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.”
Conventional wisdom has it that women automatically have the upper hand in custody fights, and a mother claiming she’s been abused has a powerful case to sway the court. But when domestic violence charges are in play, advocates and researchers suggest, mothers are often at a disadvantage.
“The legal system is set up on dealing with agreeableness,” said Margaret Bassett, then the deputy director of the University of Texas at Austin Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, who would help during Coronado’s case. Family courts often favor the parent who will cooperate to maintain their ex’s relationship with their children.
This “friendly parent” principle, sensible overall, since it’s healthy for most children to maintain bonds with both parents, can become a blind spot—or worse—in cases of alleged abuse. Mothers who charge fathers with domestic violence amid custody battles are often suspected of fabricating the claims as a tactic to win control of their children. But battered women’s advocates suggest that many “high-conflict” divorces—the single-digit fraction of separations that are extensively litigated—are actually domestic violence cases in disguise.
Some research backs this up. One small 1992 study found that there was physical aggression between parents in 70 percent of high-conflict custody fights, and “severe” violence (meaning battery or the threat or use of a weapon) in nearly half. Another study, published in 1997 by the National Center for State Courts and covering several cities, found documented evidence of domestic violence in 20 to 55 percent of contested custody cases. In one city where court mediators screened for it, “much higher” rates of abuse were revealed.
Yet merely raising the issue tends to work against mothers. A 2004 study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that mothers were more likely to receive primary custody if they had not made allegations of domestic abuse, while fathers were equally likely to get custody whether there were allegations against them or not. The study also found that when mediators discovered evidence of violence when the mother hadn’t alleged any, they were more likely to recommend court protections like supervised child exchanges, meaning women who were open about being abused received less protection for themselves and their children than those who were not.
One explanation for the different fates of men and women in family court may be how domestic violence victims can come across: hyper-vigilant, agitated, guarded, volatile. These characteristics can make mothers look unstable or unfit, but are also commonplace reactions to trauma or even symptoms of PTSD.
Many family courts and therapists have not kept pace with a growing understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, or lack the training to interpret the impact of trauma on abuse victims, domestic violence experts say. And many are swayed by traditional assumptions about men, women and anger.
“An angry woman might be vengeful and fabricating,” said Joan Meier, a George Washington University law school professor and founder of the advocacy organization DV LEAP, which handles appeals for battered women in custody disputes. “But angry fathers? We have no problem with that because of course he’s angry—he’s been kept from his children and there are these lies being promulgated about him. It’s so thick with gender stereotypes, you can cut it with a knife.”
What it adds up to, said UT’s Bassett, is a fateful choice: “If I’m going to court and alleging that my partner is abusive, I’m probably going to lose custody of the children. Do I go to court and risk that, or do I play the game the way it’s set up?”
The two met in 1997, when Cunningham, a lawyer working as a sports agent, spoke to Coronado’s law school class. Cunningham, with his shock of side-swept brown hair and open smile, seemed larger than life. He was almost 6’8 and around 275 pounds, befitting his brief stint in the NFL and before that his status as an All America player for Austin’s storied UT Longhorns. He was in the middle of his first divorce, and their initial romance swept Coronado off her feet.
But within months, she said, the relationship turned violent. When she went with friends to a party at his house and saw him with another woman, their resulting argument culminated in a loud fight in his bathroom where, Coronado told police, Cunningham threw her against the sink and choked her. Upon seeing her bruises, her brother Sam, who lived with her at the time, called the police, and convinced his sister to speak with them. Her friend Sharon Rutman (then Rubin), who’d been outside the bathroom door, gave a police statement as well, describing seeing Cunningham walk out, leaving Coronado splayed on the floor, legs braced against the wall and gasping for air.
While she debated pressing charges, Coronado learned she was pregnant. She reconciled with Cunningham and moved into his stone two-story home in Bee Cave, high in the Hill Country surrounding Austin. When she was six months pregnant, they married, and she settled into home life, having three more children within six years. Cunningham shifted from sports law to other business ventures, and they moved in influential circles. In 2001, Cunningham launched a short-lived campaign for U.S. Senate. Coronado became an intensely involved stay-at-home mother, shepherding their children between sporting events at expensive private schools, coaching some of their teams.
