How reporting domestic violence works against women in family court.


Tara Coronado, a 45-year-old mom of 4, sat in a nondescript Austin courtroom six years in the past throughout a custody battle together with her ex-husband, biting her tongue because the decide dressed her down.

“There’s a big quantity of anger coming from you,” stated Choose Susan Sheppard. “You deny it and are clearly not recognizing how nearly every bit of data you give the Court docket is tinged by, tainted by, influenced by your overwhelming anger and damage.”

Coronado was offended. A slender Mexican-American girl with lengthy darkish hair and a whip-quick thoughts, she’d scraped her approach up from a New Mexico trailer park to serve within the Peace Corps and graduate from the College of Texas Legislation College. She married Ed Cunningham, a former soccer star turned lawyer and businessman, and had three boys and a woman. And he or she’d stayed dwelling to boost them, for lengthy stretches on her personal, by way of a tumultuous 15-year-marriage that broke down when she found her husband had purchased a second home throughout city the place he was having an affair with one other girl.

Exterior their custody battle, Cunningham was going through a separate prison cost of assaulting Coronado shortly earlier than their divorce—allegations he adamantly denied. In a 2013 police report that included pictures of her accidents, Coronado advised authorities that he’d punched her within the face, kneed her within the chest and dragged her by her hair throughout the street, leading to a black eye, bruises and abrasions on her again and legs. Coronado obtained an emergency safety order, and Cunningham was arrested.

However a yr later, in entrance of the court docket, it was Coronado underneath scrutiny. Cunningham’s lawyer and a court-appointed therapist forged her as vindictive and unstable, fabricating abuse claims in retaliation for his infidelity; insulting his new spouse, Aimee Boone; and poisoning their youngsters towards him.

By her personal admission, amid their operatic, years-long separation and divorce, Coronado had generally acted badly. Throughout fights, generally in entrance of the children, she referred to as Boone ugly names. In texts, she swung between castigating Cunningham for abandoning his household and begging him to name.

At one level throughout the trial, Cunningham’s lawyer urged she had “plenty of unresolved points and anger from the divorce.” Coronado shot again, “I’ve plenty of unresolved points with placing up with 15 years of getting overwhelmed to be left penniless and elevating 4 youngsters on my own.”

However outbursts like that don’t play properly in a household court docket system that girls’s rights advocates say is permeated by gender bias. Judges and court-appointed specialists try to hunt the most effective pursuits of youngsters in circumstances the place polarized and combative dad and mom current irreconcilable variations of actuality. They level out that within the high-conflict circumstances they’re drawn into, they’re usually the goal of fury from the dad or mum who loses. But some additionally punish girls who seem offended or aggressive; fail to know how trauma can warp feelings and private demeanor; and depend on forensic assessments that some specialists take into account misinformed at greatest and unethical at worst.

Sheppard authorised Cunningham’s request for a psychological analysis of Coronado. Whereas her order coated each dad and mom, Sheppard’s conclusion appeared clear as she advised Coronado she hoped the analysis would possibly “clarify indirectly how you may have stated and accomplished issues that replicate so badly in your judgment and in your parenting.” The decide puzzled aloud whether or not the evaluator would possibly discover an “Axis II” psychological well being situation, a class that features extreme diagnoses like borderline persona dysfunction.

Because the custody case dragged by way of the courts, a parade of therapists—assigned by the court docket, however paid for by Cunningham—would weigh in, declaring that the issue wasn’t him, however Coronado, whom they described as manipulative, hostile and defensive. They labeled her with a spread of diagnoses, from borderline persona dysfunction—an sickness marked by unstable feelings and interpersonal relationships—to the contested concept of “parental alienation”—that’s, intentionally estranging the youngsters from their father and coercing them into supporting false claims of abuse.

Cunningham, who denies ever hitting Coronado, declined to talk on the file for this text, though he shared some paperwork from the case. “Tara has an extended historical past of constructing false allegations when she will get offended or doesn’t get her approach,” he would inform a court-appointed psychologist. “I’ve at all times prevented all bodily contact with Tara (i.e., besides to deflect her blows or to restrain her from hitting me) as a result of I do know that she is at all times in search of a technique to achieve leverage by way of her loopy accusations.”

The custody battle turned on the way to interpret the identical court docket transcripts and therapists’ reviews, which Cunningham’s camp noticed as incontrovertible proof of Coronado’s manipulativeness and instability, and hers learn as reflecting profound gender disparities.

Roughly three months after the decide’s order, Cunningham was awarded main custody of the three boys, and Coronado was relegated to 4 hours of supervised visitation per week. She met her sons in two-hour increments underneath the watchful eye of a supervisor she paid $100 an hour—a considerable chunk of the wages of her new administrative job. A yr later, she misplaced custody of her daughter as properly.

As Coronado would testify, it was the nightmare realization of threats she claimed her ex made when she’d first filed the police report. “He stated he’d take the children away, take the cash away, and inform everybody I used to be loopy,” she stated. “And he’s accomplished all that.”

Conventional knowledge has it that girls mechanically have the higher hand in custody fights, and a mom claiming she’s been abused has a robust case to sway the court docket. However when home violence expenses are in play, advocates and researchers counsel, moms are sometimes at a drawback.

