Video Transcript on California divorce-related subject
Hi, I’m Dan Couvrette the publisher of Family Lawyer Magazine and divorcemag.com and I want to welcome you to this interview that I’m doing with Kristin Trutanich. She’s a family lawyer in Long Beach, California and today I’m going to be talking with Kristin about a variety of divorce-related subjects from domestic violence to restraining orders, etc. It’s really kind of the darker side of family law we’re going to be touching on, but definitely, information that people who are faced with those challenges need information about, and they need a strong lawyer like Kristin to help protect them. So, Kristin, I want to thank you for taking the time to join me today.
Thank you so much, Dan.
Kristin, by the way, her background is that she was a Los Angeles County District attorney. She worked with the District Attorney’s office, and she prosecuted many cases that had to do with domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, etc. So, it really set her up tremendously to be able to help people who are going through those challenges and even people, of course, going through those challenges in a family law or divorce case. Kristin let’s start out by just explaining to people what exactly constitutes domestic violence and how common is domestic violence in divorce these days.
Well, domestic violence is basically defined as violence or abuse that is in a relationship that involves maybe a family member or cohabitants, married couples, intimate relationships and that’s what makes it domestic violence and something different than normal violence- a person on another person, even if they know each other. It’s that familial relationship so to speak that makes it domestic violence.
Right. And do you often see it in divorce cases that it’s a cause of divorce that it’s been an issue with the marriage?
Definitely. So, my job as a prosecutor, I would see, and I was assigned to a unit that dealt with domestic violence and that involved elder abuse, child abuse and abuse in interpersonal relationships, dating relationships, and so forth. All of that was really abuse that rise to the level of a criminal action, even if it was a misdemeanor and which is less than a felony. But in family law, you do see that, but the abuse does not have to be physical abuse. You do not have to have bruises in order to get a domestic violence finding. Domestic violence can be yelling, coercive control over someone, financial abuse. There is physical abuse obviously sexual abuse, but there the family law code section is the domestic violence prevention act that expands the abuse to include stalking-type behaviors, anything that disturbs somebody’s peace.
So, it really is a lot more expansive, inclusive than the criminal world got it and that can play a big role in a divorce case. It obviously can lead to divorce, but even in a divorce case, there are consequences for being a perpetrator of domestic violence that goes beyond what maybe even a criminal case can do, because you’re talking about taking away someone’s right to their children potentially.
So, it does have some significant consequences and you do see it in family law, and sometimes you see violence alleged that isn’t really violence and that is an issue that you have to vet out when you when I see somebody come to me with an allegation of domestic violence.
And with domestic violence, does it go across all economic levels in our community or in our society? It’s not confined to any one group of people, is it?
No, it’s not. It definitely is and I’ve actually prosecuted cases with different age levels of victims and perpetrators. But I handled family law cases where I had a couple in their eighties getting a divorce because of years of serious physical abuse. You think that at that point isn’t it time to just stop treating people that way, but it really was a terrible situation and she finally got out after almost 60 years of marriage?
Wow! Let’s move on to a definition, I guess, of what constitutes child abuse or neglect and what sort of proof is required to know that abuse has taken place.
So, child abuse is a little bit different in the criminal world and family law world. So, I used to train law enforcement on different types of abuse and how to recognize abuse as far as bites, burns, and bruises because those can be very telling because you oftentimes will have victims who cannot come forward and explain to you what has happened to them. They don’t have the words to do that if they’re very young and maybe they can’t articulate how it happened. So, you can use injuries to tell the story. In family law, you do have parents that they have a right to discipline their child. That’s actually a privilege that we give parents is they have a right to inflict reasonable discipline on their children, but abuse, there’s a line that you can’t cross. What that line is, it’s really decided by a totality of the circumstances, and is it reasonable in what the parent did to what the child had done as far as if they’re claiming it’s going to be something that was in the required discipline. But there are certain injuries that are just indicative of abuse in and of themselves.
Going back to domestic violence, how can a lawyer protect their client if they are a victim of domestic violence? What can you do to help them?
Well as a family law lawyer obviously education is key, is letting your clients know what resources they have available to them, and it all depends on the level of domestic violence. You can have a low level of domestic violence, something that might not even rise to the level of getting a protective order, but there’s a situation that is concerning to the client, to someone who is really being physically abused and needs safety. So, being able to direct them towards a shelter in order to get resources, putting them in therapy, having a place where their children can go to therapy, and knowing the resources that are out there for that specific situation. So, educating my clients on what is available to them and what path they should take is first and foremost. The next thing is if they do need a restraining order is helping them obtain a restraining order.
