Journalism

How Domestic Abusers Weaponize the Courts

This article was originally published by The Atlantic on July 18th, 2019, by Fuller Project correspondent Jessica Klein.

Photo credit: Julien Posture

After a breakup, litigation is often a way for harassers to force their victims to keep seeing them.

When the phone rang one evening in June 2016, “D” could guess who was calling even before her mother answered. He’d called the house before—D knew it was him—but he’d always remained silent after her mother picked up. This time, the caller breathed heavily before finally identifying himself as D’s ex-boyfriend. “Stop calling here; she doesn’t want to talk to you,” her mother said, and hung up.

D started to panic. She’d never given her ex the number to her home, where she lived with her mother, and she had no idea how he’d found it. They’d broken up two months earlier, and he’d been stalking and harassing her ever since. Over the past two years, this harassment has been taking place in a courtroom.

Since July 2017, D has been visiting Manhattan family court, engaged in a battle that her ex-boyfriend keeps dragging out by continuing to contest the protective order she’s filed against him. (D is being identified by her first initial only, to protect her safety and privacy.) It has kept her awake at night, this never-ending parade through courtrooms and her local police precinct, the trips back and forth at least once every three months.

Many abusers misuse the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners, a method sometimes called “vexatious” or “abusive” litigation, also known as “paper” or “separation” abuse, or “stalking by way of the courts.” Perpetrators file frivolous lawsuits—sometimes even from prison—to keep their victims coming back to court to face them. After a breakup, the courts are often the only tool left for abusers seeking to maintain a hold over their victims’ lives. The process costs money and time, and can further traumatize victims of intimate-partner violence, even after they have managed to leave the relationship. Only one U.S. state, Tennessee, has a law specifically aimed at stopping a former romantic partner from filing vexatious litigation against an ex.

According to a 2017 report from Georgia’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project, which tracks domestic-violence-related deaths in the state, “Although there is little data on the frequency of harassing court filings, sometimes referred to as vexatious litigation, use of the court to harass victims of intimate partner violence and stalking appears to be commonplace.” For D, it certainly was.

met her ex-boyfriend through an online-dating service in the summer of 2015. She remembers him as attentive and a good listener. “You’re in a new relationship and everything is wonderful,” D says. But then she “started noticing he was a bit too available.”

D says her ex didn’t have much of a social or professional life, and would criticize her for spending time on hers. When she tried to break up with him in December 2015, she says he threatened to hurt himself, so she backed down. Finally, in April 2016, she broke off their relationship. That’s when the calls started.

They came pouring in from her ex’s number, phone numbers of her ex’s family members, and anonymous numbers. He emailed her up to 20 times a week, promising over and over that he would get a job. “He doesn’t know how to take the word no,” D says.  Even though she responded only once (to an email purporting to be from her ex’s brother), cc’ing her ex and telling him to leave her alone, the calls and emails continued for months. In July 2016, they abruptly stopped. The silence lasted a year.

In July 2017, D received threatening emails from her ex containing information about her personal life, seemingly intended to show that he’d been tracking her. An aggressive text message from an anonymous number, claiming to be from her ex’s brother (D believes that it was from her ex), finally caused her to file a police report.

That month she also sought to get a protective order against her ex. The first judge she saw turned her down. D hadn’t taken copies of any of her ex’s emails with her to court to prove her case—she hadn’t known that she would need them. “You’re not supposed to need that,” says D’s lawyer, Rebecca Moy, who works at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provides legal aid and other services to domestic-violence survivors and their families. To file a protective order in New York City family court, petitioners must have detailed, written descriptions of the incidents causing them to file, not physical proof.

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