If you're like most parents, dropping your child off at your ex's home for visitation – or returning her to your ex after visitation – feels like someone is removing your heart from your chest. If your child returns to you in tears – or worse, with bruises – you're probably frantic, wondering what you can do. If she's being abused, your mission is twofold. You must help your child, and you must protect her as well.
Make Sure It's Abuse
Unless your child shows distinct physical signs of abuse, the possibility exists that your own feelings for your ex – or possibly for his new partner – may be bleeding over, coloring the situation in your eyes. Seek the help of a counselor or therapist to make sure. Arrange to have your child speak with a professional -- someone who is trained to ferret out the truth. If you make accusations that turn out to be false, there may be some backlash. Physical abuse will leave bruises -- anything from pinches to strap marks. Keep in mind that your child might make up bizarre stories about how the injuries occurred, if she doesn't want to get her other parent in trouble, or if she's afraid of what he might do if she tells. Signs of verbal abuse may be more difficult to detect. Your child may no longer express interest in things she's always loved. She might resist – cry or get angry – when it's time to go to your ex's home. Either way, you have to get to the bottom of the problem.
Dealing With Your Child
Your child needs a calm, reassuring rock in the midst of the storm she's experiencing. Before you and your ex broke up, your child probably thought the sun rose and set by her other parent. Now, home has become a place of danger and unpleasantness. She probably feels confused and betrayed. Give her plenty of opportunity to talk it out with you, but don't pressure her into details of what's going on or try to lead the conversation to where you want it to go, so you can gather evidence. Leave that to a professional -- her counselor or therapist. You don't want her to feel like you've turned into an enemy, too. Let her talk and confide in you at her own pace. When -- and if -- she does, make sure she understands that she hasn't been bad or done anything to deserve this treatment.
Call Child Protective Services
Your other challenge is to extricate your child from the situation. If your ex won't voluntarily comply and agree to keep his new partner away from your child, which may be difficult if they're living together, you can call the child protective services in your area. Usually, you can do this anonymously, and the staff will investigate the situation for you. The agency can usually take action, as well. For example, if your ex is the custodial parent and your child lives with him most of the time, protective services will remove her from the home if they substantiate that abuse is occurring there. If your child visits with your ex, protective services can often help you go back to court to modify your custody order and eliminate your child's exposure to your ex's new partner.
Going Back to Family Court
Divorced and separated parents sometimes accuse each other of child abuse when nothing of the sort is going on. This has jaded the courts to an unfortunate extent, so judges usually want irrefutable proof before they'll alter your custody arrangement. You or your child usually can't simply refuse visitation, so you'll need to involve child protective services as soon as possible, and you'll need the court's cooperation to modify your order. Your child's doctor or therapist, as well as child protective services, can be invaluable in helping you gather and document evidence of the abuse. Your burden should be far easier, if it's your ex's new partner you want to remove from the situation – not your ex himself. The court can order an alternate schedule so your ex and your child spend time alone. A judge can even order that they attend counseling together to repair any damage that's been done to their relationship.
Beverly Bird is a professional writer who is also a practicing paralegal in the areas of divorce and family law. She has offered community workshops for single parents, helping them with the financial and lifestyle issues they often face.