This article was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
Tara Coronado, a 45-year-old mother of four, sat in a nondescript Austin courtroom six years ago during a custody fight with her ex-husband, biting her tongue as the judge dressed her down.
“There is a huge amount of anger coming from you,” said Judge Susan Sheppard. “You deny it and are obviously not recognizing how almost every piece of information you give the Court is tinged by, tainted by, influenced by your overwhelming anger and hurt.”
Coronado was angry. A slender Mexican-American woman with long dark hair and a whip-quick mind, she’d scraped her way up from a New Mexico trailer park to serve in the Peace Corps and graduate from the University of Texas Law School. She married Ed Cunningham, a former football star turned lawyer and businessman, and had three boys and a girl. And she’d stayed home to raise them, for long stretches on her own, through a tumultuous 15-year-marriage that broke down when she discovered her husband had bought a second house across town where he was having an affair with another woman.
Outside their custody battle, Cunningham was facing a separate criminal charge of assaulting Coronado shortly before their divorce—allegations he adamantly denied. In a 2013 police report that included photographs of her injuries, Coronado told authorities that he’d punched her in the face, kneed her in the chest and dragged her by her hair across the road, resulting in a black eye, bruises and abrasions on her back and legs. Coronado obtained an emergency protection order, and Cunningham was arrested.
But a year later, in front of the court, it was Coronado under scrutiny. Cunningham’s attorney and a court-appointed therapist cast her as vindictive and unstable, fabricating abuse claims in retaliation for his infidelity; insulting his new wife, Aimee Boone; and poisoning their children against him.
By her own admission, amid their operatic, years-long separation and divorce, Coronado had sometimes acted badly. During fights, sometimes in front of the kids, she called Boone ugly names. In texts, she swung between castigating Cunningham for abandoning his family and begging him to call.
At one point during the trial, Cunningham’s attorney suggested she had “a lot of unresolved issues and anger from the divorce.” Coronado shot back, “I have a lot of unresolved issues with putting up with 15 years of getting beaten to be left penniless and raising four children by myself.”
But outbursts like that don’t play well in a family court system that women’s rights advocates say is permeated by gender bias. Judges and court-appointed experts are trying to seek the best interests of children in cases where polarized and combative parents present irreconcilable versions of reality. They point out that in the high-conflict cases they are drawn into, they’re often the target of fury from the parent who loses. Yet some also punish women who appear angry or aggressive; fail to understand how trauma can warp emotions and personal demeanor; and rely on forensic assessments that some experts consider misinformed at best and unethical at worst.
Sheppard approved Cunningham’s request for a psychological evaluation of Coronado. While her order covered both parents, Sheppard’s conclusion seemed clear as she told Coronado she hoped the evaluation might “explain in some way how you have said and done things that reflect so badly on your judgment and on your parenting.” The judge wondered aloud whether the evaluator might find an “Axis II” mental health condition, a category that includes severe diagnoses like borderline personality disorder.
As the custody case dragged through the courts, a parade of therapists—assigned by the court, but paid for by Cunningham—would weigh in, declaring that the problem wasn’t him, but Coronado, whom they described as manipulative, hostile and defensive. They labeled her with a range of diagnoses, from borderline personality disorder—an illness marked by unstable emotions and interpersonal relationships—to the contested theory of “parental alienation”—that is, deliberately estranging the children from their father and coercing them into supporting false claims of abuse.
Cunningham, who denies ever hitting Coronado, declined to speak on the record for this article, although he shared some documents from the case. “Tara has a long history of making false allegations when she gets angry or does not get her way,” he would tell a court-appointed psychologist. “I have always avoided all physical contact with Tara (i.e., except to deflect her blows or to restrain her from hitting me) because I know that she is always looking for a way to gain leverage through her crazy accusations.”
The custody battle turned on how to interpret the same court transcripts and therapists’ reports, which Cunningham’s camp saw as incontrovertible evidence of Coronado’s manipulativeness and instability, and hers read as reflecting profound gender disparities.
Roughly three months after the judge’s order, Cunningham was awarded primary custody of the three boys, and Coronado was relegated to four hours of supervised visitation per week. She met her sons in two-hour increments under the watchful eye of a supervisor she paid $100 an hour—a substantial chunk of the wages of her new administrative job. A year later, she lost custody of her daughter as well.
As Coronado would testify, it was the nightmare realization of threats she claimed her ex made when she’d first filed the police report. “He said he’d take the kids away, take the money away, and tell everyone I was crazy,” she said. “And he’s done all that.” Read more…