To read this article directly on Forbes and/or to leave a comment, please click on this link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jefflanders/2012/05/22/how-some-men-are-upending-domestic-violence-laws-to-scam-an-advantage-in-divorce/
Last month, I discussed the top six underhanded tactics used by husbands during divorce.
As a quick recap, let me remind you that those dirty tricks are:
- “Conflicting out” all the top divorce lawyers.
- Stalling and delaying.
- Exerting pressure to proceed too quickly.
- Denying access to financial resources.
- Hiding assets.
- Failing to pay court-ordered support or refusing to relinquish assets.
Now, I’d like to add to that list with two more devious strategies, both of which hinge on the manipulation of domestic violence laws –the very laws that, ironically, were implemented to protect women, not harm them. Here are the two “new” underhanded tactics which divorce professionals are seeing crop up with increasing frequency:
1. Husbands claiming their wives are abusers.
This ploy is just as ugly as it sounds. Some men are upending domestic violence laws so that their wives (who are the true victims) are arrested, prosecuted and even sentenced as abusers.
In the foreword to the new book, Hanging On By My Fingernails: Surviving the New Divorce Gamesmanship, and How a Scratch Can Land You in Jail, written by Janie McQueen, Tamara N. Holder, a Chicago criminal defense attorney, explains how the scam works:
“Unfortunately, many abusive men have learned to reshape domestic violence laws into another weapon of abuse. They are turning police and court protections upside down: The abusers themselves call 9-1-1; they have the women arrested for domestic violence; and then they do everything they can to try to have the women prosecuted and sentenced. In this way, the true victim is painted as the abuser.
There is a deeper motivation in using this ploy; to show a pattern of “violent conduct” on the woman’s part so that the abuser can use it as evidence against her in a divorce or child custody battle. And this form of abuse is permanent. A bruise heals after a few days, but a conviction for a violent crime mars her record forever.
The set-up: A couple has a fight. Either the wife calls 9-1-1 in a desperate plea for police intervention, or the husband makes the call first in a preemptive attack. When the police arrive, the woman is visibly upset. The man, on the other hand, is extremely calm as he switches off his anger. The husband tells the police that his wife is delusional, crazy, and violent. Depending on how convincing the man’s story is to the police officer, and the state’s law on domestic violence, either both people are arrested or the woman is arrested.
In the case of a dual arrest, which some states discourage, the woman often tells prosecutors she doesn’t want to testify against her husband, so the case is dismissed. Meanwhile, the husband is determined that she be prosecuted. Instead of the prosecutors looking into the history of the relationship before proceeding with the criminal case, they move full speed ahead. The wife is usually cut off from her husband’s financial support so she cannot pay for defense against him. As a result, she is forced to take a plea to the charges because she cannot afford to defend herself. She fears taking the case to trial, losing, and going to jail.”
Just last month, the divorce between Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and his wife Pilar made headlines when police responded to a disturbance call at the Sanders’ home. The next day, Pilar was arrested and charged with simple assault. Now, her attorney says Pilar’s arrest following allegations that she attacked the former NFL cornerback was “a complete setup.”
Clearly, the courts will have to decide who’s guilty of what in the Sanders’ case, but the attorneys I talk to tell me circumstances like these are becoming more and more prevalent. Sadly, an arrest ploy as Ms. Holder describes above can have devastating consequences for the woman involved, including criminal trials, lingering criminal records, distorted custody battles and financial losses.
“Victims of these increasingly common set-ups face criminal charges alongside their emotionally depleting divorce and custody cases, which are, of course, by now stacked against them,” Janie McQueen, the author of Hanging On By My Fingernails: Surviving the New Divorce Gamesmanship, and How a Scratch Can Land You in Jail, told me. “Even if the victim is able to gather the resources to hire a criminal defense attorney and get the charges dropped, she remains tied up with clearing her name and repairing all the damage while her spouse goes about setting up the rest of the divorce.”
Ms. McQueen, a former crime reporter, was once a victim of these ploys herself.
“There is far more to this ploy than someone going from minding her household to sitting in jail,” she explained. “The emotional trauma can’t be overstated. What is happening is, the abuser is using the system to perpetuate the abuse. She thinks: who, then, is on her side?”
Unfortunately, these scams undermine sound public policy and create confusion that, paradoxically, ends up protecting abusers.
“Domestic violence issues have become so heated and politicized that it’s difficult to make people even listen to what is really going on, to realize there is a difference between a true DV situation and this scam that manipulates the stiff arrest laws,” Ms. McQueen concluded. “This is a situation that carries a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ stigma. Even strong proponents of the Violence Against Women Act seem not to understand this backlash effect of the perpetrator playing the victim, or they perceive exposure of these very real set-ups as criticism that would weaken their lobbying efforts. I think swift arrest laws through VAWA are needed—but we need to figure out how to tweak the system to identify the true perpetrator.”
2. Coerced debt.
As the name implies, “coerced debt” occurs when the abuser in a violent relationship uses fraud or coercion to obtain credit in the victim’s name. For example, the abuser (typically the husband) might:
- Secretly open credit card accounts in the victim’s name
- Trick the victim into relinquishing her rights to certain marital assets
- Coerce the victim into signing financial documents
As a result, the victims of coerced debt often are left with the devastating consequences of negative credit. They have difficulty opening credit card accounts, obtaining loans, renting, even finding a job –not to mention the time and expense required for credit repair.
The problem of coerced debt is quickly emerging as a significant threat for divorcing women, and unfortunately, it appears that current laws are far from sufficient to deal with this growing problem. In fact, current laws may be exacerbating the problem. As Angela Littwin explains in Coerced Debt: The Role of Consumer Credit In Domestic Violence:
“For its part, the credit reporting system is singularly unprepared to handle issues at the intersection of debt and domestic violence. In theory, a credit report should be an accurate testament to an individual’s creditworthiness. But in practice, credit reports are notoriously error-laden, and there are three major reporting bureaus, which each require separate advocacy. Most importantly for survivors of coerced debt, the forums available for resolving these errors are lacking in any procedure by which a consumer can argue that an item on her report does not predict her future riskiness as a borrower, tenant, or employee.
In other words, marriage law does not allow for the resolution of coerced debt, because creditors are involved. And the credit system – to the extent that it acknowledges family issues at all – operates under the assumption that family law has already settled any marriage- or relationship-based questions of legal rights and duties. The legal system that acknowledges domestic violence cannot effectively adjudicate matters of consumer debt, and the consumer credit system currently has no mechanism for addressing questions of domestic violence.
This combination of legal gaps has left victims of coerced debt in an untenable position. Debt about which they did not know or to which they did not consent is marring their credit reports and increasing their already-high barriers to obtaining housing and employment – two essential building blocks to economic self-sufficiency. In this way, coerced debt may be directly contributing to domestic violence, by undermining victims’ ability to leave and remain free of abusive relationships.”
Even under the best of circumstances, divorce is complicated and emotionally trying. For women who are victims of abuse, the process is exponentially more difficult –and growing more so, now that husbands are trying to manipulate domestic violence laws and coerce debt. As I have mentioned in a previous article, if you are involved in an abusive relationship, please seek help. There are community-based organizations, private counselors and therapists and other professionals who can offer the immediate assistance you need. They can help you create a plan that will keep you and your children safe. Once you are safe, you can start to take even more steps toward a brighter and financially secure future.
All articles/blog posts are for informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice. If you require legal advice, retain a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, who is not an attorney.