me that I had no justifiable reason to say no to this person, and I was very new in my situation and abuse so, I was scared. I was scared having a male say to me you have no say, you can’t say no to this, there’s no reason to, so I was like okay, I have no choice.”
Casey says that although the GAL was assigned in July of 2020, he didn’t speak with her until March of 2022 outside an initial family demographic meeting. He never spoke to her oldest child and, to her knowledge, only once spoke to her youngest child. “To this day he has never spoken to any of the people I requested him to. There are records I have from therapists and providers that state they feel he is biased against me, and he is not there for the best interest of the children,” Casey said.
Teller immediately pushed for visitation, arranging between attorneys for all parties to arrive for a supervised visit. “Of course I’d like to speak to some of the third parties involved (therapist(s), DCF) and see the arrest warrant applications if that is possible before ramping up more access,” Teller wrote in an email. “That said, I consider an agreement for some kind of regular ongoing access with father (under whatever conditions) to be a VERY high priority and that should not wait for any specific item of information.”
The children were enrolled in therapy. Both were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the oldest did not want to attend supervised visits with his father. The child was scared and had difficulty sleeping, according to DCF reports in Casey’s possession. According to those same reports, DCF had investigated and substantiated a child abuse allegation against the father. Although, the oldest child was refusing, the GAL continued to push for visitation.
The reports in Casey’s possession indicate the GAL did not communicate with Casey, did not acknowledge the abuse by her ex-husband and did not agree with DCF’s child abuse substantiation. Furthermore, it indicates the GAL never discussed trauma with the child, nor what the child wanted regarding visitation and continued to believe that visitation with the father was in the child’s best interest, despite the child’s fear and refusal to visit.
Teller went on to recommend to the court that his father get “full and unsupervised access starting immediately – Wednesdays, full weekends overnight, everything.”
Casey was also forced to put her children into reunification therapy, now moving on to their fourth attempt. “The first one was extremely unsuccessful,” Casey said. “The second one the judge tried to claim was successful, yet a few weeks later my ex hurt my oldest child and that landed a DCF substantiation of child abuse, so I fail to see how that’s successful.”
The third attempt was put on hold when the therapist said the child would need more time to be ready and willing for reunification, but the judge and the GAL forced the issue, saying the child now had to work with Bruce Freedman, a psychologist who also happened to be a former board member of the Connecticut chapter of AFCC.
Freedman, together with Lynda Munro and another attorney and psychologist, gave a presentation about parental alienation and child custody to the Connecticut Bar Association in June of 2019. According to Freedman’s notes, he references Gardner’s work directly and points out that parental alienation is an “active campaign, whether deliberate or unconscious, to damage a child’s relationship with the other parent.”
Freedman goes on to write: “Severe alienators may be unaware of their behavior and its effects on a child,” essentially making the argument that if you are unaware you are alienating your child from the other parent, then you may be the worst offender of all, something that leaves the parent unable to defend themselves against accusations of alienation.
Casey says Freedman’s involvement with the children was minimal and he has refused to communicate with their prior therapists. She also alleges that he was not following the judge’s orders. Representing herself, Casey filed motions to have both Freedman and Teller removed from her case. Neither were heard by the judge.
Casey then filed a complaint against Teller with the Standing Committee on Guardians ad Litem in December of 2022, which has the power to review complaints and remove GALs from their approved list. The grounds for removal is a fairly high bar. According to the 2019 Notice of Procedures, a GAL must show “an imminent risk of significant harm to the health, safety, or welfare of the public.”
Casey’s extensive complaint alleges numerous instances which she claims showed Teller’s bias toward the father, his refusal to listen to the children’s therapists, attempting to discredit DCF reports, and his continual push for extended unsupervised paternal visitation and reunification therapy. “He has put not just my life but my kids’ lives in a great deal of danger, by empowering and enabling our abuser,” Casey wrote.
Teller’s appointment as GAL was initially vacated by the judge but was then changed to “terminated” in her final decision, according to emails. Teller forwarded her a bill for $26,935 of which she is responsible to pay 30 percent – a little more than $8,000.
