DENVER — There are some stories in life that are hard to tell. For Rebecca Zimmerman, it was the story of a messy divorce from her first husband she’d rather not relive.
“I finally, after about seven years of marriage, had had enough of emotional and physical abuse, but most of all, coercive control, him wanting to monitor everything that I did, him being in charge of every penny that I spent,” she said.
When she first filed for divorce, Zimmerman says the abuse became much worse. Her ex-husband would break things, throw furniture around, keep her up late at night trying to get her to drop the divorce and tell her no one else would want to be with her because she’s too flawed.
The couple had two young kids, and Zimmerman says she hoped the Colorado court system would be able to help her out. She entered family court hoping for full custody of her daughters.
“I went into court thinking I have all this evidence of how abusive he is and there's no way they're going to put these two innocent little girls in his care. And the judge didn't see it that way,” she said. “The judge gave him 50/50 custody despite saying, 'Yes, she has a ton of evidence. Yes, I believe he's been surveilling her.'”
The experience changed Zimmerman’s faith in the court system in Colorado and caused her to start questioning why some judges are unaware of the many forms domestic violence can present itself in.
Zimmerman is now a domestic abuse advocate and a PhD student in social work, and has learned how convincing abusers can be in court cases.
“Judges will tend to believe an abuser because they're very polished, they seem confident. So, it seems like they're telling the truth,” she said.
Leah Recor had a similar experience with Colorado courts. She is another mother and survivor of domestic violence who decided to file for divorce from her husband in 2014. She also says she also put a lot of faith in the court.
“I went into it thinking that I could just speak my truth, asked for help and it would arrive. And then it's just been the slow dismantling of that understanding,” Recor said. “There was kind of this trauma that you go through understanding that you're leaving this relationship and being brave enough to do that. But then there was like a secondary trauma of not being believed.”
The family underwent two evaluations from court personnel to help determine what the custody arrangement should be. Recor says the first was terrible, and that the person assigned to the family’s case didn’t understand the dynamics of abuse.
However, Recor says the second evaluator was better trained and in a better position to help.
“There's such subtle nuance to how a domestic violence looks in the family court system,” Recor said.
Now, both women are pushing for more reforms in Colorado laws to better protect domestic violence survivors and their children.
After passing both Julie’s Law and Ty’s Law in 2021, Colorado lawmakers are considering two more bills to change Colorado’s court system.
The first, House Bill 23-1108, creates a task force to study the training requirements for judicial personnel when it comes to domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes.
The task force would consist of 17 members who would convene for four months this year to study the court training and come up with a report and recommendations to better improve outcomes.
“I think we're just giving judges and court personnel the tools that they need and the information that they need to make good decisions,” said Zimmerman, who testified in favor of the bill Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a second bill, House Bill 23-1178, would align Colorado with the federal Keep Children Safe from Family Violence Act and place requirements and restrictions on the courts when it comes to which experts and evidence could be used in these court proceedings.
When it comes to child custody proceedings, if there are claims of domestic violence or child abuse, the bill would require the court to consider past evidence, convictions, arrests, restraining orders and more that have been levied against the accused parent.
It would also place limits on expert testimony and evidence, requiring that only those who have experience working with victims of domestic violence would be permitted to participate.
“We have had an unfortunate history of being able to buy enough expert testimony until you get the answer that you want,” Froelich said.
Recor agrees and says the parent who has more financing is able to use that to their advantage in these very expensive family court proceedings, leaving the other feeling powerless.
“That financial piece is going to play a role in that abuse,” she said.
The legislation also forbids the courts from ordering reunification treatment with an abusive parent unless certain conditions are met, and forbids judges from separating a child from their protective party in an effort to improve a deficient relationship with the parent accused of abuse.
“One of our biggest problems is that in a custody case, the gold standard is 50/50 custody,” said Froelich. “What we have to make sure doesn't happen is that abusers gain custody of their children.”
Finally, the bill increases the amount of training hours that family and child investigators involved in these cases must complete.
Under the federal law, states that pass legislation to comply will be eligible to receive grant funding for four years to adopt these standards into their court proceedings and come into compliance. The state’s judicial department anticipates this will affect roughly 6,800 cases in Colorado annually.
Even with these bills, Froelich says there’s more work to be done.
“It's a big ship that we're slowly trying to right. It's a system that has long not done right by the less powerful, and especially the less financially secure person in the relationship,” she said.
So far, one group, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, has officially filed their opposition to the creation of the judicial personnel task force (HB23-1108). Denver7 reached out to the group to understand the reasons for their opposition but was told CCDB is not available to discuss its position at this time. The group did not take a position on HB23-1178 since that deals with family law.
HB23-1108 passed its first committee test Wednesday afternoon with two lawmakers, Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D-Denver, and Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, voting against it.