Coronado says their early years were marked by volatility and sporadic violence, with frequent fights about money or Cunningham’s infidelity. She’d later tell numerous friends, as well as a court-appointed psychologist, that sometimes her husband hit, bit or spit on her, destroyed clothes and keepsakes, and that once when she was pregnant, held her on the ground and put a hose in her mouth, choking her with water. Cunningham told the same psychologist, “nothing even remotely close to this is true.”
In interviews with 10 of Coronado’s family members, friends or neighbors, people recalled troubling dynamics about the relationship. Multiple friends described her having bruises that she excused as injuries from sports or yard work, or that she’d wear long-sleeve shirts and pants through the Texas summer. She called her brother so frequently in distress, Sam said, that he ultimately became frustrated with her refusal to leave.
It baffled them. Coronado was smart, competitive, driven and, above all, tough. “Because she’s such a force of nature, it’s harder to believe that she would stay in a relationship that’s violent,” said Jeana Lungwitz, director of the University of Texas School of Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic, who helped on her case.
But that’s not how domestic violence plays out, experts say. Women stay in abusive relationships for many reasons—out of fear, dependence or terror that if they leave they or their children could be in greater danger. Another cause: the paradox of “traumatic bonding” that results from the abusive cycle of good and bad times.
In Coronado’s own calculus, the alleged episodes of violence came amid happy moments—when Cunningham dressed up as Santa Claus and transformed into what she called “over-do it Ed”—as well as long stretches where he was simply gone. (He took a job in China and lived largely away from home for years.) “I justified it,” she said. “It’s not every day, we had a nice life.”
But by the end of 2011, she discovered that Cunningham had bought another house, where he began living part-time, sometimes, she said, during periods when he claimed he was abroad. She learned he was seeing Boone—an heiress to the Container Store fortune, a prominent Democratic donor who’s hosted fundraisers and events for politicians like Barack Obama and Joe Biden and who is now chair of the national board of directors of Planned Parenthood—and that the relationship was serious. (Boone declined an interview request.) Eventually, Cunningham filed for divorce.
Negotiations stalled amid the rancor. By late 2012, an attorney appointed by the court to determine the children’s best interests tried to help the family work out a custody schedule, but removed herself soon after, saying the situation was beyond her control. The parents were so deadlocked, and the children so caught in between, that she believed some of the kids would soon refuse to visit their father. “The pathology in this family,” she wrote, “is acute.”
Then came the May 2013 fight. According to Coronado’s police statement, Cunningham had been staying with her for several days when an argument over money devolved into a shouting match about Boone. In her statement, Coronado said she grabbed Cunningham’s phone, threatening to call Boone, and he charged at her, knocking her to the ground, dropping his knee onto her chest and punching her in the face, before driving away. Cunningham told a court-appointed psychologist that Coronado routinely physically blocked him from leaving the house after visits, and that after stealing his phone she fell while running away; any injuries she had, he suggested, must have resulted from that.
During the altercation, one of Coronado’s neighbors, Kishna Weaver, noticed her dog barking and turned on a light. A short time later, Weaver said in an interview, Coronado came over, looking like she’d been in a fight. Weaver drove her to the police station, and as soon as they arrived, she recalled, an officer in the parking lot saw them and had the same reaction Weaver did: immediately asking Coronado who’d hit her. Bill Pitmon, a lieutenant with the department who later took Coronado’s statement, recalled in an interview how “visibly shaken up” she still seemed nearly a week after the alleged attack. Later that month, Cunningham was arrested for assault family violence, a misdemeanor charge. Within weeks, their divorce settlement, including primary custody for Coronado and extended standard visitation rights for Cunningham, finally went through.
Despite how bad the marriage had been, Coronado was undone by its dissolution. Her friends remember her in the summer of 2013 being “beside herself,” at times almost catatonic, at other times acting erratically. She went to Cunningham’s second house to confront him, and once went inside and mocked Boone’s clothes and broke her makeup case. She insulted Boone to Cunningham, calling her his “new meal ticket,” once using an anti-Semitic slur. In texts submitted to the court as part of the custody battle, she swerved between picking fights and telling him his family needed him. Once, after one of the children told Cunningham that their mother seemed depressed and wasn’t getting out of bed, he came over to stock the house with food and watch the kids. At one point that summer, Coronado texted Cunningham to apologize for the protection order, and in October, she signed a non-prosecution form, noting that she was focusing on her kids and finding work.
