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Top Ten Tips for Handling Child Custody Cases Involving Domestic Violence

January 17, 2012


Top Ten Tips for Handling Child Custody Cases Involving Domestic Violence

By Loretta Frederick, JD and Gabrielle Davis, JD

Recent research confirms what many experienced practitioners know: intimate partner violence can have serious effects on children who are directly exposed to the violence or who are living with parents who use violence and coercive controls to manage family relationships. Increasingly, practitioners recognize that they need to know whether these potentially damaging qualities are present in families and to handle cases in a way that decreases future harm to children and victim parents. But not all domestic violence affects children or adult victims in the same ways and, therefore, parenting arrangements must be tailored to reflect the actual experiences of each family member, especially each child. The following are tips for ensuring that children exposed to domestic violence have safe and healthy futures.

Determine the context and full meaning of the violence to the family. Recognizing that not all domestic violence is the same, it is important to find out: (a) what the perpetrator intended by the violence, including whether the purpose of the violence was to terrorize, dominate and control; (b) what meaning the victim parent takes from the violence; and (c) what effect the violence has on the victim parent and the children. Identifying coercive controlling abuse is particularly critical because such abusers often parent in ways that have lasting negative effects on children and make joint parenting very problematic.

Screen every case for domestic violence. Even though it seems counter-intuitive, many true victims (even those who have experienced ongoing and serious domestic violence) decline to disclose it to custody practitioners, even their own attorneys. Some victims feel that no one will believe them, some do not understand why it would be relevant, some have been told not to raise the issue, and some fear repercussions from disclosure. Many will disclose only after time and following the establishment of trust with the practitioner, so screening at various points in the case can be helpful.

Use screening tools or guides to help you screen for domestic violence and to assess the full implications of the violence for future parenting arrangements. Recent research confirms that relying on one’s own clinical instinct or “gut feeling” to decide whether domestic violence is an issue in a case is not a trustworthy screening method, even for experienced professionals. Asking behavior-specific questions is more likely to uncover domestic violence and elicit full disclosure than asking general questions. There are many screening tools and guides available to practitioners, some of which have been designed to meet specific needs, such as risk or danger assessment, or to be applied in limited practice settings, such as mediation.

For the purpose of considering what dispute resolution methods will be most appropriate and helpful in a case, understand the features and characteristics of the domestic violence. Not all cases are equally well-suited for certain dispute resolution alternatives. For example, coercive controlling abusers focused on domination may be ill-suited to participate in facilitative processes that require good faith negotiation, full disclosure, and centralizing the interests of the children. Domestic abuse may also affect decisions about the best timing for moving from one stage of dispute resolution to another in the case.

Ensure that parenting arrangements account for the connection between the features of the domestic violence (including its severity and context) and the parenting of the abusive parent. Because the decision to use violence against a partner may also signal problematic or even dangerous attitudes and beliefs about parenting and children, it is critical to explore the extent to which the abusive parent has engaged in behaviors that have negative effects on the children. Familiarize yourself with the ground-breaking writing that has been done in the last few years on this topic. Learn about how adult victims of domestic violence can have parenting problems that may relate directly to the abuse and what kinds of interventions can have the most benefit for the children’s long-term welfare and welfare of the other non-violent or secondarily violent parent. Remember when considering the propriety and workability of co-parenting arrangements that a history of coercive controlling abuse raises red flags.

Recognize and account for the fact that families that have experienced domestic violence are often drawn into multiple, sometimes conflicting systems. Domestic violence cases are simultaneously or serially processed across multiple systems, including the criminal justice system, civil legal system, child protection system, healthcare system, government benefit system, and various social service systems. The interventions offered across these systems are often fragmented and poorly coordinated. For instance, the criminal justice system often expects a victim parent to leave and testify against the abuser. The child protection system often expects that same victim to obtain a protection order to keep the abuser away from the children. At the same time, the family court system might expect the victim parent to foster a close and continuing relationship between the children and their other parent. These competing expectations can create impossible conflicts for the abused parent. The parent cannot simultaneously insist on having no contact with the abuser and maintain close and continuing contact with the abuser at the very same time. Practitioners must be mindful that multiple intervention systems have the potential for creating conflicting expectations for parties and sending mixed messages to all family members.

Be mindful of the past, focused on the present and realistic about the future. Longstanding patterns of abuse and coercive control are rarely altered in the absence of appropriate and proven interventions. Some abusers never change, although many can with help and as an outcome of accountability measures which encourage them to think differently about how they relate to their children and partners. It is important to resist the assumption that parenting problems related to domestic violence will evaporate simply because the relationship between the parents is dissolved. Instead, help to create a parenting arrangement that is realistic and workable and considers all relevant factors, including the behavior and characteristics of the abusive parent and what it says about his or her likely future approach to parenting.

Centralize and focus on the real life experiences and needs of each parent and child, including the risks presented or faced by them. Attempt to see the system and the world from the perspectives of each parent and child and account for their actual concerns in resolving the matter instead of succumbing to the temptation to jump to conclusions about what the child and parent have experienced and what they need.

Respect people’s ability to make their own critical life decisions, including the methods for current and future dispute resolution they prefer. Facilitate the restoration of a domestic violence victim’s agency and autonomy by providing full information and helping them to weigh their options.

Make referrals to appropriate services, including detailed risk assessment and individualized safety planning whenever domestic violence is identified. About half of all domestic violence deaths were not foreseen or feared by the victim. Information about risk factors can make all the difference in a victim’s ability to protect herself or himself from serious injury.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa permalink
    May 17, 2012 9:04 pm

    That is perfect I would love to have that forwarded to my email. I am in a terrible situation and my children have a GAD, and all sides with domestic violence being involved are not being heard or helped! Nice to know you are giving words to help all involved to stop the cycle.

  2. Debbie permalink
    July 12, 2012 5:56 am

    Debbie… coercive control? Can you give me your definition for my son? Just a definition is all I ask

  3. July 25, 2012 6:25 pm

    My little girl lives with her Father in and step mother in Ocala Flordia and is being abused by her step mother and I haven’t seen by lil princess in 2 1- 2 yrs… So I’m wondering what I can do bout it

    • rich permalink
      January 17, 2014 3:48 pm

      Contact me at 9542437820. Motion the court for a social investigation – FS 61.20

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