BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — “Walking into the family court system can very much be like the wild wild West. I could walk into 10 different courtrooms with my exact same case and get 10 different rulings," said Tina Swithin, creator of Family Court Awareness Month.
Swithin’s experience with the family court system began in 2009. She began divorce proceedings in San Luis Obispo County and said she was concerned for the safety of her children from their biological father.
“Like most people, I just believed courts were there to protect children and to do what was in their best interest," she said. "Unfortunately what I found was their biological father’s parental rights trumped their right to safety.”
According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, since 2008 over 800 children have been killed by a divorcing or separating parent. Out of those, 111 were considered preventable cases.
Swithin has since made it her mission to bring attention to issues she noticed over the last 10 years. Especially when it comes to domestic violence and child safety.
Unlike criminal court where evidence and a jury of your peers will ultimately decide your fate, in family court the decisions are left up to a single judge and their own opinions, previous experience, and biases.
“There is a disconnect of what we are teaching people about domestic violence," Swithin said. "We empower survivors to be brave, to leave, tell them that’s the right thing to do for themselves and for their children but we’re not equipping them for the reality of what they’re walking into in family court.”
In California alone according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence as of 2020, 34.9% of women and 31.1% of men experience different forms of domestic violence. When it comes to calls about domestic violence in 2020 California received more than 160,000 calls and over 70,000 involved weapons.
Of those, in Kern County, there were over 8,000 calls with nearly 3,000 involving weapons.
“When it comes to domestic violence, the definition we use is different than what you see in the law," said Alyssa Olivera with the Alliance Against Family Violence. "For us, domestic violence is exerting power and control over an individual that you are currently or have been in a relationship with."
Olivera said they often work with domestic violence survivors to prepare for court, and they’re prepared to stand by their sides through the process. however the alliance can only go so far with survivors, so they try to give them the tools they need for themselves.
Olivera said one of the difficulties for victims of domestic violence in the family court system is proving a danger of abuse aside from physical violence.
“We have this idea that it’s not abuse if it’s not physical, but there are so many different kinds of abuse," she said. "There’s financial abuse, emotional abuse, religious abuse. And these can be difficult because there is no crime, technically speaking, without physically harming someone.”
That’s why the alliance works to improve the family court system — by educating those who run the system.
“It is a lot of he said she said, they said they said. So we do try to bring education to anybody" Olivera said. "We have had conversations with judges in the past to help bring that education to folks.”
If you are experiencing domestic violence there are several resources available to you and you can call (661) 327-1091. You can also see the links below for further resources.