Mother’s Story: Family Court Destroyed My Family & Legally Kidnapped My Children
by Evita Tolu
When we hear horrific stories of children being separated from their parents at the border, my heart bleeds. We commend people for trying to feed and find relatives and family members for the children in distress at our borders. We hear these stories every day. There is a lot of attention given to the social injustice surrounding the children separated from their parents.
These heart-breaking stories immediately take me to my personal story. My children were not taken away from me at the border. My children were taken away from me by the Saint Louis Family Court and with absolutely no factual basis. I do not drink and am not an alcoholic. I do not do drugs and am not a drug addict. I do not have a criminal record. I work seven days a week. I pay my taxes. I volunteer at church. I donate to the food pantry. I help elderly who are frail or who have no family members around to help them with daily necessities like translating their letters from Russian to English, writing letters for them in English, taking them to a doctor, calling a nurse for them, taking them to a grocery store, running to a pharmacy, or helping to fix their internet or telephone issues. I volunteer for two nonprofits.
Up until my child custody proceedings, which I started in August 2017, I was fully involved in the lives of my two children. My love for my children kept me going. It was a motivator for me to work hard, to save for their college and extracurricular activities. I worked hard to be a loving parent motivated by one goal which was for my children to be safe and to have a better life than I had growing up in the former Soviet Union. All I ever wanted was to protect them, to love them and to give them everything I could so that they could have a chance at a safe and successful future.
I was not perfect, but I tried the best I could under my circumstances. I participated in their school activities and parent associations. I organized their school events, attended their concerts and sporting events. I cheered for them from the bleachers and at their music competitions. I encouraged them to work and study and appreciate people in their lives. I encouraged them to safeguard their boundaries because my boundaries were destroyed and violated during the fourteen-year marriage to their father.
One day, when my life was in imminent danger thirteen years into my marriage, I fled home and found help and support at Safe Connections, the Saint Louis nonprofit organization which helps victims of domestic violence to survive and reclaim their lives. I was in unimaginable pain. I was lost. At times I felt helpless and hopeless. I did not view myself as a victim. I considered myself to be a survivor. When a Safe Connections therapist told me that I was a victim of domestic violence, I did not believe her. I rejected her words. It took my therapist, at Safe Connections, at least a year working with me before I accepted the fact that my children and I were victims of domestic violence perpetrated by the children’s father and my then husband. The realization came with pain, suffering and despair.
It was hard for me to admit that my children and I were abused. It was even harder for me to fathom that I did not protect my children and instead of making a change in our lives, I was clinging to the hope that things would get better. They never did. In fact, the abuse at home kept getting worse. Both of my children suffered from physical and psychological abuse. Both exhibited stressful behaviors. To make things even worse, my youngest child told me that his father touched him. I refused to believe my son. I still loved the perpetrator. I did not protect my son, and this is the pain and guilt I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Naively and absurdly, I still loved and believed my ex over my children.
One day, the realization came that things would never get better. I became aware that as long as I stay married, I would be discussing safety plans with my counselor, talk about my suitcase and necessities that I would need to run to a shelter on a moment’s notice. Every counseling session we started with the safety plan and where I would run when violence erupts. Once I accepted the fact that things would never get better, I realized that I could no longer cling to any hope for my marriage. Realizing it was excruciatingly painful, I also felt tremendous relief. This excruciating pain became part of my life and I have a long way to let it go.
I knew that I needed to divorce the abuser so that my children could at least have peace and be safe with me during my custody time. I was told that I could not seek full custody and that the Saint Louis County Family Court would never agree to that. We got divorced in October 2016. My divorce was non contested and I agreed to fifty-fifty custody with my ex after he promised me that he would never lay a finger on our sons again, he would not call them names and he would share custody time with me fairly and with the best interests of our children in mind. I did not fight for any assets. My ex took everything he wanted, and significantly more than the law allowed. I did not care. I just wanted desperately out of the abusive marriage. I wanted time with my children so that they could see that there is a different way of life, with no gaslighting, blows, throws against the wall, intimidation, threats, insults, and daily shame and humiliation.