But behind the scenes, Coronado charged, Cunningham had been pressuring her to withdraw her abuse complaint. After his arrest, she would testify, he had written that he couldn’t afford to make any more of their divorce settlement payments “until I get through all this litigation you have initiated,” which she believed was a reference to the criminal abuse case. Although Coronado was awarded the family home in the divorce, for months she said Cunningham failed to sign over the deed, and didn’t do so until after she’d signed the non-prosecution form. And in person, she’d also later testify, he threatened to “ruin” her if she helped the prosecution.
In February 2014, Travis County Attorney Jordan Foster tried to convince her to cooperate with the prosecution. “Right now, based on what I’m seeing, it looks to me like he hurt you and I will have to recommend a conviction,” Foster wrote in an email. A few days later, Coronado agreed to speak with him. After word got back to Cunningham that Coronado would participate in the prosecution, she would later testify, his next settlement check bounced. Then, although she would tell the court he’d only exercised a handful of custodial weekends over their nearly two-year separation, right after he and Boone got married, he demanded to resume visitation. To Coronado, it seemed “he was going through with the threats he’d made.”
Cunningham’s version of events is different. He told a court-appointed psychologist that he’d tried to see the children more regularly, but Coronado had restricted him to visits at her house, and had limited even those as his marriage to Boone approached. He said Coronado had failed to arrange for the children to attend his wedding, and had later discouraged visitation, sometimes saying the children didn’t want anything to do with him and other times that they needed therapy first.
Coronado’s attorney at the time filed a custody-modification lawsuit to prevent the children’s visitation with their father until a therapist evaluated them and declared it in their best interests to resume visits. But the gambit backfired immediately, setting off years of litigation and the intervention of several therapists—first to evaluate the children, then Coronado and Cunningham themselves.
Starting in June of 2014, the children began seeing two therapists the court appointed to facilitate their reunification with Cunningham: Dr. Susan McMillan, who treated the older siblings, and LeAnn Artis, who worked primarily with the younger two. (Artis declined to comment for this article, and McMillan could not be reached for comment.)
Neither therapist observed Coronado directly with her children. But they came to believe that she was swaying the children against their father, and they relied heavily on parental alienation theory.
Artis later declared in court that Coronado’s behavior amounted to emotional abuse, and that the family was one of the most extreme cases of parental alienation she’d ever seen. As an example, Artis testified that the youngest boys had changed their stories, from saying they hadn’t witnessed Cunningham hitting their mother to claiming they had. And she felt Coronado was behind one child’s backing out of attending an event for President Obama hosted at the home Cunningham and Boone shared, now valued at $3.75 million.
After a few sessions with Coronado, Artis sharply curtailed contact with her. Artis claimed that Coronado had intimidated her one evening after the children’s sessions, when she stopped in to report that she’d found pornography on a computer Cunningham gave one son. Coronado accused Artis of defending Cunningham, since he was the one paying her bills. Several days later, Artis emailed to say she would no longer meet Coronado in person or by phone, and would only communicate in writing. Then she wrote Cunningham’s attorney to tell him what happened.
While Coronado admits she didn’t handle the exchange with Artis well, she said there was more to the story. Earlier that day, she’d received a subpoena from the prosecutor’s office demanding that she testify about the alleged 2013 assault. But when she mentioned it to Artis, Coronado later told the court, Artis “told me Ed never hit me, I had made it up.”
It was, to her, a surreal moment: “The state of Texas is demanding that I testify in an assault where I was the victim, and a mental health professional just looked at me and said ‘it didn’t happen.’”
McMillan described in a deposition what she saw as a pattern of Coronado discouraging the older children’s relationship with Cunningham. She deduced that pattern, she’d later testify, from the children’s behavior alone, such as the daughter rebuffing McMillan’s attempts to talk kindly about her father by repeating that he had cheated, hit her mom, and left. McMillan acknowledged that she hadn’t actually assessed Coronado for alienation, but argued, “The refusal to see their father is parental alienation by definition.”
