Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Logo Logo
Health , World

Should abusive partners have parental rights?

by Meaghan Beatley October 12, 2021

Tomás Gimeno’s intended target—former partner Beatriz Zimmerman—is alive. Gimeno, a 37-year-old business administrator in Tenerife, Spain, instead inflicted his violence on their 6-year-old daughter, Olivia, killing the little girl and leaving her body in a bag tied to his boat’s anchor at the bottom of the sea. Gimeno and his other daughter with Zimmerman, 1-year-old Anna, are missing and presumed dead.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called the murders a “doubly savage and inhumane” form of violence known in academic circles as “vicarious violence”: harming one’s children to cause emotional distress to one’s partner or ex-partner. Although data on vicarious violence is limited, experts who have studied the phenomenon say it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by fathers.

Gimeno shared joint custody of his children with Zimmerman, despite a history of violent behavior. Although Zimmerman did not report instances of alleged abuse to the police, the ensuing tragedy is prompting new questions about whether abusive partners should be able to maintain custody of their children. Feminists in Spain have rallied under the slogan, “an abuser is never a good father,” applying a gendered lens to two issues long viewed as separate: a man’s relationship with his partner and his relationship with his children.

“We can’t disassociate violence against women from violence against children,” said Sonia Vaccaro, the psychologist credited with coining the term “vicarious violence” nearly a decade ago when writing a book on child custody disputes. Through her research and own sessions with patients, Vaccaro found that even when women were legally protected from abusive exes by restraining orders, some men would take their anger toward their exes out on the children they had access to—discontinuing their medical treatments or physically harming them, for example. “I called it vicarious violence because the violence is displaced onto a third party,” Vaccaro explained.

Although domestic violence does not necessarily evolve into vicarious violence, experts agree that divorce or separation is the most dangerous moment for victims of domestic violence and their children. In the United States, 809 children have been murdered by a parent in the process of separating or divorcing their partner since 2008. In 72 percent of these cases, the killer was the child’s father. In Spain, official figures reveal that 42 children have been killed in domestic violence cases since 2013, when such data started being collected. Although the data is not broken out by gender, Spanish authorities regularly refer to vicarious violence as a gender-based crime disproportionately perpetrated by fathers.

On paper, Spain is ahead of the curve in legally connecting intimate partner violence and violence against children. In 2015, a law passed making violence against mothers an act of violence against their children. Under the law, children are entitled to legal protection from their mother’s abuser.

But in practice, deeply entrenched notions regarding the father’s role as provider and protector persist. Judges often grant fathers full or partial custody even if they have a history of abusive behavior. “Every so often, a dramatic, headline-making case makes a splash in the press, and everyone is scandalized and indignant and wonders how this is even possible,” said Gema Fernández, managing lawyer at Women’s Link, a nonprofit focused on human rights. “But really, the courts are filled with similar cases. It’s a miracle we don’t see more violence.”

Spain isn’t unique in this regard. A May Council of Europe report evaluating countries’ adherence to the Istanbul Convention—a European treaty that sets out legally binding standards to protect both women and children from gender-based violence—found that Austria, France, Italy, and Portugal also prioritized the joint exercise of parental authority “even in the event of a final criminal conviction for violence committed against the other parent or where a protection order exists.”

In the United States, there is a similar emphasis on fathers’ rights even when there is a risk of abuse. A bill for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act noted “scientifically unsound theories that treat mothers’ abuse allegations as likely false attempts to undermine the father are frequently applied in family court to minimize or deny parents’ and children’s reports of abuse.”

Just weeks before Olivia’s body was found, Spain had moved to strengthen legal protections against vicarious violence. In June, lawmakers passed a new child protection law that requires judges to suspend a parent’s visitation rights with their children if their partner or former partner obtains a protective order against them and there is evidence the children suffered or witnessed violence at home. It also bans the use of “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS) in custody disputes.

Introduced by the late American psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s, PAS is defined as “a child’s experience of being manipulated by one parent to turn against the other (targeted) parent and resist contact with him or her.” But many in the scientific community reject the theory, which has been criticized for perpetuating harmful, gendered stereotypes against women.

Related: ‘Women Are Routinely Discredited’: How Courts Fail Mothers and Children Who Have Survived Abuse

Gardner claimed mothers overwhelmingly played the role of “indoctrinators,” casting fathers as unfairly maligned victims. Despite a widely acknowledged lack of empirical or clinical evidence, claims of parental alienation are often successfully weaponized by fathers in custody disputes. (Gardner later generated controversy for his belief that society treats pedophiles too harshly.)

The controversy around PAS led Spain’s judicial council to advise against its use in 2013, leading some experts to question whether banning it accomplishes anything. “Lawyers rarely resort to the PAS defense today anyway,” said Altamira Gonzalo Valgañón, vice president of feminist lawyer’s association Mujeres Juristas Themis.

Instead, attorneys representing fathers accused of abuse often seek parenting coordination, a dispute resolution process originally developed in the United States, where a social worker or psychologist assists parents in coming up with a schedule and implementing mutually agreed upon rules. The arrangement may also include supervised visits, but it doesn’t always.

Although the American Psychological Association does not recommend parenting coordination for parents with a history of domestic violence because it “may present substantial risks or power imbalances,” Gonzalo Valgañón said some judges in Spain are pushing for its use across the board.

First introduced in Spain in 2011, parenting coordination counts as one of its champions Francisco Serrano, a former family court judge and reputed gender-based violence denialist as well as early architect of Spain’s far-right political party, Vox. “It has the same objective: forcing children to spend time with their father when they don’t want to,” Gonzalo Valgañón said. “It doesn’t matter what they call it. The concept is still around.”

Part of the push toward parenting coordination has to do with capacity. State centers tasked with overseeing court-ordered supervised visits for families simply cannot accommodate the need. According to Fernández, visitation centers are so overbooked that a parent might have to wait months before landing a one-hour slot to see their children. Without an adequate budget to expand the state’s capacity, Fernández doesn’t see Spain’s new law as a complete solution.

In 2011, she represented a mother whose daughter had been murdered by her violent ex-husband during an unsupervised visit. The mother, Ángela González, had reported her ex to authorities on multiple occasions and asked the court to impose supervised visits. She was denied by a judge who gave precedence to fathers’ rights. When Spanish authorities refused to pay her reparations, Fernández took González’s case to a committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In a landmark decision, the committee called for the state to pay up, which it did in 2018.

Ultimately, Spanish activists say preventing vicarious violence will require a change in mindset, not least among judges who regularly dismiss the mortal danger abusive men can pose to women and children. In a public letter following the discovery of Olivia’s body, Zimmerman pleaded for stricter mechanisms to protect children from violent fathers. “I hope that Anna and Olivia did not die in vain.”

This story was published in partnership with Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project.

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women

Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly
Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly