Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive and threatening behaviors, the goal of which is to establish and maintain power and control over another person. Domestic violence can affect every aspect of a victim’s life. Domestic violence can also affect your children, even if they don’t see the violence themselves. For these reasons, a court considers any occurrence of domestic violence when making a decision about child custody.
This article provides an overview of how domestic violence affects child custody in Michigan. For more frequently asked questions about child custody in Michigan, read Michigan Child Custody FAQs. If you are a victim of domestic violence, there are many organizations available to help you. You can find a complete list of organizations throughout Michigan that assist victims of domestic violence at the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence website.
Determining Custody in Michigan
When two parents come to court to ask the court to decide which one should get custody, neither parent has a superior right or claim to custody. Instead, the judge makes a custody determination based on “the best interest of the child.” In Michigan, there are a number of factors listed in the law that the judge must consider to determine what custody arrangement is in a child’s best interest. The best interest factors are:
- the love, affection, and emotional tie between each parent and the child,
- the capacity of each parent to continue the child’s education and raise the child in his or her religion, if any,
- the capacity of each parent to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, and other material needs,
- the length of time the child has lived in a stable environment and the desirability of maintaining that environment,
- the permanence of the existing or proposed custodial home,
- the moral fitness of each parent,
- the mental and physical health of each parent,
- the home, school, and community record of the child,
- the preference of the child, if the child is old enough to express a preference,
- the willingness and ability of each parent to encourage a close relationship between the child and the other parent,
- domestic violence, regardless of whether it was witnessed by or directed against the child, and
- any other factors that the court considers relevant to the particular custody dispute.
For the full text of the statute governing “best interests,” see MCLA 722.23. None of the factors is any more important than the others. Rather, the judge has to consider every custody dispute based on the particular facts of that case. For each factor, the judge essentially weighs each parent against the other and then evaluates each parent overall in order to determine which parent should have custody.
The Complexities of Domestic Violence
As stated, domestic violence is a factor that the court must consider in making a child custody determination. However, domestic violence is a complicated issue that includes more than just hitting.
There is no one definition of domestic violence. In order to be considered domestic violence, two people having some family or intimate relationship must be involved. For example, domestic violence can occur between siblings, between a parent and a child, between two people who are dating but unmarried, between spouses, between people who have a child together or even between people who live together.
Furthermore, domestic violence includes many actions, including, but not limited to:
- physical abuse
- sexual assault
- emotional abuse
- control of freedom or money
- threats of violence and harm
- stalking, and
There are things that you (or an attorney on your behalf) can do to try and get you safe and punish the abuser. Committing certain acts of domestic violence are punishable as criminal offenses in Michigan. If found guilty, the abuser may have to pay a fine or serve jail time. The court will also usually give you, the victim, a personal protection order (“PPO”). For the full text of the statute governing PPOs, see MCLA 600.2950.
PPOs limit the interaction between the abuser and the victim by ordering the abuser to:
- stay away from the home, work, school, and person of the victim
- refrain from calling or engaging in any form of communication with the victim
- refrain from threatening, assaulting, injuring, or stalking the victim, and
- refrain from interfering with the care and custody of children shared in common with the victim.
You can also file a petition for a PPO in circuit court or family court, even if you don’t have a pending case against the abuser.
The Impact of Domestic Violence on Custody Determinations
Domestic violence is only one factor that the court will consider in making a custody determination in Michigan. This is true even if your children were not victims and even if your children didn’t see the violence. Because domestic violence is only one factor for consideration, an abusive spouse may be granted some parenting time (also called “visitation”) and even sometimes custody.
Michigan law assumes that it is in the best interests of your child to have a close relationship with both parents. In fact, most children of parents in abusive relationships still have a close bond with the abusive parent. Therefore, even if you are awarded custody of your child, your child’s other parent will usually still be granted parenting time with the child. In extreme cases, where you can prove that your child’s physical, mental or emotional health would be in danger if parenting time were granted, then parenting time may be refused or limited. For the full text of the statute governing parenting time, see MCLA 722.27a.
Depending on the situation, a judge can order "supervised visitation," which means that parenting time between the child and abusive parent occur only under special circumstances. For example, the judge can order that a social worker observe the visitation to determine whether the abuser is appropriate with the child. The judge could also order that a third party, like a grandparent or friend, supervise the parenting time between the child and abusive parent.
If you’re not concerned about the other parent being violent towards the child, but you’re concerned about your own safety while exchanging the child, the judge might order that exchanges take place at a police precinct or at a supervised exchange center, if one is available in your community. However, these options are usually only temporary and the other parent may eventually be granted unsupervised parenting with the child, except in extraordinary circumstances.