By Ben Atherton-Zeman, 11/15/12
Headlines are dominated by General David Petraeus and General John Allen. Petraeus had an affair with his biographer – both have been connected to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.
CBS News reports that both generals also know Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57549142/petraeus-allen-sided-with-jill-kelleys-sister-in-child-custody-battle/?tag=contentMain;contentBody Two months ago, both generals submitted affidavits in support of Khawam's custody proceedings, as did Mrs. Petraeus. Previous custody hearings had deemed Khawam an unfit mother.
(Photo: Natalie Khawam with the Petraeus and Kelly family - 2010, Amu Scherzer, Tampa Bay Times)
According to the New York Post, a previous custody judge "blasted Khawam for giving false evidence." http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/twisted_sister_wPCTY0kcH9xu9DPh8RN7yL This Post piece is entitled "Petraeus helps whistleblower's 'unstable' twin in nasty custody fight," and begins with "Gen. David Petraeus sure loved helping his lady friends." Other media coverage echoes this emphasis on yet another potential impropriety on the part of the generals – some have even compared the sisters to the Khardashians http://www.nationalledger.com/politics-crime/jill-kelley-scandal-snares-twin-236199.shtml#.UKUxnYYzySo. As of yet, no articles have been written about the possibility that Ms. Khawam is truly a victim of domestic violence.
Domestic violence should not be the punch line of jokes and snide articles; it should be taken seriously and prioritized. One in every four U.S. women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Most battered women never tell the police – many blame themselves and never tell anyone. http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet%28National%29.pdf Victims that reveal what happened are often disbelieved by friends, family, police – and judges.
The stereotype that battered women lie about being abused is all too common. But court transcripts reveal that, far from lying, Khawam wasn't even permitted to bring up allegations of abuse during the court proceedings. Indeed, she was threatened with losing custody and visitation if she didn't drop criminal charges against her child's father.* Khawam's Kafka-esque custody trial first barred her from introducing evidence of abuse, then concluded she hadn't been abused at all.
Reporters have ignored this compelling evidence of Khawam's abuse, preferring instead to focus on the Generals' letters as further evidence of an inappropriate relationship. "In the Khawam case, the media was willing to repeat the clearly false findings by the judge," says Barry Goldstein, an author and abuse expert who has represented many battered mothers seeking custody. "The reporters did not understand the case because they failed to see the need to interview a domestic violence expert who could have provided context. And the claim that Ms. Khawam lied about her husband's abuse really says more about the inadequate training of the judges than about Ms. Khawam."
A recent U.S. Department of Justice study by Dr. Daniel Saunders found that many judges, evaluators, lawyers and judges lack training on domestic violence. Training on topics such as risk assessment and screening for abuse is needed to make an informed decision about abuse allegations – in the absence of such training, myths about domestic violence substitute for accurate information. Significantly, the Saunders study showed that professionals without the needed training tended to disbelieve valid complaints of domestic violence and make decisions that harm children. http://ssw.umich.edu/about/profiles/saunddan/Custody-Evaluators-Beliefs-About-Domestic-Abuse-Allegations-Final-Tech-Report-to-NIJ-10-31-11.pdf
There are many examples of battered women who are labeled "unstable" and are accused of lying about abuse, when clear evidence is presented to the contrary. Medical documentation of child and spousal abuse are routinely ignored by courts, who persist instead in the mythical narrative that battered women lie about being abused. Incredibly, the presentation of such evidence often serves to vindicate some judge's misguided opinions about the believability of battered women – such was the case with Khawam's judge when medical evidence of child abuse was presented.**
"Every year 58,000 children are sent for custody or unprotected visitation with dangerous abusers," says Barry Goldstein. Goldstein reports that when these women are not believed, the consequences for the children can be grave. "In a two year period starting in 2009, abusive fathers involved in contested custody cases murdered 175 children - often with the unwitting assistance of the courts."
Dr. Mo Therese Hannah, professor and cofounder of the Battered Mother's Custody Conferencehttp://www.batteredmotherscustodyconference.org/, says that Khawam's situation is far from unique. "This has happened to women all over this country - rich and poor, Ph.D.s, M.D.s, waitresses, attorneys - almost all of them fine mothers who happened to have a child with an abusive man," says Dr. Hannah, who went through a custody battle herself. "Look for this to be another major public scandal rivaling Penn State and clergy sexual abuse."