The therapists’ assessments proved damning when Coronado returned to court at the end of 2014. By then, the lawyer who’d brought her custody modification suit had retired, and, making just $47,000 at her new administrative job, Coronado couldn’t afford to replace her. At times, before the hearing, she represented herself while her ex’s attorney, Charles Bowes, argued for his primary custody. Cunningham was granted temporary custody of the three boys. The daughter, who maintained that she’d witnessed Cunningham hit Coronado, was so estranged from him that the therapists suggested she remain with her mother and undergo reunification therapy.
Coronado herself was ordered into parental alienation therapy and put on supervised visitation: allowed to see her sons just four hours a week, in the company of a social worker, who submitted notes on their interactions. Although the order was meant to be temporary, due to continuances on both sides, it would stretch longer than a year.
The concept of parental alienation can be traced to the mid-1980s, when child psychiatrist Richard Gardner first began using the term to describe what he called the “brainwashing” of children by one parent to view the other parent as “all bad.” He charged that the most severe allegations of child abuse that arise during divorce are the fabrication of mothers seeking “the total elimination of the father.”
That gender breakdown was no accident: Gardner argued that in some 90 percent of alienation cases he’d observed, mothers were at fault. He suggested that alienating mothers might have pathologies such as borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, or that the phenomenon could be explained by “the old saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’” Some of his remedies were severe: immediately removing children from the home of the “alienating parent,” and warning children who balked at custodial visits that unless they respected their fathers, their mothers would be locked up.
Neither this syndrome nor its offshoot—more commonly known today as simply “Parental Alienation”—have ever been officially accepted by the psychological establishment, despite repeated campaigns to include it in the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Advocates of the term argue that similar diagnoses are in the manual and parental alienation’s absence doesn’t prove that it’s been discredited.) Nonetheless, Gardner became a frequent courtroom expert, appearing—for lucrative fees—in an estimated 400 cases. In time, his reputation became tarnished: men’s rights activists became the most ardent proponents of his theory, and Gardner’s odd statements—like hypothetically suggesting that mothers punish children who report sexual abuse by their fathers—came to light.
In 2003, Gardner killed himself. But a cottage industry of followers continued his work, and his theory remains highly disputed. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges stated more than a decade ago that courts shouldn’t accept testimony regarding the “discredited” parental alienation syndrome. But other elements of the legal system proved more credulous, and parental alienation became such a common tactic in custody disputes that some women’s rights advocates call it a public health crisis. They believe that parental alienation often obscures domestic violence or child abuse, because the theory suggests that children being estranged from their fathers is due to their mothers’ brainwashing, instead of, say, the result of their having experienced or witnessed abuse.
Richard Warshak, a leading proponent of parental alienation theory, has written that many critics misunderstand the theory or create a straw man to dismiss it. “It is well-known that children can be, and are, taught to hate and fear other people for no good reason,” he wrote in a 2003 paper. “There is no reason to assume that parents are exempt from becoming the target of such irrational feelings.” But, more recently, he also noted the risk of “false positives” as custody evaluators and expert witnesses “wield the concept of parental alienation like a blunt sword,” and sometimes the court “[fails] to recognize that a child’s rejection is a justifiable response to a parent’s violence, abuse, or other form of gross mistreatment.”
It’s hard to determine how often parental alienation claims affect custody cases. Many family court sessions are closed to the public, and cases that aren’t appealed—which is most of them—don’t make it into the public record.
In an effort to assess whether the theory has become “a gender-biased vehicle for negating legitimate abuse claims,” Meier and her co-author, Sean Dickson, examined nearly 4,400 family court cases from 2005 to 2015, and found that 16 percent were influenced by allegations of parental alienation. Factoring in opinions that didn’t use the exact term but echoed that reasoning, the percentage was closer to one-quarter. The real number might even be higher, said Meier, since the study couldn’t capture cases like Coronado’s, where alienation claims were extensively litigated, but not referenced in the judge’s final opinion. And the effects were stark: When fathers countered mothers’ allegations of domestic violence or child abuse with charges of parental alienation, women’s rate of losing custody doubled.
Even proving abuse didn’t always help, since even in the small subset of cases where the court believed abuse took place, but also that the mother had alienated the children, women still lost custody nearly one-third of the time.