“The authorized system is ready up on coping with agreeableness,” stated Margaret Bassett, then the deputy director of the College of Texas at Austin Institute on Home Violence & Sexual Assault, who would assist throughout Coronado’s case. Household courts usually favor the dad or mum who will cooperate to take care of their ex’s relationship with their youngsters.

This “pleasant dad or mum” precept, smart general, because it’s wholesome for most kids to take care of bonds with each dad and mom, can grow to be a blind spot—or worse—in circumstances of alleged abuse. Moms who cost fathers with home violence amid custody battles are sometimes suspected of fabricating the claims as a tactic to win management of their youngsters. However battered girls’s advocates counsel that many “high-conflict” divorces—the single-digit fraction of separations which might be extensively litigated—are literally home violence circumstances in disguise.

Some analysis backs this up. One small 1992 examine discovered that there was bodily aggression between dad and mom in 70 % of high-conflict custody fights, and “extreme” violence (which means battery or the risk or use of a weapon) in practically half. One other examine, printed in 1997 by the Nationwide Heart for State Courts and overlaying a number of cities, discovered documented proof of home violence in 20 to 55 % of contested custody circumstances. In a single metropolis the place court docket mediators screened for it, “a lot larger” charges of abuse had been revealed.

But merely elevating the difficulty tends to work towards moms. A 2004 examine funded by the Nationwide Institute of Justice discovered that moms had been extra prone to obtain main custody if they’d not made allegations of home abuse, whereas fathers had been equally prone to get custody whether or not there have been allegations towards them or not. The examine additionally discovered that when mediators found proof of violence when the mom hadn’t alleged any, they had been extra prone to suggest court docket protections like supervised little one exchanges, which means girls who had been open about being abused obtained much less safety for themselves and their youngsters than those that weren’t.

One rationalization for the totally different fates of women and men in household court docket could also be how home violence victims can come throughout: hyper-vigilant, agitated, guarded, risky. These traits could make moms look unstable or unfit, however are additionally commonplace reactions to trauma and even signs of PTSD.

Many household courts and therapists haven’t stored tempo with a rising understanding of the dynamics of home violence, or lack the coaching to interpret the affect of trauma on abuse victims, home violence specialists say. And plenty of are swayed by conventional assumptions about males, girls and anger.

“An offended girl could be vengeful and fabricating,” stated Joan Meier, a George Washington College legislation faculty professor and founding father of the advocacy group DV LEAP, which handles appeals for battered girls in custody disputes. “However offended fathers? We’ve no drawback with that due to course he’s offended—he’s been stored from his youngsters and there are these lies being promulgated about him. It’s so thick with gender stereotypes, you may lower it with a knife.”

What it provides as much as, stated UT’s Bassett, is a fateful selection: “If I’m going to court docket and alleging that my associate is abusive, I’m most likely going to lose custody of the youngsters. Do I’m going to court docket and threat that, or do I play the sport the way in which it’s arrange?”

The two met in 1997, when Cunningham, a lawyer working as a sports activities agent, spoke to Coronado’s legislation faculty class. Cunningham, together with his shock of side-swept brown hair and open smile, appeared bigger than life. He was nearly 6’eight and round 275 kilos, befitting his transient stint within the NFL and earlier than that his standing as an All America participant for Austin’s storied UT Longhorns. He was in the midst of his first divorce, and their preliminary romance swept Coronado off her toes.

However inside months, she stated, the connection turned violent. When she went with associates to a celebration at his home and noticed him with one other girl, their ensuing argument culminated in a loud battle in his rest room the place, Coronado advised police, Cunningham threw her towards the sink and choked her. Upon seeing her bruises, her brother Sam, who lived together with her on the time, referred to as the police, and satisfied his sister to talk with them. Her good friend Sharon Rutman (then Rubin), who’d been outdoors the lavatory door, gave a police assertion as properly, describing seeing Cunningham stroll out, leaving Coronado splayed on the ground, legs braced towards the wall and gasping for air.

Whereas she debated urgent expenses, Coronado discovered she was pregnant. She reconciled with Cunningham and moved into his stone two-story dwelling in Bee Cave, excessive within the Hill Nation surrounding Austin. When she was six months pregnant, they married, and she or he settled into dwelling life, having three extra youngsters inside six years. Cunningham shifted from sports activities legislation to different enterprise ventures, they usually moved in influential circles. In 2001, Cunningham launched a short-lived marketing campaign for U.S. Senate. Coronado grew to become an intensely concerned stay-at-home mom, shepherding their youngsters between sporting occasions at costly non-public faculties, teaching a few of their groups.

Coronado says their early years had been marked by volatility and sporadic violence, with frequent fights about cash or Cunningham’s infidelity. She’d later inform quite a few associates, in addition to a court-appointed psychologist, that generally her husband hit, bit or spit on her, destroyed garments and keepsakes, and that when when she was pregnant, held her on the bottom and put a hose in her mouth, choking her with water. Cunningham advised the identical psychologist, “nothing even remotely near that is true.”

In interviews with 10 of Coronado’s relations, associates or neighbors, folks recalled troubling dynamics in regards to the relationship. A number of associates described her having bruises that she excused as accidents from sports activities or yard work, or that she’d put on long-sleeve shirts and pants by way of the Texas summer season. She referred to as her brother so continuously in misery, Sam stated, that he finally grew to become annoyed together with her refusal to go away.

