Domestic Violence and Child Custody

Last updated August 2012

Research shows that 30 to 60 percent of children living in homes where domestic violence occurs are also physically or sexually abused.[i] Even children who are exposed to domestic violence, but not directly abused themselves, exhibit emotional and behavioral problems, trauma symptoms and compromised social and academic development comparable to children who are direct victims.[ii]

Men who assault their partners parent differently from other men.[iii] They tend to be under-involved with their children, use negative parenting practices such as spanking, shaming and displaying anger toward their children.[iv] They undermine and interfere with the other parent’s authority,[v] and are generally poor role models for developing healthy relationships and conflict resolution. [vi] Unfortunately, compared to non-batterering fathers, batterers are more likely to seek custody of their children, "and they may misuse the legal system as a symbolic battleground for continuing abuse through harassing and retaliatory litigation."[vii]
Aside from court proceedings that involve child abuse or neglect, there are five main points where issues of child custody intersect with domestic violence, including (1) when victims seek protective orders; (2) during divorce proceedings; (3) when parenting time is being decided; (4) when child protective services become involved with the family; and (5) when a parent removes a child from one country to another because of domestic violence. There are different considerations at each of these points, but the common goal in each situation should be the best interests of the child and the safety of the non-violent parent.
Women seeking orders for protection may have a variety of child custody concerns. This fear is not unfounded, since some domestic violence laws do not automatically grant temporary custody to the non-violent parent, and in many places, the woman's parenting history is then subjected to the scrutiny of child protective services. >>Learn more 
Divorce from a domestic abuser often involves a lengthy and difficult child custody battle. Unfortunately, for many women, this is an uphill battle, since abusive parents will often use custody proceedings as a way to continue a campaign of coercion and control against a former spouse. >>Learn more
Parenting time must be considered both when a victim who is a parent seeks a protective order and when the parents divorce. Women who are experiencing domestic violence may have unique parenting time considerations that should be taken into account before a court grants visitation rights. >>Learn more
In many locations throughout the world, shedding light on a domestic violence situation instigates an investigation by Child Protective Services. For many battered women, the investigation may place blame on them for allowing the children to witness the violence, which may ultimately even lead to removal of the children. >>Learn more
In an effort to protect their children, battered women may attempt to remove the children from the country and seek refuge in a new location out of reach of the abuser. Before doing so, women should understand the implications of The Hague Convention, under which moving the children to a new country may be considered an illegal abduction. >>Learn more
Additional resources are available on a variety of domestic violence topics, including the batterer as "parent," protective orders, divorce, parenting time, child protective services, the Hague Convention, and more. >>Learn more

[i] Edleson, J.L., “The Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Woman Battering, Violence Against Women Vol. 5, No. 2, (1999), pp. 134-154; Appel, A.E., & G.W. Holden, “The Co-Occurrence of Spouse and Physical Child Abuse: A Review and Appraisal, J. Fam. Psychol., Vol. 12, No. 4, (1998), pp. 578-599, cited in Violence Against Women in the United States and the State’s Obligation to Protect, Civil Society briefing papers on community, military and custody submitted to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo in advance of her Mission to the United States of America January 24 – February 7, 2011, at p. 57, para. 66,
[ii] Edleson, J.L.  “Children’s Witnessing of Adult Domestic Violence, J. Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 14, No. 8, (1999), pp. 839-70; U.N. Children’s Fund, “Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children”, (2006), ; Jaffe, P.G., D.A. Wolfe & S.K. Wilson, Children of Battered Women, Developmental Clinical Psychology & Psychiatry No. 21, Sage Publications, (1990), all cited in Violence Against Women in the United States, at p. 57, para. 66.
[iii] Edleson, J.L. & O.J. Williams (eds.), Parenting by Men Who Batter: New Directions for Assessment and Intervention, (2007), cited in Violence Against Women in the United States, at para. 67.
[iv] Holden, G.W.  & K.L. Ritchie, “Linking Extreme Marital Discord, Child Rearing, and Child Behavior Problems: Evidence from Battered Women, Child Development, Vol. 62, Issue 2, (1991), pp. 311-327; Holden, G.W. ,  J.D. Stein, K.L. Ritchie, S.D. Harris & E.N. Juries, “Parenting Behaviors and Beliefs of Battered Women,”in Children Exposed to Marital Violence: Theory, Research and Applied Issues,  p. 185, (G.W. Holden, R. Geffner & E.N. Juries eds., 1998), all cited in Violence Against Women in the United States, at p. 57, para. 67.
[v] Bancroft, L. & J. Silverman, The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics, Sage Publications, (2002); Levendosky, A.A. & S.A. Graham-Bergmann, “Mothers’ Perceptions of the Impact of Abuse on their Parenting,” Violence Against Women, Vol. 6, No.3, (2000), pp. 247-271, all cited in Violence Against Women in the United States, at p. 57, para. 67.
[vi] Jaffe, P.G. , C.V. Crooks & N. Bala, “A Framework for Addressing Allegations of Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputes,” J. Child Custody, Vol. 6, (2009), pp. 169-188, cited in Violence Against Women in the United States, at p. 57, para. 67.
Judith M. Reichler & Nancy S. Erickson, Custody, Domestic Violence and a Child's Preference, in Domestic Violence Report, vol. 8, no. 5, 65, 66 (June/July 2003) (citing L. Bancroft & J.G. Silverman, The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics 98-129 (2002)).