In early 2015, as Coronado and Cunningham’s custody battle dragged on, another therapist, Dr. Alissa Sherry, stepped in to conduct the psychological evaluations of the parents that Judge Sheppard ordered.
Sherry ran personality tests on both of them, in addition to speaking with people who might back up their claims. Coronado brought her lawyer’s training, her mounting frustration at previous therapists’ seeming disbelief in her domestic abuse claims, and her characteristic tenacity. Eager to explain the context behind the charges of parental alienation, she showed Sherry a timeline she’d created chronicling Cunningham’s alleged abuse. In addition to the 2013 police report, it included photographs of her injuries, a medical report and a letter from the Travis County Sheriff’s department related to the 1998 assault, although not that actual police record, which she hadn’t yet obtained.
In May 2015, Sherry delivered her findings. At 110 pages, the evaluation focused heavily on Coronado: a woman Sherry found “exceptionally bright” but sometimes prone to emotional overreaction, defensiveness, and misperceptions of reality. Most damningly, Sherry wrote that she met the criteria for borderline personality disorder—what one psychologist described as “the worst diagnosis you could get as a mother” in a custody battle—based substantially on what Sherry saw as her overly-negative description of her relationship with Cunningham. “[W]ith Ms. Coronado,” Sherry wrote, “the entire relationship from start to finish in her report was so bad it left one wondering why a graduate school educated woman married such a monster.” (In an interview, Sherry later said she meant the remark as a comment on Coronado “overselling” her claims of Cunningham’s abuse.)
Sherry seemed skeptical of Coronado’s claims of domestic abuse, saying most of her accusations couldn’t be confirmed or “left out key details implicating her own erratic behavior as the cause of the conflict.” As an example, Sherry wrote that Coronado hadn’t provided compelling proof of the 1998 assault, and the photographs and medical records she’d offered in place of a police report could have resulted from anyone assaulting her at any time, not specifically Cunningham, who, Sherry wrote, “does not remember any kind of altercation between them during that time.” Although Sherry noted there was no one to confirm his side of the story either, elsewhere in the report she suggested that, since he was so much bigger than Coronado, if he’d really abused her, it would have been obvious.
If she’d had a copy of the 1998 police report, Sherry later said, and it had been corroborated, “You bet I would have a different opinion about it all.”
The shortcomings Sherry found in Cunningham were far more limited: that he could be “overly trusting and optimistic”—“happy-go-lucky,” she’d later testify—and that, by his own admission, he’d been frequently unfaithful (though Sherry found this confession a mark of credibility since he was forthcoming about “less than admirable behavior”).
Cunningham somehow obtained Coronado’s timeline—not, Sherry noted in the evaluation, from her—and wrote responses that Sherry included in her report. He argued that Coronado had nearly “stalked” him at the start of their relationship, had sometimes brought the children into their bedroom to watch them fight, and forced him, after their separation, to visit the children only at her house. He told Sherry she had used the 2013 assault charge as a bargaining chip, “telling him that if he would just leave his current partner and call off the divorce, she would ‘make this go away.’” (One of Coronado’s attorneys requested that, since Cunningham had been given the chance to rebut Coronado’s timeline, they be provided his responses as well. Sherry responded that they should ask Cunningham’s lawyer instead.)
When a therapist from a domestic violence clinic told Sherry that Coronado had the highest possible score on their assessment of relationship danger—since Cunningham had access to weapons and Coronado reported that he’d once made a threat, to a friend of hers, to harm the children—Sherry dismissed that allegation. “No evidence was provided to us that suggests this is a credible statement,” she wrote.
Yet, Coronado said, Sherry declined to speak to the people most familiar with her side of the story, including the friend who said, in a signed affidavit, that an irate Cunningham had called her around 2010, convinced Coronado was cheating, and threatening to kill his family. Sherry’s report cites Cunningham’s parents and new wife to corroborate his perspective. But it includes no one from Coronado’s family—not her father, who recalled Cunningham as mentally abusive and domineering; nor her brother, whom Coronado confided in for years; nor her cousin, who worked on Cunningham’s Senate campaign and also fielded his angry and suspicious calls. Although Sherry later told me she had no record of these names in her work plan for the case, an email from Coronado’s lawyer at the time included the names of all three family members as well as additional friends of Coronado’s. In her email response to the attorney, Sherry suggested that speaking to them would just add to the evaluation’s expense and that she did not generally speak to people who served mainly as “character witnesses.”
