On June 29, 2016, Mickey Russell went to his wife’s office at Colorado Association for Recycling and shot her dead, and then turned the gun on himself. Cara Russell was the former mayor of Buena Vista, Colorado and a much-loved figure in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. She had recently filed for divorce, beginning her new career at the recycling association and commencing a new phase of her life.
As is in most cases of extreme violence, the murder did not arise out-of-the-blue. In 2013, Mickey had obtained a restraining order against Cara. Mickey had been threatening to do something drastic for months and was rumored to have become increasingly less stable. A pilot, he had recently been banned from the Central Colorado Regional Airport because he had been making comments about flying a plane into a building. He was vocal on Facebook and to his friends about the demise of his marriage and his dislike of his wife’s actions. He lamented that he “just needed the pain to stop.”
Typically, domestic violence escalates when the victim leaves the relationship. This is a time when the victim can be most at risk. Divorce attorneys should always screen their clients for domestic violence, and when it exists, they must take any steps they can to ensure the client’s safety.
In the “normal” litigated divorce, victims of domestic violence are left with little support or protection. While an attorney may be sympathetic to his client’s concerns, the litigator’s job is to make the other side look bad, to incite him, and to, arguably, act in ways that may place his client at further risk.
Often, the aggressor is also dealing with issues such as addiction and/or mental health problems, but her attorney may not understand how to deal with such complications. Many litigators have not been trained to deal with either the victims or the aggressors of domestic violence.
Litigated divorces sometimes consume years, and the constant stress, conflict, and proximity of the parties can make it impossible for them to move on into safer relationships. And attorneys are often discouraged from mediating when domestic violence is involved, so the parties are forced into the volatile court system.
Finally, parties to the conventional courtroom divorce are never offered the opportunity to improve their personal conflict resolution tactics, to learn better communication, brainstorming, problem-solving, and co-parenting skills. Therefore, when their divorce is finally over, they often move on to similar, unhealthy relationships.
But there is a better way.
Collaborative divorce is a form of alternative dispute resolution that offers divorcing couples a team of professionals to help them through their conflict. Each spouse has his own attorney, but instead of acting in a hostile or adversarial way to one another, the attorneys act as teammates, together helping the parties to reach a fair and equitable resolution. A financial professional guides the spouses through their financial issues. He ensures that discovery is full and complete, which is often an issue in litigated DV cases where control is a major factor, and the aggressor is more likely to hide financial information from the victim. A mental health professional guides the entire team. She is alert to special issues involved in DV cases like power struggles, intimidation, mental illness, and addiction. She teaches the spouses how to better communicate and co-parent. She can refer spouses to counselors and to special classes like anger management and victim awareness.
Collaborative divorces tend to resolve in just a few months, thereby putting a speedier end to the conflict and allowing the spouses to move forward more quickly. Once divorced, the former spouses are better equipped to move on to a healthier relationship, as well as to maintain a working relationship with each other.
It’s difficult to know what could have happened had the collaborative process been utilized by the Russells. In our experience, witnessing the magic of the collaborative process in operation first hand, the attention to the mental and emotional well being of both clients prevents extreme behavior from getting out of control. It’s sad to say, but this terrible tragedy might have been prevented if a team of experts had been available to help this couple.
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About this week’s authors: Joryn Jenkins.
Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, 2 of which she served as professor in law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen award, an honor bestowed upon those who have provided exceptional leadership to The American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.