It baffled them. Coronado was good, aggressive, pushed and, above all, powerful. “As a result of she’s such a power of nature, it’s more durable to consider that she would keep in a relationship that’s violent,” stated Jeana Lungwitz, director of the College of Texas College of Legislation’s Home Violence Clinic, who helped on her case.

However that’s not how home violence performs out, specialists say. Girls keep in abusive relationships for a lot of causes—out of worry, dependence or terror that in the event that they go away they or their youngsters might be in better hazard. One other trigger: the paradox of “traumatic bonding” that outcomes from the abusive cycle of fine and dangerous occasions.

In Coronado’s personal calculus, the alleged episodes of violence got here amid blissful moments—when Cunningham dressed up as Santa Claus and reworked into what she referred to as “over-do it Ed”—in addition to lengthy stretches the place he was merely gone. (He took a job in China and lived largely away from dwelling for years.) “I justified it,” she stated. “It’s not every single day, we had a pleasant life.”

However by the tip of 2011, she found that Cunningham had purchased one other home, the place he started residing part-time, generally, she stated, during times when he claimed he was overseas. She discovered he was seeing Boone—an heiress to the Container Retailer fortune, a outstanding Democratic donor who’s hosted fundraisers and occasions for politicians like Barack Obama and Joe Biden and who’s now chair of the nationwide board of administrators of Deliberate Parenthood—and that the connection was severe. (Boone declined an interview request.) Ultimately, Cunningham filed for divorce.

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Negotiations stalled amid the rancor. By late 2012, an lawyer appointed by the court docket to find out the youngsters’s greatest pursuits tried to assist the household work out a custody schedule, however eliminated herself quickly after, saying the state of affairs was past her management. The dad and mom had been so deadlocked, and the youngsters so caught in between, that she believed a number of the children would quickly refuse to go to their father. “The pathology on this household,” she wrote, “is acute.”

Then got here the Could 2013 battle. Based on Coronado’s police assertion, Cunningham had been staying together with her for a number of days when an argument over cash devolved right into a shouting match about Boone. In her assertion, Coronado stated she grabbed Cunningham’s cellphone, threatening to name Boone, and he charged at her, knocking her to the bottom, dropping his knee onto her chest and punching her within the face, earlier than driving away. Cunningham advised a court-appointed psychologist that Coronado routinely bodily blocked him from leaving the home after visits, and that after stealing his cellphone she fell whereas working away; any accidents she had, he urged, should have resulted from that.

In the course of the altercation, one in all Coronado’s neighbors, Kishna Weaver, seen her canine barking and turned on a lightweight. A short while later, Weaver stated in an interview, Coronado came visiting, trying like she’d been in a battle. Weaver drove her to the police station, and as quickly as they arrived, she recalled, an officer within the car parking zone noticed them and had the identical response Weaver did: instantly asking Coronado who’d hit her. Invoice Pitmon, a lieutenant with the division who later took Coronado’s assertion, recalled in an interview how “visibly shaken up” she nonetheless appeared practically per week after the alleged assault. Later that month, Cunningham was arrested for assault household violence, a misdemeanor cost. Inside weeks, their divorce settlement, together with main custody for Coronado and prolonged commonplace visitation rights for Cunningham, lastly went by way of.


Despite how dangerous the wedding had been, Coronado was undone by its dissolution. Her associates keep in mind her in the summertime of 2013 being “beside herself,” at occasions nearly catatonic, at different occasions performing erratically. She went to Cunningham’s second home to confront him, and as soon as went inside and mocked Boone’s garments and broke her make-up case. She insulted Boone to Cunningham, calling her his “new meal ticket,” as soon as utilizing an anti-Semitic slur. In texts submitted to the court docket as a part of the custody battle, she swerved between selecting fights and telling him his household wanted him. As soon as, after one of many youngsters advised Cunningham that their mom appeared depressed and wasn’t getting off the bed, he came visiting to inventory the home with meals and watch the children. At one level that summer season, Coronado texted Cunningham to apologize for the safety order, and in October, she signed a non-prosecution type, noting that she was specializing in her children and discovering work.

However behind the scenes, Coronado charged, Cunningham had been pressuring her to withdraw her abuse grievance. After his arrest, she would testify, he had written that he couldn’t afford to make any extra of their divorce settlement funds “till I get by way of all this litigation you may have initiated,” which she believed was a reference to the prison abuse case. Though Coronado was awarded the household dwelling within the divorce, for months she stated Cunningham didn’t signal over the deed, and didn’t accomplish that till after she’d signed the non-prosecution type. And in individual, she’d additionally later testify, he threatened to “smash” her if she helped the prosecution.

In February 2014, Travis County Legal professional Jordan Foster tried to persuade her to cooperate with the prosecution. “Proper now, primarily based on what I’m seeing, it seems to me like he damage you and I must suggest a conviction,” Foster wrote in an e-mail. A number of days later, Coronado agreed to talk with him. After phrase bought again to Cunningham that Coronado would take part within the prosecution, she would later testify, his subsequent settlement test bounced. Then, though she would inform the court docket he’d solely exercised a handful of custodial weekends over their practically two-year separation, proper after he and Boone bought married, he demanded to renew visitation. To Coronado, it appeared “he was going by way of with the threats he’d made.”

