For the Good of the Children

For those of you who haven’t heard yet, some Iowa Republican lawmakers think that a) divorce causes teenage girls to have sex, and b) this is the worst thing ever. So bad, in fact, that parents of minor children should not be allowed to decide what is best for their own lives or relationships. If they do, then, to paraphrase¬†Rep. Tedd Gassman: Eww my granddaughter might have sex and that’s gross!

Most of the stupid has been pointed out already: the old man’s creepy fixation on his teenage granddaughter’s (entirely speculative) sex life, the fact that it is apparently only bad for teenage girls to have sex (despite the fact that these are Republicans, and are probably not amenable to the boys having sex which other), and the idea that it is somehow better for children to live with miserable parents who don’t get along than happy parents who recognized the need to split up. I don’t have much more to add on any of those points, but there is one more thing that needs to be said.

The proposed law would allow parents of minor children to get divorced in any of the following scenarios: adultery, physical or sexual abuse, imprisonment, abandonment, or prolonged separation.* So at least people won’t be stuck in truly horrible situations, right?

Here’s the problem with that: in order to get a divorce on one of those grounds, you have to prove it. This is not speculation about the bill; it’s how family law in every U.S. state that still has a form of fault-based divorce works. (Some states have fault-based grounds in addition to no-fault. The divorce is just as valid either way, but getting it on fault-based grounds can give one party a leg up in custody battles and sometimes draw a certain amount of sympathy from the court.)

A couple years ago, I worked as a legal intern with a Family Justice Center. We helped victims of abuse get protection orders and, in the case of victims who were married to their abusers, divorces.

My state still recognizes fault-based divorce, but you know how often we alleged abuse in the divorce complaints? Never. Not because we weren’t sure it was happening. Many of our clients came in bruised and bloody, sometimes bringing injured children with them. We didn’t allege abuse because we knew we’d have to prove it.

Should be easy, right? Well, sure, if you discount all the other stories that the abuser could come up with to explain the injuries. And the fact that there were rarely any other witnesses who could testify as to which spouse was telling the truth. And the fact that when there were witnesses, they were often the couple’s children, who may be too young to testify reliably and accurately. And the fact that even if they could, this requires the battered spouse and children to rehash those painful stories in open court and then be cross-examined. Is that really necessary?

The best-case scenario would have been to force our clients to retell the stories of how they were hit, kicked, burned, cut, or whatever else had happened to them, and then sit there and have their veracity challenged before finally being granted a divorce. The worse-case scenario would have been that they were unable to prove abuse to the satisfaction of the court and would have had to stay legally married to their abusers. Is it any wonder that the complaints we drafted simply alleged “irreconcilable differences”?

The Iowa bill is in no danger of passing any time soon, fortunately. But it alarms me that there are people out there who want to trap other people in marriages for any reason. This isn’t just about making people miserable with no solid justification (although that alone would be reason enough to oppose it). It’s also about safety. We’re talking about ostensibly responsible adults; adults the state obviously trusts with the task of raising children. Yet some lawmakers in that very same state want to take away the easiest avenue for divorcing an abuser. They’ve proposed a law that increases the likelihood that victims will need their children to testify against someone with violent tendencies. Because otherwise the kids — sorry, girls — might have sex. Good thing we have legislators like these to tell us what’s best for the children.

*Every source I’ve read lists physical and sexual abuse separately, but how is sexual abuse not physical? I suppose, theoretically, emotional abuse could have a sexual component, but I doubt that’s what’s meant here. If it is, then why not allow divorce for all nonphysical forms of abuse (and actually, why not allow it anyway)? On the other hand, if it isn’t, why the redundancy? I realize this is probably the least objectionable aspect of the bill, but it still bugs me.

By Kat Tagged

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