Our fifty-fifty custody arrangement did not last long. In March 2017, four months after the divorce, my ex-husband moved my older son to another county, one hour away, without giving me or the court the notice of his relocation. My ex threw my other child outside of his house during his custody time in February 2017. My ex told our youngest that he was no longer welcomed in his home because he was his mother’s pawn. He threw my son’s clothes on the snow and shut the door. On the way from work I saw my younger son moving his belongings and his little orange suitcase he got as a gift when he was a toddler. Tears were running on his face. I was in pain seeing him like this. Every night when I close my eyes, I see his face covered with tears and the little orange suitcase. I feel pain. I feel desperation. I feel hopeless.
I have not seen my older son since March 2017 because my ex would not allow me to see him. In August 2017, I filed for custody modification. Elaine Pudlowski was appointed as the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) in our case. She was supposed to act in the best interest of my sons; to protect them. She never did. She was brought in the case by my ex. Unfortunately, I did not object to her being my sons’ guardian because I naively believed that she would act in the best interests of my children. I was so wrong.
My first meeting with Pudlowski was very strange. We spent five minutes talking about my children and 55 minutes talking about my income, my pension plans, my 401Ks, and my assets. I remember telling her that I am not seeking any money from the court and that I will be able to support my children who desperately needed healthcare and counseling. Red flags were popping in my head, but I kept telling myself that Pudlowski is probably concerned about my children’s financial future.
She came to our home the next week and spent 5 minutes talking to my son and 55 minutes examining every room in my house. I thought it was strange that she cared so much what was in my personal closet where she spent at least 10 minutes. Again, I was so naïve and unwary. In hind sight, she was sizing my net worth for the future three-year litigation that she would embroil me in with my ex which would put tens of thousands of dollars in her pocket as well as tens of thousands of dollars in each of her team members pockets, not to mention hundreds of thousands in the attorneys’ pockets. I did not know that then, but now having been in touch with dozens of Pudlowski’s victims it all makes perfect sense.
Pudlowski brought Dr. Reid into the case to evaluate mine, my ex’s, and our children’s mental health. Allowing Reid into our case was another trap for the unwary. I remember my ex coming up to me in court and whispering into my ear that I do not have a chance and it is all taken care of as long as Pudlowski is our GAL. I thought he was bluffing. I thought it was another attempt to intimidate me.
When I met with Reid for the first time, he placed me next to my abusive ex, to see if we could stay in the room together, as he jokingly explained to us. It was not a joke to me. Sweat was dripping on my back and during the entire meeting with Reid and my ex, I felt like I was going to vomit. The four other meetings with Reid were even more disturbing. Reid called me a drunk, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a liar, stupid, crazy and a manipulator. After one of those meetings, I threw up in Reid’s bathroom. He mocked me when I answered his questions and he laughed in my face calling me crazy, deceitful, and manipulative. I have never had such a horrific experience with any professional, much less a mental health professional. He told me that he was video and audio taping me and everyone else in my case. Each session he attacked me verbally. My sons reported to Pudlowski and Reid that their father was physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive. Neither Reid nor Pudlowski ever reported the abuse to Department of Family Services, police, or the court.
At one meeting with Reid, he said that I deserted to the United States from a labor project in Siberia. When I tried to tell him that I never had any labor assignments in Siberia, he called me a liar. He never asked me or my sons about domestic abuse, although both of my sons reported to Reid that their father was physically and verbally abusive. Reid issued his report in which he diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder, he said I was a narcissist and a sociopath, and I was a danger to my children. None of these labels were true. When asked by the court, Reid refused to provide his file and testing data “allegedly showing that I am narcissist and sociopath.” Reid never produced his video files. The audio files he eventually produced were altered. The court ordered Reid to produce the original video and audio recordings, but Reid violated and never did comply with the court order.