Cunningham’s model of occasions is totally different. He advised a court-appointed psychologist that he’d tried to see the youngsters extra frequently, however Coronado had restricted him to visits at her home, and had restricted even these as his marriage to Boone approached. He stated Coronado had failed to rearrange for the youngsters to attend his wedding ceremony, and had later discouraged visitation, generally saying the youngsters didn’t need something to do with him and different occasions that they wanted remedy first.

Coronado’s lawyer on the time filed a custody-modification lawsuit to forestall the youngsters’s visitation with their father till a therapist evaluated them and declared it of their greatest pursuits to renew visits. However the gambit backfired instantly, setting off years of litigation and the intervention of a number of therapists—first to guage the youngsters, then Coronado and Cunningham themselves.

Beginning in June of 2014, the youngsters started seeing two therapists the court docket appointed to facilitate their reunification with Cunningham: Dr. Susan McMillan, who handled the older siblings, and LeAnn Artis, who labored primarily with the youthful two. (Artis declined to remark for this text, and McMillan couldn’t be reached for remark.)

Neither therapist noticed Coronado immediately together with her youngsters. However they got here to consider that she was swaying the youngsters towards their father, they usually relied closely on parental alienation concept.

Artis later declared in court docket that Coronado’s conduct amounted to emotional abuse, and that the household was one of the excessive circumstances of parental alienation she’d ever seen. For instance, Artis testified that the youngest boys had modified their tales, from saying they hadn’t witnessed Cunningham hitting their mom to claiming they’d. And he or she felt Coronado was behind one little one’s backing out of attending an occasion for President Obama hosted on the dwelling Cunningham and Boone shared, now valued at $3.75 million.

After just a few periods with Coronado, Artis sharply curtailed contact together with her. Artis claimed that Coronado had intimidated her one night after the youngsters’s periods, when she stopped in to report that she’d discovered pornography on a pc Cunningham gave one son. Coronado accused Artis of defending Cunningham, since he was the one paying her payments. A number of days later, Artis emailed to say she would now not meet Coronado in individual or by cellphone, and would solely talk in writing. Then she wrote Cunningham’s lawyer to inform him what occurred.

Whereas Coronado admits she didn’t deal with the alternate with Artis properly, she stated there was extra to the story. Earlier that day, she’d obtained a subpoena from the prosecutor’s workplace demanding that she testify in regards to the alleged 2013 assault. However when she talked about it to Artis, Coronado later advised the court docket, Artis “advised me Ed by no means hit me, I had made it up.”

It was, to her, a surreal second: “The state of Texas is demanding that I testify in an assault the place I used to be the sufferer, and a psychological well being skilled simply checked out me and stated ‘it didn’t occur.’”

McMillan described in a deposition what she noticed as a sample of Coronado discouraging the older youngsters’s relationship with Cunningham. She deduced that sample, she’d later testify, from the youngsters’s conduct alone, such because the daughter rebuffing McMillan’s makes an attempt to speak kindly about her father by repeating that he had cheated, hit her mother, and left. McMillan acknowledged that she hadn’t really assessed Coronado for alienation, however argued, “The refusal to see their father is parental alienation by definition.”

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The therapists’ assessments proved damning when Coronado returned to court docket on the finish of 2014. By then, the lawyer who’d introduced her custody modification go well with had retired, and, making simply $47,000 at her new administrative job, Coronado couldn’t afford to exchange her. At occasions, earlier than the listening to, she represented herself whereas her ex’s lawyer, Charles Bowes, argued for his main custody. Cunningham was granted short-term custody of the three boys. The daughter, who maintained that she’d witnessed Cunningham hit Coronado, was so estranged from him that the therapists urged she stay together with her mom and bear reunification remedy.

Coronado herself was ordered into parental alienation remedy and placed on supervised visitation: allowed to see her sons simply 4 hours per week, within the firm of a social employee, who submitted notes on their interactions. Though the order was meant to be short-term, because of continuances on each side, it might stretch longer than a yr.

The idea of parental alienation may be traced to the mid-1980s, when little one psychiatrist Richard Gardner first started utilizing the time period to explain what he referred to as the “brainwashing” of youngsters by one dad or mum to view the opposite dad or mum as “all dangerous.” He charged that probably the most extreme allegations of kid abuse that come up throughout divorce are the fabrication of moms looking for “the full elimination of the daddy.”

That gender breakdown was no accident: Gardner argued that in some 90 % of alienation circumstances he’d noticed, moms had been at fault. He urged that alienating moms may need pathologies comparable to borderline or narcissistic persona dysfunction, or that the phenomenon might be defined by “the outdated saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a lady scorned.’” A few of his cures had been extreme: instantly eradicating youngsters from the house of the “alienating dad or mum,” and warning youngsters who balked at custodial visits that until they revered their fathers, their moms could be locked up.