Although Casey filed her complaint and claims to have ample evidence, including audio recordings of the GAL speaking with her son and herself in her home which is outfitted with numerous nanny cameras, she did not hold out hope that much would be done by the GAL Committee.
Since December 2019, when the committee had finally created its process for removing a GAL based on a complaint, the committee has received 29 complaints and dismissed all of them following an executive session, according to a review of the committee’s meeting minutes.
Reached for comment via email, Teller says that he cannot comment on the matter of his representation of the children, but said he remains in good standing as a GAL.
“I can only tell you that there is no pending complaint against me with the Committee, and the Committee has never found probable cause to proceed on any complaint against me. I remain in good standing on the Committee’s list of GALs and have never been otherwise. [Casey’s] unsubstantiated claims are not news,” Teller wrote. “Neither the judge who tried her case on multiple court days over a period of 2 years, nor the Committee, nor any other objective observer, has found any reason to criticize my work as GAL.”
The complaint against Teller was dismissed during a March 2023 meeting of the committee.
“It is so hard to file for a GAL removal. I had to file my complaint myself because the attorney wouldn’t take the chance.” Casey said. “I think that attorney’s don’t want to muddy the waters with GALs they may face in future cases. They don’t want to get on their bad sides. Which makes sense in this current system.”
Although Casey still has to return to court, the final decision by the judge requires the children to continue attending reunification therapy with Dr. Freedman, and while there is joint legal custody shared between the two parents, the children remain living with Casey with no visitation orders until the completion of reunification therapy.
In her final decision the judge in Casey’s case, the judge writes that Casey “has had difficulty, if not an inability, to see beyond her history with the plaintiff. This is especially true regarding what she views as a relationship marked with intimate partner violence.” The judge goes on to write that Casey is not able to be objective and that “whether intentional or unintentional,” her feelings have spread to the children, souring their ability to visit with their father.
The judge acknowledges the fear and reluctance of the two children to visit with their father, including the father’s claim that Casey was attempting to alienate him, and goes on to praise Teller’s work as a GAL.
“The GAL has, in the court’s opinion, made Herculean efforts to meet with the parties and the children, to gather relevant information by third party providers, relatives, and DCF, and to review reports and documents to formulate an opinion as to the children’s best interests related to the custody dispute,” the judge wrote. “Most importantly, the GAL has provided guidance to the parties to assist in reunifying the children and the plaintiff.”
“From the stories I’ve heard, my case is not an outlier. When domestic abuse is involved, it seems a pretty common theme,” Casey said.
In 2021, the State of Connecticut passed Senate Bill 1091, also dubbed “Jennifer’s Law,” which expanded the definition of domestic abuse to include “coercive control.”
Coercive control doesn’t necessarily include physical violence but rather a pattern of control through intimidation, isolation, financial control, and threats. It would allow for coercive control allegations to be used in restraining orders, investigations and family court matters.
Part of the reason it was dubbed Jennifer’s Law is that Jennifer Dulos was denied a restraining order because she could not show physical abuse.
“Judge Heller, when she said no to Jennifer Dulos’s restraining order, she was following Connecticut state statute. It said imminent harm and physical danger, and the way her divorce was playing out there was emotional abuse, verbal abuse, litigation abuse,” Keller said. “Their case had 500 pleadings in only two years but none of those things counted when Judge Heller said no to a family court restraining order because coercive control was not defined in our law.”
Now, coercive control is part of Connecticut law, joining only a handful of other states, like Hawaii and Washington, in recognizing coercive control as a form of abuse that doesn’t result in physical injury and police interventions. Part of that definition of coercive control also includes “frivolous litigation.”
According to the bill analysis, “In any family relations matter, including restraining order actions involving domestic violence, if the court finds that a pattern of frivolous and intentionally fabricated pleadings or motions are filed by one party, then it must sanction the party in an appropriate manner that allows the matter to proceed without undue delay or obstruction.”