“Less than one percent of the people that get divorced and fight over the children end up in an office like mine,” Sherry said. “So the people that come to me are always going to be the worst of the worst.”
Noting that she’d done post-doctoral work on domestic violence, Sherry argued that violence in these sorts of families should be understood differently. She maintained that she saw as many women abuse men as the reverse, that some women had self-inflicted their wounds, and that she believed true domestic violence victims would be less likely to end up in her office because they’d have been intimidated into settling their cases earlier on. Sherry discussed Coronado’s case with some vehemence, calling her “manipulative” or even “psychopathically” manipulative more than 15 times, and suggesting she had been the violent partner in her marriage. And she stressed that multiple mental health professionals and judges had independently found Coronado’s behavior “detrimental to the best interests of her children.”
Although Sherry wrote that it was beyond her scope to assess whether the family had experienced parental alienation, she spent four pages at the end of the report outlining literature on the topic. In her report, Sherry also said she could not determine whether domestic abuse had taken place. But in later testimony she would declare, “I am more convinced that Mrs. Coronado is manipulating the situation and being manipulative than I am convinced that Mr. Cunningham is this abusive monster.”
Coronado identified 27 instances where she believed Sherry was wrong or had taken Cunningham’s word on something she could disprove—things she would have challenged, she said, had she been given the chance. She collated emails and texts, lawsuits and affidavits, into a thick three-ring binder, and enlisted a retired police chief to help locate her long-buried 1998 report alleging assault, hoping her evidence would outweigh Sherry’s evaluation.
In the aftermath of losing custody of her sons, Coronado sought pro bono legal representation from UT’s Domestic Violence Law Clinic. Margaret Bassett joined the team to help keep Coronado’s trauma from undermining her case, since she said abuse victims’ efforts to convince authorities can come across as unstable and frantic. Bassett believed that behavior was indicative of a traumatic past: “Somebody who’s been in an abusive relationship is in a heightened sense of awareness, because everything they do, when they’re operating out of fear, is about safety.”
Therapists and custody evaluators who refuse to recognize that, she continued, will interpret trauma as instability—or, as Sherry did, see Coronado’s vigilance and defensiveness as symptoms of a personality disorder, rather than something that presents almost identically: post-traumatic stress.
No other psychologist has diagnosed Coronado with borderline personality disorder, although she has been diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. In court testimony, Sherry said she’d ruled out a PTSD diagnosis based on Coronado’s reported symptoms. In a later interview, Sherry said her diagnosis was based on multiple criteria, and suggested that Coronado may have “managed to manipulate other mental health professionals” who weren’t forensic psychologists.
Lundy Bancroft, a domestic violence expert whose books have become classics in the field, believes that psychological testing in custody disputes is inherently unethical: “The symptoms of trauma are reflected on a psychological test as things that are wrong with you, not things that were done to you.”
Meier, who was familiar with some aspects of Coronado’s case, said the professionals’ dismissal of the alleged abuse history was common. In fact, one 1996 survey of psychological custody evaluators found that while 75 percent recommended denying custody to “alienating” parents, most didn’t consider domestic violence a substantial issue in their determinations. Sherry said Cunningham wasn’t living with Coronado anymore, so her domestic violence allegations were irrelevant.
When one of Coronado’s new pro bono attorneys deposed McMillan, the therapist who’d evaluated the older children, he asked how Coronado should explain Cunningham’s alleged abuse to her children in a way that would not be interpreted as parental alienation. McMillan’s answer was pitiless: Coronado would need to tell them, she said, “why she stayed for 17 years and allowed that to happen to her.”
In January 2016, more than a year after the three boys were removed from Coronado’s custody, she and Cunningham finally returned to court. Coronado was up against significant odds. In addition to the damning therapist reports, the judge ruled that no direct evidence could be submitted about events that took place before the divorce decree was signed—which meant no direct testimony about domestic abuse. The decision was based on a legal principle called Res judicata, which holds that a legal matter that’s already been—or should have been—litigated cannot be raised again in a new case. In other words, as Sherry would write in her report, the time for Coronado to have pursued her domestic violence allegations was during the divorce, not during a later attempt to change custody arrangements.