Neither this syndrome nor its offshoot—extra generally recognized right this moment as merely “Parental Alienation”—have ever been formally accepted by the psychological institution, regardless of repeated campaigns to incorporate it within the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Guide of Psychological Problems. (Advocates of the time period argue that related diagnoses are within the guide and parental alienation’s absence doesn’t show that it’s been discredited.) Nonetheless, Gardner grew to become a frequent courtroom professional, showing—for profitable charges—in an estimated 400 circumstances. In time, his popularity grew to become tarnished: males’s rights activists grew to become probably the most ardent proponents of his concept, and Gardner’s odd statements—like hypothetically suggesting that moms punish youngsters who report sexual abuse by their fathers—got here to gentle.

In 2003, Gardner killed himself. However a cottage trade of followers continued his work, and his concept stays extremely disputed. The Nationwide Council of Juvenile and Household Court docket Judges said greater than a decade in the past that courts shouldn’t settle for testimony relating to the “discredited” parental alienation syndrome. However different parts of the authorized system proved extra credulous, and parental alienation grew to become such a typical tactic in custody disputes that some girls’s rights advocates name it a public well being disaster. They consider that parental alienation usually obscures home violence or little one abuse, as a result of the idea means that youngsters being estranged from their fathers is because of their moms’ brainwashing, as an alternative of, say, the results of their having skilled or witnessed abuse.

Richard Warshak, a number one proponent of parental alienation concept, has written that many critics misunderstand the idea or create a straw man to dismiss it. “It’s well-known that youngsters may be, and are, taught to hate and worry different folks for no good motive,” he wrote in a 2003 paper. “There isn’t any motive to imagine that oldsters are exempt from changing into the goal of such irrational emotions.” However, extra lately, he additionally famous the danger of “false positives” as custody evaluators and professional witnesses “wield the idea of parental alienation like a blunt sword,” and generally the court docket “[fails] to acknowledge {that a} little one’s rejection is a justifiable response to a dad or mum’s violence, abuse, or different type of gross mistreatment.”

It’s exhausting to find out how usually parental alienation claims have an effect on custody circumstances. Many household court docket periods are closed to the general public, and circumstances that aren’t appealed—which is most of them—don’t make it into the general public file.

In an effort to evaluate whether or not the idea has grow to be “a gender-biased automobile for negating respectable abuse claims,” Meier and her co-author, Sean Dickson, examined practically 4,400 household court docket circumstances from 2005 to 2015, and located that 16 % had been influenced by allegations of parental alienation. Factoring in opinions that didn’t use the precise time period however echoed that reasoning, the proportion was nearer to one-quarter. The true quantity would possibly even be larger, stated Meier, because the examine couldn’t seize circumstances like Coronado’s, the place alienation claims had been extensively litigated, however not referenced within the decide’s last opinion. And the results had been stark: When fathers countered moms’ allegations of home violence or little one abuse with expenses of parental alienation, girls’s price of shedding custody doubled.

Even proving abuse didn’t at all times assist, since even within the small subset of circumstances the place the court docket believed abuse occurred, but additionally that the mom had alienated the youngsters, girls nonetheless misplaced custody practically one-third of the time.

In early 2015, as Coronado and Cunningham’s custody battle dragged on, one other therapist, Dr. Alissa Sherry, stepped in to conduct the psychological evaluations of the dad and mom that Choose Sheppard ordered.

Sherry ran persona checks on each of them, along with talking with individuals who would possibly again up their claims. Coronado introduced her lawyer’s coaching, her mounting frustration at earlier therapists’ seeming disbelief in her home abuse claims, and her attribute tenacity. Keen to clarify the context behind the costs of parental alienation, she confirmed Sherry a timeline she’d created chronicling Cunningham’s alleged abuse. Along with the 2013 police report, it included pictures of her accidents, a medical report and a letter from the Travis County Sheriff’s division associated to the 1998 assault, though not that precise police file, which she hadn’t but obtained.

In Could 2015, Sherry delivered her findings. At 110 pages, the analysis targeted closely on Coronado: a lady Sherry discovered “exceptionally vivid” however generally vulnerable to emotional overreaction, defensiveness, and misperceptions of actuality. Most damningly, Sherry wrote that she met the standards for borderline persona dysfunction—what one psychologist described as “the worst analysis you can get as a mom” in a custody battle—primarily based considerably on what Sherry noticed as her overly-negative description of her relationship with Cunningham. “[W]ith Ms. Coronado,” Sherry wrote, “your entire relationship from begin to end in her report was so dangerous it left one questioning why a graduate faculty educated girl married such a monster.” (In an interview, Sherry later stated she meant the comment as a touch upon Coronado “overselling” her claims of Cunningham’s abuse.)

Sherry appeared skeptical of Coronado’s claims of home abuse, saying most of her accusations couldn’t be confirmed or “ignored key particulars implicating her personal erratic conduct as the reason for the battle.” For instance, Sherry wrote that Coronado hadn’t offered compelling proof of the 1998 assault, and the images and medical information she’d supplied rather than a police report might have resulted from anybody assaulting her at any time, not particularly Cunningham, who, Sherry wrote, “doesn’t keep in mind any form of altercation between them throughout that point.” Though Sherry famous there was nobody to verify his aspect of the story both, elsewhere within the report she urged that, since he was a lot greater than Coronado, if he’d actually abused her, it might have been apparent.

If she’d had a replica of the 1998 police report, Sherry later stated, and it had been corroborated, “You guess I’d have a special opinion about all of it.”