Of course, determining when filed motions are frivolous and intentionally fabricated in cases fraught with “he said/she said,” might prove difficult – and it also goes both ways. Mothers who may have had their children, rightly or wrongly, removed from their custody and are fighting to win them back could also find themselves sanctioned under the law.
The law also places new guidelines on GALs requiring them to consider “the effect of an abuser’s actions on the child, whether any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or the child, whether the child or his or her sibling has been abused or neglected, and the stability of the child’s existing or proposed residence.”
Although the law was seen as a massive win for women facing issues of coercive control and those critical of the family court system, Keller says the practical effects of Jennifer’s Law have not yet been seen.
“A lot of stuff ended up on the editing room floor,” Keller said, adding she believes there is resistance to the law by Connecticut judges and the Bar Association on financial grounds; “The more conflict you have, the more people get a bill.”
Liza Andrews, director of public policy and communications for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV), says they agree that “the response of many systems, including family court, can pose challenges to survivors.” Andrews also serves on the GAL Committee.
“CCADV has in recent years worked on both legislation policy and administrative policy to strengthen that system,” Andrews said. “Some proposals have included increased judicial training, a comprehensive family court bench book focused on domestic violence, safe space in court houses for victims, and increased oversight of frivolous motions, among others. Some of these proposals have moved forward and others have not.”
CCADV offers free legal consultation and assistance in filing restraining orders for victims of domestic violence. “This is some of the work we have been focused on to help support survivors in family court,” Andrews said.
But Keller, and the other moms interviewed, say more needs to be done. That the family court system, not only in Connecticut but nationally, is still ignoring and enabling abuse, still under the sway of concepts like parental alienation, reunification, AFCC, and the ability to charge large sums of money for legal services and court-mandated interventions.
“Domestic violence has become a cash cow for a lot of people, for organizations, for the states, for people and attorneys,” one of the moms said.
Keller says, to that end, she and the other members of CT Protective Moms have been educating each other, going to court with each other for support and even representing themselves in their cases.
“We decided the best approach was to work with our moms as foot soldiers. So, I educate my moms, hundreds of them. We spend time speaking with them, going to court with them, we court watch with them, we send them materials,” Keller said. “When our team works with the mom, and we prepare them for court, they walk in and they’re having success. We have five cases where the mothers went pro se because they ran out of money and, in a way, good for them. They ran out of money and took charge of their own case instead of letting it continue and continue and create billable hours for the machine that family court is.”
While Keller referred to the family court system as a “machine,” the group of women interviewed had other words to describe it: Abusive; Corrupt; Enabling; The gateway to Hell when you walk in the door.
“It has nothing to do with kids and nothing to do with law and order,” one of them said.
Of course, such sentiments are not limited only to women and many women interviewed acknowledge that fathers are wronged by the system as well. But, they say, they want more accountability and oversight of a system they liken to the “wild west” – something that may benefit everyone involved, including men who aren’t abusive.
It is seen as a systemic logjam with few clear outlets. There is little reprieve when judges, attorneys, or GALs have made poor decisions, factual errors, failed to do their due diligence, been outwardly hostile toward one party, or even lied. And that is enabling abusers to continue inflicting emotional, psychological and financial damage.
It should be reiterated that this is not the vast majority of divorce cases, but rather the relatively few high conflict cases. Naturally, no one gets married to get divorced and it is always painful. But in these cases, there exists an elevated danger for the parties, particularly those who may find themselves in a judicial system swayed by questionable concepts and philosophies.
“The ways that state custody laws are constructed are based on ideology rather than research or science,” Pollack said.
“There’s something going on here and it’s not okay,” Sue said. “Every day, I walk around with mace in my hand, I’m still in court and the idea is to get you to the point that you give up and I’m sure I can speak for everyone here that you say is it worth it? I’ve sold everything that I have, my children and I have moved three times in the last four years. Everything we have is from tag sales. I know others have it a lot worse than me, but it doesn’t matter.”
“There needs to be a triage and a separate unit,” Sue said. “It’s not a ‘high conflict case,’ it’s something more and something needs to be done about it.”