So in the trial, Coronado’s pro bono lawyers could only make an “offer of proof”: a document entered into the record in case of appeal, containing evidence that might have led to a different outcome if it had been admitted. They submitted 94 pages, including the 1998 and 2013 police reports, photographs of Coronado’s blackened eye and swollen face, her gashed and bruised body, a bite mark on her thigh and finger-shaped bruises on her arm.
After summarizing the case history, Charles Bowes, Cunningham’s attorney, opened by suggesting that, “with the disorder [Coronado’s] been diagnosed with by Dr. Sherry, she may not have the ability to change.” He discussed with Sherry whether Coronado’s daughter, who had been acting out, would develop a personality disorder herself if she stayed in her mother’s home. And he had Coronado read out loud the angry emails she’d sent Cunningham.
Coronado had come to appreciate how poorly victims come across in court. So she tried to explain and apologize. “I am mortified with these readings,” she told Bowes. “You can have me go through every email, Charlie, and I’m not going to argue and say that any of them were right. I was scared.... I did not respond in ways that I wished I had and I wouldn’t do it again.”
Bowes responded in disgust, punctuating each word: “Who. Filed. This. Case?”
“We had prepared her that this was going to be really, really hard,” said Lungwitz, who helped with Coronado’s case. “This case hinged on the experts, and we couldn’t stop the train.”
Shortly before the judge made her ruling, Cunningham reached out to Coronado, repeating an offer he’d made before the start of the trial: she could keep custody of their daughter, who’d maintained to therapists that she’d witnessed her father’s abuse, and he would get custody of the sons. Coronado turned down the deal, and Cunningham won all four. She was taken off supervised visits and granted standard visitation, while he got the “big rights”: physical and legal custody, including the right to determine the children’s medical and psychiatric care. That week, as Cunningham’s legal team had been urging, their daughter was picked up by a company of transporters and sent to a wilderness therapy program in the Utah desert. She was gone for a year.
“The final kick,” Coronado said, “was as soon as my daughter was shipped off, he took a plea.” Although Coronado had wanted the criminal case against Cunningham prosecuted, Sherry’s evaluation had been forwarded extensively: to any new therapists the children might see, and to the Travis County Attorney’s office. The prosecutor who’d convinced her to participate in the case was no longer there, and Coronado said his replacement, Neha Naik, told her that, given the evaluation, she didn’t think they could win. In an email, Naik wrote that she’d said “there would be hurdles if we proceeded to trial, given the evidence we had,” and that the evaluation “did not play a large part in our decision.”
And so, in the months after the custody trial, Cunningham accepted a deal on the domestic abuse charge in the form of a “deferred prosecution agreement” or DPA—a legal instrument that allows defendants to avoid prosecution if they abide by a set of probation-like terms. For Cunningham that meant his charge would be provisionally dismissed if he stayed away from Coronado and underwent therapy—therapy he was allowed to undergo with LeAnn Artis, the therapist who’d testified about her belief that Coronado had alienated the children from their father. Beyond that, the specifics of his DPA were unknown, since Coronado wasn’t given a copy and these deals aren’t subject to open-records requests. Effectively, they’re sealed, meaning not even Coronado could see the contents of the agreement ostensibly meant to protect her.
The older children turned 18 and went on to college; neither immediately moved back to Coronado’s house once they had the chance, though they frequently visited and stayed at her home. In April 2016, after an encounter with Cunningham that she believed was a violation of the terms of his plea deal, Coronado tried to obtain the deferred prosecution agreement, to see exactly what the provisions protecting her said. When the county attorney’s office refused, Coronado’s request became a fierce local battle, drawing in the state attorney general and generating news coverage that included a photo of her bruised face and blackened eye.