The shortcomings Sherry present in Cunningham had been way more restricted: that he might be “overly trusting and optimistic”—“happy-go-lucky,” she’d later testify—and that, by his personal admission, he’d been continuously untrue (although Sherry discovered this confession a mark of credibility since he was forthcoming about “lower than admirable conduct”).

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Cunningham someway obtained Coronado’s timeline—not, Sherry famous within the analysis, from her—and wrote responses that Sherry included in her report. He argued that Coronado had practically “stalked” him at first of their relationship, had generally introduced the youngsters into their bed room to look at them battle, and compelled him, after their separation, to go to the youngsters solely at her home. He advised Sherry she had used the 2013 assault cost as a bargaining chip, “telling him that if he would simply go away his present associate and name off the divorce, she would ‘make this go away.’” (One in every of Tara’s attorneys requested that, since Ed had been given the prospect to rebut Tara’s timeline, they be offered his responses as properly. Sherry responded that they need to ask Ed’s lawyer as an alternative.)

When a therapist from a home violence clinic advised Sherry that Coronado had the best doable rating on their evaluation of relationship hazard—since Cunningham had entry to weapons and Coronado reported that he’d as soon as made a risk, to a good friend of hers, to hurt the youngsters—Sherry dismissed that allegation. “No proof was offered to us that implies this can be a credible assertion,” she wrote.

But, Coronado stated, Sherry declined to talk to the folks most conversant in her aspect of the story, together with the good friend who stated, in a signed affidavit, that an irate Cunningham had referred to as her round 2010, satisfied Coronado was dishonest, and threatening to kill his household. Sherry’s report cites Cunningham’s dad and mom and new spouse to corroborate his perspective. Nevertheless it contains nobody from Coronado’s household—not her father, who recalled Cunningham as mentally abusive and domineering; nor her brother, whom Coronado confided in for years; nor her cousin, who labored on Cunningham’s Senate marketing campaign and in addition fielded his offended and suspicious calls. Though Sherry later advised me she had no file of those names in her work plan for the case, an e-mail from Coronado’s lawyer on the time included the names of all three relations in addition to further associates of Coronado’s. In her e-mail response to the lawyer, Sherry urged that chatting with them would simply add to the analysis’s expense and that she didn’t typically converse to individuals who served primarily as “character witnesses.”

“Lower than one % of the folks that get divorced and battle over the youngsters find yourself in an workplace like mine,” Sherry stated. “So the folks that come to me are at all times going to be the worst of the worst.”

Noting that she’d accomplished post-doctoral work on home violence, Sherry argued that violence in these types of households must be understood in another way. She maintained that she noticed as many ladies abuse males because the reverse, that some girls had self-inflicted their wounds, and that she believed true home violence victims could be much less prone to find yourself in her workplace as a result of they’d have been intimidated into settling their circumstances earlier on. Sherry mentioned Coronado’s case with some vehemence, calling her “manipulative” and even “psychopathically” manipulative greater than 15 occasions, and suggesting she had been the violent associate in her marriage. And he or she pressured that a number of psychological well being professionals and judges had independently discovered Coronado’s conduct “detrimental to the most effective pursuits of her youngsters.”

Though Sherry wrote that it was past her scope to evaluate whether or not the household had skilled parental alienation, she spent 4 pages on the finish of the report outlining literature on the subject. In her report, Sherry additionally stated she couldn’t decide whether or not home abuse had taken place. However in later testimony she would declare, “I’m extra satisfied that Mrs. Coronado is manipulating the state of affairs and being manipulative than I’m satisfied that Mr. Cunningham is that this abusive monster.”

Coronado recognized 27 situations the place she believed Sherry was incorrect or had taken Cunningham’s phrase on one thing she might disprove—issues she would have challenged, she stated, had she been given the prospect. She collated emails and texts, lawsuits and affidavits, right into a thick three-ring binder, and enlisted a retired police chief to assist find her long-buried 1998 report alleging assault, hoping her proof would outweigh Sherry’s analysis.

Within the aftermath of shedding custody of her sons, Coronado sought professional bono authorized illustration from UT’s Home Violence Legislation Clinic. Margaret Bassett joined the crew to assist hold Coronado’s trauma from undermining her case, since she stated abuse victims’ efforts to persuade authorities can come throughout as unstable and frantic. Bassett believed that conduct was indicative of a traumatic previous: “Someone who’s been in an abusive relationship is in a heightened sense of consciousness, as a result of all the pieces they do, once they’re working out of worry, is about security.”

Therapists and custody evaluators who refuse to acknowledge that, she continued, will interpret trauma as instability—or, as Sherry did, see Coronado’s vigilance and defensiveness as signs of a persona dysfunction, somewhat than one thing that presents nearly identically: post-traumatic stress.

No different psychologist has recognized Coronado with borderline persona dysfunction, though she has been recognized with PTSD and nervousness. In court docket testimony, Sherry stated she’d dominated out a PTSD analysis primarily based on Coronado’s reported signs. In a later interview, Sherry stated her analysis was primarily based on a number of standards, and urged that Coronado could have “managed to control different psychological well being professionals” who weren’t forensic psychologists.