Domestic violence victims and their advocates have done incredible work to stem the tide of spousal abuse. Most of this abuse takes the form of men's violence against women – still, supportive male allies have always been sought and welcomed by the battered women's movement. These male allies have been asked to believe battered women, support them and support the movement. General Petraeus and Allen seem to have done just that by writing letters in support of Natalie Khawam.
With a mountain of documented evidence on her side, Ms. Khawam deserves to be believed, not vilified in the media. In the rush to paint General Petraeus and General Allen as having inappropriate conduct with multiple women, Natalie Khawam is getting thrown under the bus. She, like her sister, has been cast as a two-dimensional sideshow act by the New York Post and other media outlets. Apparently, the generals are the "real story."
Ms. Khawam deserves more. When any woman has the courage to say she's been abused by her partner, she deserves our belief and our support. Her son deserves to be with a safe, protective parent – not an abusive one. Whatever else they've done, Generals Petraeus and Allen deserve our thanks for supporting Ms. Khawam, not our condemnation.
The Post and others imply a sleazy, inappropriate connection between General Petraeus and Allen, and twin sisters Jill Kelley and Natalie Khawam. But maybe the generals were simply acting as more men should act – believing and supporting a battered woman as she seeks justice for her and her son.
Ben Atherton-Zeman is a spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. He gives talks and theatrical performances about domestic and sexual abuse: www.voicesofmen.org
* Khawam's custody and visitation hearings began at the District of Columbia Superior Court in 2009. A Judge Saddler was asked to determine whether the District of Columbia had jurisdiction over the case. During the court proceedings, Saddler refused to hear any evidence of abuse, stating "I just don't want you going into whether there was domestic violence, did he hit her, did he hear screaming, because frankly whether somebody heard screaming or not is not going to help me in determining whether I have jurisdiction (Saddler court transcripts, 12/8/09)."
Despite expressly excluding all evidence of domestic violence - on pain of being held in contempt of court if Mother even tried to introduce it - Judge Saddler entered a factual finding in her jurisdictional order that no domestic violence occurred.
Saddler's finding was taken as reason not to admit any evidence of abuse by Judge Kravitz, who determined the final custody/visitation arrangements. "I can tell you that I see no reason to look beyond Judge Saddler's findings of fact that there was… no domestic violence (Kravitz court transcripts, 8/6/10)."
Relying solely on Judge Saddler's unsupported factual finding, and before hearing any evidence, Judge Kravitz ordered that the Father should have unsupervised visits with their child. Furthermore, Kravitz threatened Ms. Khawam, telling her she should dismiss all of the pending domestic violence actions against her child's father: "I can tell you right now, if you get him arrested for something that has occurred before this moment in time that's going to be very problematic in terms of the custody of this child (Kravitz court transcripts, 8/12/10)." This despite the fact that a Florida prosecutor was bringing criminal actions against the child's father – Judge Saddler's actions could be considered witness tampering.
**According to court documents, Khawam became alarmed when her three year-old child showed up to one supervised visit (December 2011) with a visible nose injury on his nose. The child continued to complain of pain, and there was some concern his nose might be broken. The hotel doctor examined the injury, and the minor child reported, outside Mother's presence, that his Father had hit him in the face. He further demonstrated the hit to the face to the doctor. The doctor referred him to Children's National Medical Center, where the child repeated his disclosure that Father had hit him in the face. A full abuse work-up was done on the child, which revealed no further injuries. In accordance with the terms of the custody order, the child was released to Father after a report was made to CPS.
Incredibly, the child's father then filed an emergency motion with the court to strip Mother of her already-limited visitation. He alleged Khawam, who was supervised during the entire visit, had made the injury up and had improperly subjected the child to extensive medical testing (all recommended by the treating physicians) at the hospital.
The child's father lied in the emergency motion, saying, among other things, that hospital security had threatened Mother with handcuffs if she did not leave the hospital. (Khawam's attorneys have a recording of hospital security flatly denying that, and saying that Khawam was cooperative.)
Judge Kravitz, rather than taking Khawam's concerns seriously, took the opportunity to lecture Khawam for having improperly taken the child to the hospital (at the express recommendation of the treating physician. Kravitz further entered a change to the custody order limiting Ms. Khawam's ability to seek medical care for the child in the future -- even though the child's father had produced no evidence that Khawam had done anything wrong, the treating doctor filed an affidavit supporting Khawam and was available in court to testify, and the neutral visitation supervisor's notes supported Mother's version of events, and she was available to testify in court as well.