Ultimately, after a year-long fight, the county agreed to turn it over but required Corondao to sign a non-disclosure agreement, forbidding her from discussing its contents with anyone other than lawyers or therapists. But she could bring it to court. And in August 2017, she did, during a hearing wherein Cunningham sought (successfully) to send another of the children to a behavioral boot camp in Utah. Although Cunningham protested that he’d only signed the agreement to dismiss the charges against him, on the second page of the DPA (obtained through a court records request), just above his signature, were the words Coronado had hoped to find: “I understand the allegations against me. I hereby voluntarily confess that they are true.”
In 2017 Coronado hired a San Antonio psychologist, Joann Murphey, who agreed to reassess Sherry’s report. Murphey described what she saw as Sherry’s “apparent bias” against Coronado: "Where your behaviors are characterized in terms of gross psychopathology, Ed's behaviors (and how they might have affected you and/or his children) are glossed over."
Armed with Murphey’s report and the deferred prosecution agreement, in 2018, Coronado moved to modify custody again. Cunningham contended, in comments to the Austin American-Statesman as well as in his 2017 court testimony, that the DPA doesn’t represent a confession and that he only signed it to stop the custody battle from dragging on further. But last year, he offered to settle, giving Coronado nearly 50-50 custody. As of July, three of the four children were living with Coronado full time, and the fourth lived in an off-campus apartment.
For Coronado, it marked the resolution of an epic fight, but there was broader fallout from the case. In late 2014, shortly before losing custody of her sons, she had filed a complaint against Artis with one of her two licensing boards. She argued that Artis’s behavior “indicates a bias on behalf of my ex-husband who is 100% responsible for her fees,” and claimed that Artis had worked with Cunningham and his attorney to craft the alienation argument against her. That complaint, Coronado said, had quickly been turned against her, cited in court arguments and Sherry’s report to suggest that she was unstable and conflict-driven, and couldn’t take responsibility for her own actions. But in 2019, more than four years later, committees for both Artis’s boards, overseeing marriage and family therapists and personal counselors, proposed suspending her licenses. Coronado sent the boards additional information about Artis’s “dual relationship” with Cunningham, including that she’d conducted his court-ordered therapy after testifying in his favor, and that she’d posted effusive comments on Boone’s social media pages. In October, Artis agreed to the “disciplinary surrender” of one of her licenses. And this February, following an internal review process, the second board found Artis had violated codes governing professional boundaries and relationships, and accepted the disciplinary surrender of her counselor’s license as well.
Separately, in 2019, at a heated public quarterly meeting of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, Sherry announced she would no longer accept any court appointments for custody or psychological evaluations because of a barrage of “frivolous, expensive, and time consuming board complaints.” In the audience, a number of Sherry’s former clients burst into applause. Roughly a dozen parents also spoke, many alleging that Sherry had evaluated them or their children in ways that echoed Coronado’s claims, including two who said Sherry had improperly diagnosed them with borderline personality disorder.
In a later interview, Sherry clarified that while she intends to stop taking family law appointments, she is still working on some. She pointed out that conducting court-ordered forensic evaluations is almost inherently guaranteed to anger one side or the other. The parents who have criticized her, she said, comprise an organized campaign of disgruntled former clients using regulatory board complaints as a litigation and harassment tactic.
Coronado’s fight to obtain the deferred prosecution agreement also revealed a larger issue with the way Travis County handled domestic violence complaints—relying on the secretive agreements in roughly 20 percent of cases as of 2017 and generating complaints that sentences were too light. With the help of government transparency attorney Bill Aleshire, Coronado filed numerous open records requests seeking to uncover what they believed were thousands of DPAs issued by the county prosecutor.
Since the news of her fight for the deferred prosecution agreement was published, Coronado finds herself receiving regular calls from women across the country, asking how she manages to still see her kids. They haven’t seen theirs, they say, in 18 months, or five years. Sometimes, she said, it’s hard to listen. They sound like she did four years ago: the same frantic urgency; the same conviction—which she now considers naive—that they can win if they make the court understand.
Recently, Coronado said, a woman who had supervised her custody visits asked if she’d speak to another of her clients—a mother who’d been on supervised visitation for a year-and-a-half, but could no longer afford to pay for it, and was about to forfeit the right to see her children at all. The supervisor hoped Coronado could offer some advice.
“She said I’d basically won,” Coronado said, floored by the suggestion. “I feel so broken and humiliated by the whole process that it’s amazing someone thinks I won.”