I did everything right. I didn’t marry the “bad boy” that my father warned me about. I waited until I found the man who wrote me poetry, sent me flowers and held the door open for me. He came from an upstanding family, he was smart, charismatic and was embarking on an impressive career path that afforded him a comfortable life. I once made a comment about needing to pinch myself in case I was dreaming. It all seemed too good to be true and it was.
It began with isolation however, not the kind that would cause immediate red flags. He was moving four-hours away and invited me to go with him. I did. During the move, he wanted me to sell all of my belongings so he could purchase us all new things for us to begin a life together. I agreed. It was spontaneous, exciting and romantic. What I didn’t realize in my 26-year old, naive and trusting mind is that isolation is one of the first warning signs of domestic violence. I was now four-hours away from my support network, without my material possessions and at his mercy.
In the beginning, the positives outweighed the negatives but as time went on, the pendulum swung in the other direction. It happened slowly over time and I didn’t even realize the severity of the abuse because of the fog that had set in. It was the indescribable confusion of living with someone who presented one way in public and completely different behind closed doors. I was subjected to demeaning comments and criticism that he laughed off even when I was visibly upset. When I voiced my objection or challenged him, I was labeled as too sensitive or overly emotional. Over time, I began to lose my voice and I stopped speaking up. Then came the gaslighting, the silent treatment and the harsher forms of criticism that were very pointed and not laughed off.
When my marriage ended in 2009, I stepped foot into the Family Court system naively hopeful that the court’s own words (“in the best interest of the child”) would be their guiding light. I was wrong. I quickly learned that there is a higher value placed on parental rights than there are on children’s rights. The courtroom became another avenue for my ex-husband to commit domestic violence (by proxy) and the family court professionals (commissioner, minor’s counsel, custody evaluators and CPS) were just pawns in his sick, twisted chess game. I discovered that if someone stands up and declares that they want to be a parent, everything from the past is swept under the rug, minimized or completely erased.
During my six-year custody battle, I lived with constant PTSD triggers. I lived in the fight or flight mode which became my normal. A sound in the middle of the night would cause me to bolt upright and grab a hammer which was conveniently tucked under my pillow. Sleeping with a hammer became my normal but is the furthest thing from normal. The reality was, I knew he would kill me. I could tell by the terrifying, rageful look in his eyes. Knowing this didn’t qualify me for a restraining order. To everyone else, he was charming and charismatic. He wore a three-piece suit and he made six-figures. He was intelligent and boasted about his family. He claimed that he wanted to be a dad but I knew the truth; my children were the only weapons he had left to hurt me. While I knew he was capable of ending my life, saying that out in court would make me appear to be the crazy one.
For six years, I followed every court order. He didn’t yet there were minimal (if any) consequences for his behavior or violations. Each time the court ruled in his favor, my heart was crushed because as a mother, nature designed me to protect my young. My hands were tied by a broken system and I was forced to sit back and watch year after year as my children were emotionally and mentally tortured – emotional abuse leaves no marks so again, it was my word against his. While my children were vocal about what was happening to them, it was dismissed as hearsay. Emotional abuse leaves very deep, lasting scars regardless of whether they can be seen with the human eye.
I sat in court for years detailing the dysfunction within my ex-husband’s family. Namely, his brother, Jason Robert Porter. I fought tooth and nail to protect my daughters from an individual that I knew was incredibly dangerous and I painted a picture in court that should have caused every family court professional to take notice. Despite my best efforts, they didn’t take notice and they continued to be dismissive of my concerns. My ex-husband’s family appeared very polished and pretty on the outside yet I had been “behind the curtain” and knew what the reality was. My ex-husband’s mother was instrumental in undoing any progress I made in court to protect my children. She was known to swoop in during summer and Christmas vacations to clean up whatever mess my ex-husband made and she’d carefully rewrap it in a pretty package also known as court declarations. I often said that my battle was against her because left to his own, my ex-husband would have continued to dig himself deeper and deeper in the eyes of the court.
All of my fears were validated when my ex-brother-in-law was arrested in June of 2016 for child molestation and child pornography. This monster that I had warned family court professionals about for years has destroyed the lives of countless children in our community with charges so atrocious that he is now sitting behind bars facing life in prison. The vast majority of these crimes took place in the home he shared with my ex-mother-in-law and father-in-law who are both mandated reporters in the State of California. During my custody battle, they bragged about their many years of experience working with children and their esteemed careers in education yet they were living in a home with the biggest pedophile that San Luis Obispo County has ever seen.
My PTSD from my family court case, the new criminal case and this family has soared to levels that I never knew possible. There have been PTSD episodes in the past year that left me unable to function and unable to work. I am forced to live and work in the same town as the very people who have inflicted so much pain on my family and many others. Some will tell me to “hold my head high,” and “don’t let them affect you,” however, it isn’t that simple. PTSD doesn’t allow me to hold my head high. PTSD causes my mind to go blank and my body to tremble. PTSD causes me to shake so badly that I drop my coffee all over the floor of my office building. PTSD takes over my mind, body and spirit and robs me of the joyful person that I have always prided myself on being. PTSD causes me to avoid public places that I normally love. PTSD has made me fearful of being in crowds at Farmer’s Market, church or other gathering places. PTSD causes me to want to move out of the very town where my children were born and the place that I’ve called, “home” for thirty-three years.
I am one of the “fortunate ones” in Family Court and for that I am eternally grateful. By all accounts, we have a happy ending: my children are safe and we have no contact with my ex-husband. I am remarried to an amazing man who has a great deal of patience and carefully navigates my PTSD landmines with love and compassion. The reality behind the curtain is that my “happily ever after” also means that I am left holding a bag that is filled (and some days, overflowing) with PTSD because of the trauma I’ve experienced in Family Court and at the hands of this family. The Family Court system is sorely lacking education on high-conflict divorces and domestic violence. They are still of the archaic mindset that someone who commits DV can be a good parent.
Being that this is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I am sharing my story with the hope of raising awareness and putting a face to this epidemic in our country and beyond. My name is Tina Swithin and I am a survivor of Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence by Proxy, a broken Family Court System and complex PTSD. Tonight I will stand with the members of my community in solidarity for the countless women who have lost their lives to Domestic Violence. I encourage you to find a way to honor these women in your own community.