The law has made it so that the domestic violence prevention act and is a part of the law where the victim does not have to retain a lawyer to seek help from the judicial system. They don’t want there to be any kind of hurdles in a victim’s way from being able to get away from their abuser. So, the domestic violence prevention act allows a person to come in in propria persona, which is representing themselves and getting the forms which are available free of charge at court, or you can download them online now. In most jurisdictions, they have self-help centers at every courthouse, so they can help you. Those people can help you fill out those forms and get them filed in the right way so you can get the help that you need. So, you don’t need a lawyer necessarily. But it is recommended if you’re going to actually go forward and have to litigate the domestic violence restraining order, especially when you have children involved and there are custody issues involved because you don’t want the abuser to have access to the children if they are in danger.
Right. I mean, it’s tremendous that the people have access to the legal system. And I know that working with a lawyer, particularly a family lawyer, obviously if somebody has a family law issue and a domestic violence or a child abuse issue, working with somebody like yourself who has so much experience, it’s just so much more comforting and reassuring to them when you’re guiding them. Is that the sort of feedback you get from clients for domestic violence and child abuse? I couldn’t do this without you. Would you hear from them or…?
Definitely. I mean, especially if you think about a real abusive case. You have somebody that there is a relationship there and it actually has a name. It’s called the cycle of violence. You have somebody in an abusive relationship, they have an abusive situation and then there is this honeymoon period where the abuser then is so sorry, and they want them back and they’re treating them so kind. Now they get back into the abusive cycle again, and it becomes abusive, and it gets to the peak of where okay, now that person has done something horrible and then the victim wants to leave and then the abuser becomes nice again. So, there’s that cycle of violence and if you have someone who’s been in that cycle of violence, like my client, who I mentioned earlier, who was in our eighties, it is a very difficult cycle to break, and they are dependent on their abusers sometimes.
They feel like they can’t leave. Their life would be over financially maybe all different reasons why they feel like they can’t and you as the lawyer need to give them the strength and the feeling that they can do this on their own because they have been so beat down by this abuse that they don’t trust themselves going forward.
That’s one aspect of it, but I also represent clients who someone has gotten a restraining order against them, and maybe it was a false accusation and reassuring them that we’re going to get this fixed. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to see and be able to talk to your kids again. There are different aspects there, depending on what side you’re representing and making sure that you are giving your clients a clear path to where they’re going to be at the end of all of this.
So just tell me about how your background prior to being a family lawyer and your current being a family lawyer. That combination I’m trying to get to is that combination of experiences really makes you tremendously capable of advising people no matter whether they’re the accuser or the accusee in a domestic violence case. Can you say anything about that?
Definitely. So, the domestic violence prevention act expanded domestic violence beyond what you can be prosecuted for necessarily in the criminal world. So, when you have an expansion of what is considered domestic violence and the repercussions of domestic violence are that a victim should not have to pay an abuser child support and/or spousal support, I should say. There’s a rebuttable presumption that an abuser and a perpetrator of domestic violence should not have sole or joint legal or physical custody of their children. That’s a very big consequence for someone who has a domestic violence allegation upon them.
So, when I talk to my clients, if it is the victim, I want them to understand what it is that they are asking the court to do and what it means for their children is this really an abusive situation where your children should not have access or full access to their father or their mother? Is that what you want in this case? Because you need to know what the end game is. I also, as far as representing someone who’s been accused of domestic violence, I want to know, did you do this and if you did, what were the circumstances? Because people who have kids, you have a bad day at work, and all of a sudden, the kid breaks one of your favorites whatever, because they were being reckless and throwing the ball in the house and you lose it. Is that a one-time deal, or is this someone who is really dangerous? Abuse again can be emotional abuse. It doesn’t have to be physical.
So, when you think about domestic violence in the family law world, you can’t think physical abuse and that’s where my background came from is I always went to physical abuse. So, when someone comes into my office and says, I’m in an abusive relationship, and they tell me that their husband texts them a bunch of times a day and is keeping tabs on where they are. You may not think that that’s domestic violence in and of itself because it’s not violent, but it is controlling behavior and it disturbs someone’s peace because they don’t feel like they can live their life without being monitored by someone else. So, family law does make you rethink what actually is domestic violence and take that next step. What has it done to the person who’s being the victim of it and what is the abuser being accused of and how can we get to a place where these two parties, especially if they have kids can really work together and raise their kids, even if the two of them are in a relationship that is just too toxic for them to be involved with each other?
So, if there is you mentioning children, of course, supervised visitation, how does a judge go about determining whether one party requires supervised visitation or not? Are there guidelines or is it totally based on you presenting a case How does it work?
So, custody is determined by the best interests of the children and that’s what the court’s going to look at. What is in the best interest of the children? But that’s also balanced with it is so important for both parents to have a relationship with their child. So, the court is not going to take custody or visitation away from a parent when the law says that they should have frequent and continuous contact with their children. So, there is a balancing there that the court needs to do and it’s looking at the totality of the circumstance. Are the children in danger when they’re with the accused abuser or are they not in danger? And maybe this is just something between the parents. So, if you have someone who cannot be necessarily trusted at one point with having unmonitored and unsupervised visitation, the court will impose monitored visits and you have someone there. It can be a professional monitor, or it can be someone who is a family member that both parties are comfortable with being present to make sure that everyone is acting the way they should be acting in front of the children.
