Mark Hayward's City Matters: City woman feels stuck in the family court systemBy MARK HAYWARD
August 11. 2017 10:14PM
South Manchester resident Tamara Duhaime knows first hand about domestic violence and its aftermath in the city of Manchester.
Three years ago, she suffered a broken nose when the father of her fourth child — William Hodgkins, now 60 — backhanded her as they argued while he drove her to pick up her paycheck.
The blow and subsequent arrest introduced her to a court system that, nearly three years after the assault, continues to grapple with the assault and its aftermath.
It is a system that keeps abuser and victim — father and mother — in a slow-burning dispute, long after a judge rules guilty and bruises have healed.
It is a system that decides simple questions of guilt or innocence rather quickly, but bogs down on the more complex, more subjective issues of child custody, financial support and parenting.
“That is the No. 1 problem we hear from our crisis centers and victims,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the public affairs director of New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“We see batterers that are absolutely using the system to continue the abuse,” Sexton said. One of their favorite moves: to gain 50-50 custody so they don’t have to pay child support, she said.
Sexton said family court is geared toward the 90 percent of cases where parents amicably break up and agree on custody and other parenting decisions. But for the other 10 percent — and that’s often when domestic assault is a factor — it’s non-stop motions, counseling sessions and court hearings.
Duhaime’s ordeal started with the assault in late September 2014. Two months later, Hodgkins was found guilty and given a suspended jail sentence.
“He basically walked away. He got a slap on the wrist,” said Duhaime, who is 49.
Then the family case started.
Hodgkins pays $800 a month on a pretty regular basis, according to court records. An Air Force veteran, he has been deemed completely disabled, and receives $4,500 a month in veteran benefits and Social Security disability, according to his financial statements filed with family court.
Duhaime earns about $25,600 annually as a licensed nursing assistant at Hillsborough County nursing home. She lives in an apartment with her two children in south Manchester. She gets no food stamps or welfare, she said.
The big issue is child custody.
The judge in the case said Hodgkins deserves a chance to develop a relationship with his son, now 12. But Duhaime won’t let that happen, according to Hodgkins’ lawyer.
“She will not follow a court order to save her life,” said Manchester lawyer Jaye Rancourt. Hodgkins has participated in counseling, anger management and batterers evaluation, she said. Nothing points to a propensity for violence.
“All he wants to do is see his son. That’s the only thing he wants. It’s heartbreaking,” Rancourt said.
Rancourt works for free, part of a program that provides legal help to veterans. She is Hodgkins’ third lawyer after two previous lawyers — Mark Howard and David Ruoff — had to drop out of his case to become judges.
Duhaime has no lawyer; New Hampshire Legal Assistance said it couldn’t take her case, she said.
So she goes it on her own. Duhaime said her son doesn’t want to see Hodgkins. She has encouraged him to do so, she said, but he is adamant. She can understand.
“Nobody can guarantee to me his safety 100 percent,” Duhaime said. (Duhaime said Hodgkins was in the Air Force for a short time and never saw combat; Rancourt said she’s unsure of Hodgkins’ military record.)
The stalemate goes on. Last month, Judge Susan Carbon ordered Duhaime to pay $200 a month for a counselor to determine if Duhaime is unfairly influencing the boy against Hodgkins. Hodgkins is paying a retainer for the counselor, and Duhaime has to pay him back, which makes her indebted to her one-time assailant, she complained.
And so it goes, circling nonstop like a whirlpool of water in a drain. How to stop it up?
Rancourt said judges know when a batterer is using the system and put a stop to it.
Sexton said the problem can’t be fixed by passing a law. She said judges, mediators and guardians have to be trained to understand domestic violence. And she’d like to see a special family court that deals with domestic violence.
“Look at the Joshua Savyon case,” Sexton said, referring to the 2013 murder-suicide involving a father and his 9-year-old son during a supervised visitation. “Talk about red flags. He did what he told everybody he would do.”
Duhaime said she becomes anxious when she appears in court. She complains that the judge doesn’t listen to her. The judge, Carbon, headed up the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women in the Obama administration.
In her court orders, Carbon acknowledges Duhaime’s concerns in writing. But the judge stresses that the state Legislature presumes that contact with both mother and father is in the best interest of a child.
For a non-lawyer, Duhaime seems to be pretty good at forestalling a possible reunification between father and son.
But why shouldn’t she? After all, judges want her to put their faith in the system. The same system that let a guy walk free after he broke her nose.
“You feel like you’re going to reach a safe haven when you reach our court system,” Duhaime said, “and then you realize that’s not the case.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.