(New Ulm, Brown County, Minnesota: May 16, 2017) – Derek Michael Roethler has been charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct and one count of domestic assault after sexually assaulting his ex-partner during a custody exchange. When questioned by police, Roethler claims he did not hurt his ex-partner but rather, they were just playing “50 Shades of Gray”.
Roethler allegedly followed the victim into the bathroom and then removed his pants and touched the victim sexually. The victim fought back, hitting and biting Roethler. The child walked into the bathroom during the assault and cried after witnessing Roethler hurt his mother. The victim told the child to run for help, at which point Roethler fled.
Roethler has a lengthy criminal history and made the news in September 2016 for a felony drug charge, at the time of arrest he displayed bizarre behavior and was believed to be high on methamphetamines: NU man faces felony drug charge
At the time of this posting, this case is still ongoing. National surveys estimate that 1.5 -3 million women are victims of physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners or ex-partners each year (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).
What Can Be Learned: Identifying Risks to Children When Abuse Allegations are Raised
This case is just one example, of countless many, of a mother who was a victim of violence that occurred during custody exchange. What we learn from this tragedy can be used to raise awareness of the escalation of violence that occurs post separation. And, hopefully, that knowledge can be used to improve the system’s response to domestic violence, to include offering supportive services and increased legal protections to victims.
It is not clear if domestic violence had happened during this relationship but it is important to note that studies consistently show that the risk to children from parents who perpetrate domestic violence does not decrease after separation. It is a myth (that borders on victim blaming) to assume that once the victim leaves the relationship, the abuse ends. In reality, safety risks to children from domestic violence increase post separation. And in some cases, results are fatal.
Shared custody and/or visitation arrangements put victims in frequent contact with identified perpetrators of abuse, increasing the risk of harm to both the victim and the child.
Risks Posed to Children from an Abusive and/or Violent Parent Include:
- Exposure to threats, or violence. Children may be harmed physically or emotionally when caught in the middle of an assault. Alternately, the child may become a target of violence when the abuser seeks to retaliate against an ex partner, or uses the child to gain power and control over an ex partner. 30-60% of children with mothers who are victims of abuse are at risk to be abused by their fathers, and an estimated 3-10 million children witness parental abuse (Edleson, 1999a, 1999b).
- Risk of undermining the relationship the child has with the other parent, also known as Domestic Violence by Proxy or alienation. Higher risk of psychological abuse, manipulation and being victims of controlling behavior.
- Risk of physical, sexual, mental or emotional abuse
- Risk of neglect or irresponsible parenting
- Risk of restricting access to children or denying parenting time. The loss of a primary attachment figure is tremendously harmful to children. Another risk of harm occurs when the protective parent is removed from the child’s life, and there is no one advocating for the child or working to keep them safe.
- Risk of parental abduction
- The abuser as a role model as poses a risk to children in various ways as they cannot appropriately nurture, guide or discipline children.
- A child who is a victim to abuse or has witnessed domestic violence cannot heal when they are forced into contact with an abuser, or exposed to continued abuse. For children, the experience of growing up with an abusive parent is extremely traumatic, and leaves lifelong scars.
Lundy Bancroft, domestic violence expert with over 20 years experience working with abusive men in a counseling program, wrote an excellent article on the risks posed to children from abusers, and how to identify potential harm: Assessing Risk to Children from Batterers by Lundy Bancroft and ASSESSING RISK TO CHILDREN FROM BATTERERS Lundy Bancroft and Jay G. Silverman (2002)
Those who have the ability to intervene – family court professionals, CPS, therapists, medical doctors, crisis workers, advocates etc – need to be educated on domestic violence (and I mean not just one class but ongoing training or education) to understand how it manifests post separation and trained to identify a potential risk of harm to victims and their children. Identifying harm cannot rely solely on physical or sexual abuse but also must account for emotional and psychological abuse, coercive control and alienation behaviors as being detrimental to children.
In addition, when a family court considers a parenting time or custody, safety must be a priority. Parents who raise abuse allegations should not be ignored or punished, but rather, given the assistance and support they need to be safe. And children should not be sent into unsupervised visits or contact with a parent who poses a risk of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological injury to the child.
This free, online guide is an excellent resource for family court judges (also helpful for advocates, GALs and family court professionals) to help assess risk factors to a child, to review the evidence to ensure the safety and well-being of a child is met, and to draft orders that maximize safety: A Judicial Guide to Child Safety in Custody Cases
The family court has a responsibility to develop, and utilize, practices that promote safety for victims of domestic violence as this is truly the “best interest” of children. And as a society we cannot afford to ignore domestic violence, the stakes are too high for our children – and for our well-being as a community, as a whole.
~ Emily Court, © 2017