I know that a fair number of your cases are in court. Can you give us some advice as to what somebody can do to prepare themselves for going to court? Because it’s kind of a scary place to go to having gone to court a few times myself for business.
So, if someone’s going to go forward with court and they’re being represented by a lawyer I’m always going to be talking to my clients ahead of time. One, I’m going to be talking to them to gather all the evidence that I can that help present their side of the case. But I also want to gather all the evidence that I can that is impeachment evidence on the other side, because I have normally declarations from each side showing what they’re going to be saying or what evidence they’re going to present going forward. So, I want my client to read all the pleadings. I want their statement to make sure that we’ve written their statement accurately, but I also want them to review the other side’s statements or any of their witness statements if they were provided so that they can take notes. This is true. This is not true because the person who knows the most about that case is them. They lived it, it’s their life.
So, it’s very important for a client to know all of the evidence that’s going to be presented and read it for themselves and I have clients who don’t want to do that. They do not want to read what their ex is saying about them because it hurts too much, but they have to. You have to be prepared going forward, knowing what’s going to happen and you have to give me the evidence I need to corroborate what we’re saying. Physical evidence is a game-changer in court. From my life as a prosecutor, one thing that I know is that witness testimony is great, but it needs to be coupled with physical evidence that supports that witness. That’s how you know that person is telling the truth and that’s what I want to tell the court. We know that my client is telling the truth because of what he said and what we have here in these documents or these photographs or whatever it is that I can show the court to corroborate our position.
Right. Let’s talk just for a moment about child custody, where both parents, of course, would like to spend time with the children. But what if one of the parents has only spent a minimal amount of time in the past with the children? Do they have as strong a claim to child custody as the other, and what can you do to help either side and as a family lawyer in that case?
So, I think that is a very common issue in divorce cases that involve custody. You have a parent who maybe wants the way things were to continue but just be divorced and unfortunately that doesn’t happen. You are taking one unit and you are making it two separate units. Even though one parent had the role may be of child-rearing and the other parent had the role of being the breadwinner that can’t happen. That doesn’t happen when you’re not a team anymore and every relationship we all have our roles. Somebody takes out the trash, someone else cleans the bathrooms. We all have the things that we do, and good relationships figure out where they’re needed, and they fill in those roles and the other side does what they can to fill in those roles.
When you have a relationship that does that, but then that relationship ends you have two parents now that have to do almost all those rules. You’re not sharing work anymore in that way. And so, even though, and I’m going to use the stereotypical situation of having a mother who stays home or has a less intense job and is available for the children more than maybe the father. I’ll have that mother come into my office and say he was never around. I did all the doctor’s appointments. I did all this for their children. He never went to the teacher conferences, all of that, and that is a big deal. But the law wants to make parents who might have taken a backseat when they were in a couple relationship, they want to make that person step up.
So, I say that divorce makes great fathers and divorce will create a situation for someone who’s used to one thing and wanting it to stay the same, they will make that person very frustrated that it’s not going to be the same because it can’t be. The law wants both parents to have frequent continuous contact for those children and studies show both parents should be involved. It’s better for the children. So, even though I have a client who comes in and says, dad didn’t do this, he shouldn’t get this much time. I’ll say the court may understand your situation, but the court wants dad to step up.
So, if I have a client who comes into my office, and I know that their case is being held in a certain court in which that judge is very 50-50 oriented, as far as custody is concerned, I know that I have to educate that client and I have to get them prepared for what’s going to actually happen in court. If I have a client come in, I’m representing, let’s say the father in my hypothetical scenario of him being the less involved parent during the marriage, I have to let my client know you’re going to have an opportunity to step up and that means you’re going to have to rearrange your priorities. If your career was a priority, you’ve got to decide, is it still a priority, and do you want to take less time with your kids or do you want to have more time with your kids?
That means you can’t be missing visitation. You need to show up when your visitation starts, and you need to end it on time and follow the court’s orders. If they can’t do that for whatever reason, some people have jobs that they have to work overtime unexpectedly. If that is their life, then we need to be prepared. Okay, maybe you’re not going to get 50-50 because you can’t, and your work doesn’t allow for it. So, you need to know the situation of your clients, but you also need to know what judge you’re in front of so you can prepare your clients for what’s actually going to happen, and I think reasonable requests are what go really far in front of most judges. Don’t ask for something that you can’t deliver, your client can’t deliver.
Kristin. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me, For people who are thinking about divorce, contemplating divorce going through a divorce, or recently divorced, I recommend that you check out Kristin particularly if you’ve had issues with domestic violence, child abuse or anything that touches on anything to do with criminal and family law, where though two meet because there’s nothing more valuable than somebody who’s got experience like Kristin has. She understands the system. She’s had many cases in these areas. So, go to her website gftlawyers.com, learn more about her and her firm. Thank you again, Kristin, for joining me today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Thank you so much, Dan. It has been great.