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Could you imagine, after having endured countless verbal or physical attacks from an abusive partner, finally getting up the courage and strength to leave them, only to find out that the nightmare isn't over? In fact, just the opposite -- the violence is increasing and intensifying?

This very real and extremely dangerous phenomenon is called "Separation Assault." Abusers, who perceive that their victim is getting away from them, become more determined and more aggressive to make sure that "if I can't have them, no one will!"

I recently met a very courageous woman who has been struggling to, literally, survive this separation assault cycle. Sandy came to share her story with Dr. Phil in the hope that she could save even one other woman from the hell that she is now enduring. Her allegations of abuse are some of the most harrowing that I have heard in all my years of prosecuting domestic violence. But that isn't Sandy's whole story.

Here is the cruel, tragic twist: Sandy has a child with her alleged abuser. You may be wondering why that is so significant ... This next sentence is extremely important for every woman to know: No matter how violently a man abuses the mother of his child, he still has legal parental rights to his child, protected by law, unless and until a court says otherwise. So, despite Sandy's best efforts to cut ties with her abuser, she can't disappear because of her child. If fact, if she did, she could be in trouble for violating his parental rights. Shocking, isn't it?

Parental rights can be forcibly terminated, but it usually involves a difficult legal battle. Courts have traditionally ruled to preserve the parental rights, unless the parent is shown to be incapable of taking care of the child due to substance abuse or mental illness, or is abusive or neglectful of the child. There is no specific ground to terminate the rights of a parent if they are abusing the child's other parent.

Law enforcement and the courts have come a long way in prosecuting abusers and protecting victims. But there is still a long way to go. Awareness of the "separation assault" danger zone is crucial for any woman contemplating an escape from abuse.

More needs to be done to protect the children of parental abusers. Remember when OJ Simpson was held civilly liable for the death of his children's mother? Even after the trial, he retained his parental rights. Some states have allowed evidence of domestic violence when determining custodial arrangements, finding that the child was "at risk of harm" even if they weren't the actual victim of the violence. This logic needs to be expanded further, in the best interests of the children.

For anyone who is in an abusive relationship, or thinks they may be, or has a loved one who is, I highly recommend watching this Dr. Phil episode, which airs this Wednesday, October 27th. It could change your life. Maybe even save it.
 
I just finished taping a heart-wrenching episode of the Dr. Phil show that airs on Wednesday, October 6. The show deals with the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who was "outed" by his roommate's alleged surreptitious recording of Tyler's sexual contact with another male. It was broadcast over the Internet, and highlights a dangerous and devastating trend that we as a society need to deal with immediately and not continue to stick our collective heads in the sand and hope it will go away.

Tyler's story brings together the perfect storm of a vulnerable young man struggling with his own sexual identity, a desensitized attention seeker and the far-reaching, immediate and permanent impact of the cyber social network.

I've always compared the Internet to fire -- a powerful tool that can improve life, or destroy it. It all depends on how we use it. Unfortunately, we literally put this potent instrument into the hands of children, teens and young adults. Most of them don't have the maturity or understanding to use it responsibly. And the results are deadly. Yes, deadly. During the show, I struggled to contain my emotions as photo after photo of sweet, beautiful young faces -- children -- who have committed suicide after being cyber bullied, flashed on the screen.

Dr. Phil and I discussed the legal ramifications of Tyler's death. Presently, his roommate and another freshman are charged with multiple counts of invasion of privacy, which carry a maximum five-year prison term. Prosecutors are considering adding a hate crime enhancement, which would double the maximum sentence. Dr. Phil zeroed right in on the critical issue in this case: Should the defendants be held accountable for their actions only? Or should they also be held responsible for all of the resulting consequences -- including Tyler's actions? Have suicides from cyber bullying reached such a level that we as a society should consider it a "reasonably foreseeable" consequence? Are we ready for a "cyber bullying manslaughter" law?

Dr. Phil included in this show a group of young people who courageously shared their personal experiences of being bullied over their perceived sexual orientation. Years ago, when I was in charge of the Hate Crimes Prosecution Unit for Los Angeles County, I spent quite a bit of time with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender community support groups, so I'm not naïve about the shocking lack of common decency exhibited by some people. But most of the victims I dealt with were adults.

Now, I listened to these young people describe their loneliness and isolation from peers and parents, and their painful struggles with depression and suicide attempts. I had to reign in my overwhelming mothering instincts to go wrap my arms protectively around each one of them and tell them how strong, and beautiful and valuable they are. At the end, Dr. Phil asked each one of them to look directly into the camera and share the advice they would give to someone who might be out there, drowning in that same dark hole that they had been in. With simple eloquence, each young person expressed moving encouragement of love and hope.

As parents, teachers, lawmakers and peers, we need to open our eyes and take a stand against cyber bullying. Failing to act now is too dangerous, too deadly for us all.
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