Lundy Bancroft, a home violence professional whose books have grow to be classics within the discipline, believes that psychological testing in custody disputes is inherently unethical: “The signs of trauma are mirrored on a psychological check as issues which might be incorrect with you, not issues that had been accomplished to you.”

Meier, who was conversant in some points of Coronado’s case, stated the professionals’ dismissal of the alleged abuse historical past was widespread. In actual fact, one 1996 survey of psychological custody evaluators discovered that whereas 75 % really useful denying custody to “alienating” dad and mom, most didn’t take into account home violence a considerable problem of their determinations. Sherry stated Cunningham wasn’t residing with Coronado anymore, so her home violence allegations had been irrelevant.

When one in all Coronado’s new professional bono attorneys deposed McMillan, the therapist who’d evaluated the older youngsters, he requested how Coronado ought to clarify Cunningham’s alleged abuse to her youngsters in a approach that might not be interpreted as parental alienation. McMillan’s reply was pitiless: Coronado would wish to inform them, she stated, “why she stayed for 17 years and allowed that to occur to her.”


In January 2016, greater than a yr after the three boys had been faraway from Coronado’s custody, she and Cunningham lastly returned to court docket. Coronado was up towards important odds. Along with the damning therapist reviews, the decide dominated that no direct proof might be submitted about occasions that occurred earlier than the divorce decree was signed—which meant no direct testimony about home abuse. The choice was primarily based on a authorized precept referred to as Res judicata, which holds {that a} authorized matter that’s already been—or ought to have been—litigated can’t be raised once more in a brand new case. In different phrases, as Sherry would write in her report, the time for Coronado to have pursued her home violence allegations was throughout the divorce, not throughout a later try to vary custody preparations.

So within the trial, Coronado’s professional bono attorneys might solely make an “supply of proof”: a doc entered into the file in case of attraction, containing proof that may have led to a special final result if it had been admitted. They submitted 94 pages, together with the 1998 and 2013 police reviews, pictures of Coronado’s blackened eye and swollen face, her gashed and bruised physique, a chunk mark on her thigh and finger-shaped bruises on her arm.

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After summarizing the case historical past, Charles Bowes, Cunningham’s lawyer, opened by suggesting that, “with the dysfunction [Coronado’s] been recognized with by Dr. Sherry, she could not have the flexibility to vary.” He mentioned with Sherry whether or not Coronado’s daughter, who had been performing out, would develop a persona dysfunction herself if she stayed in her mom’s dwelling. And he had Coronado learn out loud the offended emails she’d despatched Cunningham.

Coronado had come to understand how poorly victims come throughout in court docket. So she tried to clarify and apologize. “I’m mortified with these readings,” she advised Bowes. “You possibly can have me undergo each e-mail, Charlie, and I’m not going to argue and say that any of them had been proper. I used to be scared…. I didn’t reply in ways in which I needed I had and I wouldn’t do it once more.”

Bowes responded in disgust, punctuating every phrase: “Who. Filed. This. Case?”

“We had ready her that this was going to be actually, actually exhausting,” stated Lungwitz, who helped with Coronado’s case. “This case hinged on the specialists, and we couldn’t cease the practice.”

Shortly earlier than the decide made her ruling, Cunningham reached out to Coronado, repeating a suggestion he’d made earlier than the beginning of the trial: she might hold custody of their daughter, who’d maintained to therapists that she’d witnessed her father’s abuse, and he would get custody of the sons. Coronado turned down the deal, and Cunningham received all 4. She was taken off supervised visits and granted commonplace visitation, whereas he bought the “massive rights”: bodily and authorized custody, together with the suitable to find out the youngsters’s medical and psychiatric care. That week, as Cunningham’s authorized crew had been urging, their daughter was picked up by an organization of transporters and despatched to a wilderness remedy program within the Utah desert. She was gone for a yr.

“The ultimate kick,” Coronado stated, “was as quickly as my daughter was shipped off, he took a plea.” Though Coronado had needed the prison case towards Cunningham prosecuted, Sherry’s analysis had been forwarded extensively: to any new therapists the youngsters would possibly see, and to the Travis County Legal professional’s workplace. The prosecutor who’d satisfied her to take part within the case was now not there, and Coronado stated his alternative, Neha Naik, advised her that, given the analysis, she didn’t suppose they might win. In an e-mail, Naik wrote that she’d stated “there could be hurdles if we proceeded to trial, given the proof we had,” and that the analysis “didn’t play a big half in our resolution.”

And so, within the months after the custody trial, Cunningham accepted a deal on the home abuse cost within the type of a “deferred prosecution agreement” or DPA—a authorized instrument that permits defendants to keep away from prosecution in the event that they abide by a set of probation-like phrases. For Cunningham that meant his cost could be provisionally dismissed if he stayed away from Coronado and underwent remedy—remedy he was allowed to bear with LeAnn Artis, the therapist who’d testified about her perception that Coronado had alienated the youngsters from their father. Past that, the specifics of his DPA had been unknown, since Coronado wasn’t given a replica and these offers aren’t topic to open-records requests. Successfully, they’re sealed, which means not even Coronado might see the contents of the settlement ostensibly meant to guard her.