Reid never properly administered the psychological tests which he gave me, my ex and our children. Reid did not account for my having been born and raised in the former Soviet Union. He did not account for the fact that I was going through the child custody proceedings. Even then, the test results showed the exact opposition of what Reid reported to the court about me.
The court entered an order to release Reid’s report to Pudlowski and the parties’ attorneys only. After Pudlowski received the Reid’s report, she distributed it to two therapists, Erica Ottolini LPC and Jennifer Webbe Van Luven, LCSW who she brought into the case to conduct family “reunification therapy.” The court order appointing the therapists stated that they were to reunite our sons who were separated by their father and to reunify the children with their mother. Pudlowski’s release of the Reid report to these therapists was in violation of the court order. Armed with the Reid report, and without their own independent investigation, both therapists engaged in “child alienation therapy” and they did everything they could to alienate my children from me. There was no reunification but pure and systemic alienation of my sons from me. Every time we went to court, Pudlowski told the court that our family needed more therapy. Several times Pudlowski asked the court to order me and my younger son to stop our counseling at Safe Connections. The court denied Pudlowski’s requests. Because of Pudlowski’s continuous requests for more therapy with Van Luven and Ottolini, the court never heard my case and instead continued it for three long and painful years.
Therapist Van Luven, during her court ordered family “reunification therapy,” called my oldest son “an asshole,” “a jerk,” and “a dick.” She told my youngest son that he was “not normal” and “fricken difficult.” She kept yelling at him to start acting “normal.” She said it was not a big deal to call a sibling “a bitch” or “an asshole.” Van Luven talked to my sons about the Reid report and my diagnoses. Each session, Van Luven told my sons that I am not normal and that I would never know how to act as a normal person. Van Luven told my sons that I abused them and violated their boundaries. None of this was true. Ottolini did not mind when my ex suggested to read the Reid report to my youngest son during the “reunification therapy.” My son and not Ottolini refused to participate in the reading of the Reid report. During the reunification therapy my sons reported physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by their father. Neither Van Luven nor Ottolini ever reported child abuse to the Department of Family Services, police, or the court. Instead they invalidated and discarded my sons’ feelings and pain.
After the “alienation therapy,” my younger son moved out of my home to live with his father. I spent three years in court, and almost one year in court ordered therapy during which my sons and I were abused. I tried to talk to Pudlowski, but she never had time for me or my children. Every attempt I made to talk to her or any time I tried to ask her a question, she told me that I am a noncooperating parent and that if I continue bothering her, I would lose custody of my children. My children did not get any help and, instead, they were permanently damaged by this horrific process. While my custody proceedings were pending, Pudlowski told me to engage in lifetime therapy recommended by Reid and threatened that if I do not follow her advice, I would lose custody of my children. Pudlowski petitioned the court to order me to stop my therapy at Safe Connections and instead start therapy with the therapist of Pudlowski’s choosing. Pudlowski’s recommendations were contrary to my treatment plan at Safe Connections. Because of Pudlowski’s actions, our family never got to the court. We never got a hearing. Pudlowski made sure of that by continuously moving our court hearing until my older son became 18. My younger son is almost 17 now.
While I was in court fighting to get help for my children, Pudlowski told me that I cannot go to school and see my children’s games and concerts. I was not allowed to go to parent-teacher conferences. I was not allowed to attend my son’s sporting events. I was told that if I do attend school, concerts, or sporting events, I will lose custody of my children. I was forced to settle my case in December 2019. Two months later my youngest son moved out and informed me of his decision to live with his father by text.
I now have no contact with my children. Pudlowski, Van Luven, Reid and Ottolini made lots of money at my expense. They damaged my children and destroyed my relationship with them. My whole life has been about my children. Pudlowski, Van Luven, Reid and Ottolini took my life away from me. The only thing I have left are pictures of my children and my memories of being with them. The court system turned to be a minefield for me. It perpetrated and enabled domestic violence to continue. My children were commodities and a source of income for the unethical, greedy, and callous GAL, psychological evaluator and two therapists. These people betrayed my children.