Welcome to the club’  were the sobering words I wished I’d never had to hear. An initiation that made my heart sink and stomach lurch. For this is a club that nobody would ever choose to belong to, however warm the welcome and however exclusive the membership.

An unofficial club of grief-stricken, broken hearted members that transcends age, background, race, religion and nationality.

Innocent children are the tragic victims of gruesome battles all too often but another less publicised battleground is wreaking havoc on millions of vulnerable lives and proving just as soul destroying:

That of family courts in child custody cases.

Every day more shocking stories come to light. Thousands of frighteningly similar cases involving alleged abusers and child molesters; fathers who espouse violence and intimidation as their weapons of choice to bully and control their wives or partners, emotionally, financially, psychologically. Such behaviour, far from being condemned and punished, instead often spills over into the courtroom where judges, psychologists and those in positions of trust and responsibility morph into puppets of the abuser’s will, perpetuating and even exacerbating the onslaught of terror against helpless mothers and child victims.

Of course, not all custody cases involve domestic violence. An ideal post-divorce settlement in the best interests of a child’s development involves both parents playing an active role in their child’s life. This can, thankfully, on the whole be achieved among sensible, emotionally intelligent parents who put the needs and considerations of their child first and foremost. It is reported that 95% of custody cases are settled more or less amicably outside the courts.

If only all parents fell into this category. ‘The real problem ,’ explains domestic violence expert, Barry Goldstein, ‘is the 3.8% of cases that go to trial and usually far beyond. The vast majority of these cases, probably around 90% are domestic violence cases that involve the worst of the worst abusers.’ (Enough of a Broken Court System: What would work better?)

And herein lies the problem. Most judges and court psychologists are not trained to differentiate between the decent, caring, loving fathers and the abusers, since most lack the training to recognise the prevailing patterns of abuse. Judges often misconstrue the sinister motivations of abusers, happy to find a father who appears to want to be involved in his children’s lives. Or, they rely on the recommendations of professionals who also do not have the needed expertise in domestic violence.

While family courts refer incessantly to the child’s ‘well-being’ and ‘best interests,’ bad decisions reveal massive ignorance about the real power issues at play. In her monumental 1986 exposition, Mothers on Trial, author Phylis Chesler states: ‘Many judges assume that the father who fights for custody is rare and therefore should be rewarded for loving his children, or they assume that something is wrong with the mother. What may be wrong with the mother is that she and her children are being systemically impoverished, psychologically and legally harassed, and physically battered by the very father who is fighting for custody.’

The statistics are alarming. ‘When fathers fight, they win custody 70 percent of the time, whether or not they have been absent or violent,’ she reports.

‘Those fathers who fight, tend to win custody, not because mothers are unfit or because fathers have been the primary caretakers of their children but because mothers are women and are held to a much higher standard of parenting,’ she claims.

These claims are supported by some of the most ludicrous justifications psychologists give for recommending the removal of children from perfectly good mothers. In one report a mother was held to account ‘for wearing English clothing’ (outside England) and ‘for abstaining from sexual relationships with other men.’ (after separation from her partner).

Yet should a single mother engage in sexual affairs, she would no doubt be denigrated as a licentious woman and deemed a negative influence on her children.

Mothers are demonised for pursuing careers, as much as they are condemned for being stay at home full time child minders. Paradoxically, fathers who work are extolled for being the better provider while mothers who work may be portrayed as undomesticated, selfish and neglectful mothers.

Every which way you look at it, it seems that mothers cannot win. And it makes absolutely no difference how good your parenting skills are. You can be Mary Poppins or Mother Theresa and it won’t make an iota of difference in a system that appears so blatantly skewed in father of fathers.

‘The willingness and almost eagerness to engage in these extreme decisions against protective mothers…demonstrates the impact of gender bias in domestic violence cases,’ Goldstein writes.

This is not a phenomenon confined to any particular country or continent. While researching her book, Chesler interviewed more than three hundred mothers, fathers, children, and custody experts in the United States and Canada and in sixty-five countries around the world. There are millions more unreported cases.

Labelled ‘a war against women,’ by a retired judge, who suggested the following way of thinking as the motivation for bias towards fathers in custody cases:

‘Feminism had its hey-day, making great strides towards equality but now the patriarchy is striking back. It’s all about trying to show how progressive and modern we are today’ she said. ‘If women can smash the glass ceiling, why can fathers not be awarded custody and raise children?’

It is a valid point but again, this argument fails to take into account the dangerous cases of domestic abuse and child molesters. While academics and experts are increasingly publicising the phenomenon and the cyber world is mushrooming with shocking stories that will curdle your blood and haunt your nights, most people are blissfully unaware because unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, ‘domestic violence and legalised abuse’ are probably not terms you’re going to google.

If you do happen to, you would come across heartbreaking websites containing testimonies such as these:

“Child 1″ has identified with his biological father stating ‘I have temper tantrums just like my dad’ and has told me he doesn’t like it when his dad ‘chokes him’ while illustrating the universal choke hold around his neck.” (common abuser behaviour).

Or this:

‘My daughter asks to see her Mommy, wants to come home but she can’t…she has been legally kidnapped, and placed into an unsafe environment by judicial order.’

And the agony of these motherless children:

‘As a survivor of domestic violence, and a woman who has been violated in the worst possible way…to have her years of life stolen by abuse, and then her children stolen by family court…’

’I fled the abuse to secure a better life for my family, and now I am being forced back into the role of the abuse victim–who is controlled, afraid and appeasing the one with the power and control (which is Courts working together with the alleged abuser).’

These are the reports of those allowed to speak out.

Abuse victims are often bullied into silence or threatened that if they go public, they will lose custody or precious visitation time with their children. Or there are cases, Goldstein claims, when judges ‘know they’ve made a mistake but can’t back down so gag the mothers or reduce her access.’

One childless mother I know of, in possession of damning taped evidence of her son describing in graphic detail how his father abuses him, has had such a gag order placed on her. Her ex-husband has full custody and she is only granted 2 hours fully supervised visits per week. The child, once healthy and well-developed, is now so disturbed he attends a special school.

The tendency towards extreme decisions by the family courts leave many women in desperate predicaments, trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.

‘Domestic violence advocates have told me that they are seeing more mothers staying with their abusers and taking his beatings because they are afraid the custody court will separate them from their children and they won’t be able to protect them’ Goldstein reports.

The ones that do choose to escape and take their chances in the family courts are mostly ignored and undermined.

Belittled as ‘disgruntled litigants,’ nobody seems to take their agonised concerns for their children’s welfare seriously; the same sense of despair and frustration repeated like a mantra over and over again, ‘the abuse continues but nobody is listening to me!’

To make matters worse, abusers often use the dirty trick of labelling their ex-partner as “crazy” or “unfit,” as a means of detracting from the allegations of abuse and discrediting the mother so that she is no longer believed.

Abusive fathers understand the best way to hurt the mother is to hurt her children. It’s time family court judges understood this too. Although the direct results may only affect the implicated families themselves, it is important to be aware that wrong decisions will eventually impact all of our lives. Emotionally and psychologically damaged children will turn into the problematic adults of tomorrow. Far from an individual problem, society as a whole will bear the scars and will also be made to suffer the painful consequences.