The older youngsters turned 18 and went on to varsity; neither instantly moved again to Coronado’s home as soon as they’d the prospect, although they continuously visited and stayed at her dwelling. In April 2016, after an encounter with Cunningham that she believed was a violation of the phrases of his plea deal, Coronado tried to acquire the deferred prosecution settlement, to see precisely what the provisions defending her stated. When the county lawyer’s workplace refused, Coronado’s request grew to become a fierce native battle, drawing within the state lawyer common and producing information protection that included a photograph of her bruised face and blackened eye.

In the end, after a year-long battle, the county agreed to show it over however required Corondao to signal a non-disclosure settlement, forbidding her from discussing its contents with anybody aside from attorneys or therapists. However she might convey it to court docket. And in August 2017, she did, throughout a listening to whereby Cunningham sought (efficiently) to ship one other of the youngsters to a behavioral boot camp in Utah. Though Cunningham protested that he’d solely signed the settlement to dismiss the costs towards him, on the second web page of the DPA (obtained by way of a court docket information request), simply above his signature, had been the phrases Coronado had hoped to seek out: “I perceive the allegations towards me. I hereby voluntarily confess that they’re true.”

In 2017 Coronado employed a San Antonio psychologist, Joann Murphey, who agreed to reassess Sherry’s report. Murphey described what she noticed as Sherry’s “obvious bias” towards Coronado: “The place your behaviors are characterised by way of gross psychopathology, Ed’s behaviors (and the way they may have affected you and/or his youngsters) are glossed over.”

Armed with Murphey’s report and the deferred prosecution settlement, in 2018, Coronado moved to change custody once more. Cunningham contended, in feedback to the Austin American-Statesman in addition to in his 2017 court docket testimony, that the DPA doesn’t symbolize a confession and that he solely signed it to cease the custody battle from dragging on additional. However final yr, he supplied to settle, giving Coronado practically 50-50 custody. As of July, three of the 4 youngsters had been residing with Coronado full time, and the fourth lived in an off-campus residence.

For Coronado, it marked the decision of an epic battle, however there was broader fallout from the case. In late 2014, shortly earlier than shedding custody of her sons, she had filed a grievance towards Artis with one in all her two licensing boards. She argued that Artis’s conduct “signifies a bias on behalf of my ex-husband who’s 100% answerable for her charges,” and claimed that Artis had labored with Cunningham and his lawyer to craft the alienation argument towards her. That grievance, Coronado stated, had rapidly been turned towards her, cited in court docket arguments and Sherry’s report back to counsel that she was unstable and conflict-driven, and couldn’t take duty for her personal actions. However in 2019, greater than 4 years later, committees for each Artis’s boards, overseeing marriage and household therapists and private counselors, proposed suspending her licenses. Coronado despatched the boards further details about Artis’s “twin relationship” with Cunningham, together with that she’d performed his court-ordered remedy after testifying in his favor, and that she’d posted effusive feedback on Boone’s social media pages. In October, Artis agreed to the “disciplinary give up” of one in all her licenses. And this February, following an inner overview course of, the second board discovered Artis had violated codes governing skilled boundaries and relationships, and accepted the disciplinary give up of her counselor’s license as properly.

Individually, in 2019, at a heated public quarterly assembly of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, Sherry introduced she would now not settle for any court docket appointments for custody or psychological evaluations due to a barrage of “frivolous, costly, and time consuming board complaints.” Within the viewers, a variety of Sherry’s former purchasers burst into applause. Roughly a dozen dad and mom additionally spoke, many alleging that Sherry had evaluated them or their youngsters in ways in which echoed Coronado’s claims, together with two who stated Sherry had improperly recognized them with borderline persona dysfunction.

In a later interview, Sherry clarified that whereas she intends to cease taking household legislation appointments, she continues to be engaged on some. She identified that conducting court-ordered forensic evaluations is nearly inherently assured to anger one aspect or the opposite. The dad and mom who’ve criticized her, she stated, comprise an organized marketing campaign of disgruntled former purchasers utilizing regulatory board complaints as a litigation and harassment tactic.

Coronado’s battle to acquire the deferred prosecution settlement additionally revealed a bigger problem with the way in which Travis County dealt with home violence complaints—counting on the secretive agreements in roughly 20 % of circumstances as of 2017 and producing complaints that sentences had been too gentle. With the assistance of presidency transparency lawyer Invoice Aleshire, Coronado filed quite a few open information requests looking for to uncover what they believed had been 1000’s of DPAs issued by the county prosecutor.

Because the information of her battle for the deferred prosecution settlement was printed, Coronado finds herself receiving common calls from girls throughout the nation, asking how she manages to nonetheless see her children. They haven’t seen theirs, they are saying, in 18 months, or 5 years. Typically, she stated, it’s exhausting to hear. They sound like she did 4 years in the past: the identical frantic urgency; the identical conviction—which she now considers naive—that they’ll win in the event that they make the court docket perceive.

Lately, Coronado stated, a lady who had supervised her custody visits requested if she’d converse to a different of her purchasers—a mom who’d been on supervised visitation for a year-and-a-half, however might now not afford to pay for it, and was about to forfeit the suitable to see her youngsters in any respect. The supervisor hoped Coronado might supply some recommendation.

“She stated I’d mainly received,” Coronado stated, floored by the suggestion. “I really feel so damaged and humiliated by the entire course of that it’s superb somebody thinks I received.”





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