- PTSD and Child Custody - A Dismaying Case
- August 10, 2017
After four tours of Recon duty in Afghanistan, a Marine named Virgil is so physically compromised that he can no longer serve. He is ordered to Wounded Warriors pending discharge. In his record is a report from a Navy doctor attesting to his severe back injuries, and mentioning in passing possible indications of PTSD.
Virgil is married, with a wife named Sue and two minor children, a six year old girl and an eight year old boy. While Virgil is in Wounded Warriors, Sue files for divorce. She also files a motion for temporary spousal support, temporary child support and sole physical custody of the children, with visitation for Virgil. Sue says that Virgil suffers from PTSD and submits as corroborating evidence the doctor's report.
She says she has awakened in the middle of the night with Virgil kneeling on top of her trying to choke her as if she were a Taliban soldier. He does this in his sleep, she says, and when she wakes him up he stops and apologizes to her. She has not been hurt yet. She admits Virgil is a good father, but says she is afraid for herself and the children. Virgil denies the choking allegations, but the doctor's report tips the scale. The judge issues an order removing Virgil from the family residence, and granting full custody of the children to Sue. The judge declines to order that Virgil's visitation be supervised. Shortly thereafter, Virgil is discharged from the Marines.
The visitation order requires that there be no contact between Virgil and Sue when the children are exchanged. This works satisfactorily for several weeks, until Sue is late for an exchange. Virgil gets angry, violates the no contact order, and behaves badly. Back to court. The judge orders supervised visitation for six hours a week (2 hours a day, three days a week). Sue says Virgil has weapons. Virgil says he doesn't. He's given the guns to his girlfriend, and he thinks that's enough. It isn't. The judge orders Virgil to deliver the guns to a gun shop or the Sheriff, and to return to court in three days to deliver a receipt for the guns from a gun dealer or the sheriff.
Virgil's lawyer discovers during the afternoon before Virgil is due back in court that Virgil's girlfriend still has the guns. Virgil is taking lots of painkillers, and he has forgotten what he was told to do. His lawyer goes to court with Virgil and pleads for lenience, promising that he and Virgil will deliver the guns to the Sheriff that afternoon. Virgil has violated the judge's order and is subject to arrest for doing so, but the judge says his clerk will tell the Sheriff not to arrest Virgil if and when he delivers the weapons as promised.
Virgil and his lawyer arrive at the Sheriff's station a few hours later to deliver the weapons. The judge has failed to tell the Sheriff not to arrest Virgil. Over his lawyer's objections, the Deputies promptly handcuff Virgil's hands behind his back - aggravating his back injuries - and jail him (without his pain medication) until the following morning. The judge eventually apologizes to Virgil. In the meantime, Virgil continues to maintain he does not have PTSD. His lawyer sees no evidence otherwise.
The supervised visitation is not helping Virgil or the children. Supervised visitation is awkward and difficult for both parent and child. Sue makes appointments hard to come by, a situation Virgil's lawyer resolves. However, the supervisory staff do not get along well with Virgil, and vice versa, Virgil is desperate to go back to unsupervised visitation and eventually get joint custody. He needs some sort of therapy other than pills. In the meantime, the usual tasks of dividing the marital estate and negotiating spousal and child support go on.
Obtaining satisfactory treatment from the VA hospital for Virgil's injuries is extraordinarily difficult. Obtaining a satisfactory diagnosis of his mental condition and corresponding therapy is next to impossible. The task at hand is to connect Virgil with a private psychologist well known to the judge, arrange several sessions with the psychologist, and have the psychologist opine (if he indeed concludes) that Virgil is not a threat to his children or anyone else.
After weekly sessions with the psychologist, the psychologist opines in writing that Virgil does not have PTSD and does not pose a threat to the children or to Sue. Back to court. Virgil's lawyer presents the psychologist's opinion and makes a compelling argument that Virgil deserves an end to supervised visitation and much more time with his children. The judge agrees. Sue's lawyer protests vigorously. The judge defers a final ruling to another hearing at which the psychologist must appear and testify.
Virgil and his lawyer are jubilant. Virgil is going to get his children back. The dissolution of his marriage to Sue will soon be over, and his future will brighten.
Three weeks later Virgil, his girlfriend, and her children are having dinner in a restaurant. Virgil's cellphone rings. Virgil learns that his best friend has been killed in action. Virgil loses control of himself, wrestles his girlfriend to the floor, and starts choking her as if she were a Taliban soldier. The police arrive and take Virgil to jail. His girlfriend is shaken up but OK. Virgil is not OK. He does have PTSD, and he may become violent under severely stressful circumstances. His divorce will become final, but he may be prosecuted for assault and battery, and he will have no contact with his children for the foreseeable future.
A dismaying case.
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