Studies show that 30% to 60% of parents who have abused their intimate partner have also abused their children. Because of statistics like this, courts are generally very careful when giving custody or visitation to a parent who has committed domestic violence.
This article explains how domestic violence is defined in the District of Columbia and what its affect is on custody decisions. If you have additional questions after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney for help.
D.C. has two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make decisions that impact a child's education, physical and psychological health, and general welfare, as well as the right to speak with the child's school officials, health care providers, and mental health experts. Physical custody refers to the child's living arrangements, including a child's legal residence and visitation schedule with his or her parents.
The most common type of custody is joint custody, meaning parents share decision-making responsibilities and the child spends time with both parents. Courts can also order sole legal and/or sole physical custody when a judge believes it's in the child's best interest to stay with just one parent. For more information on custody determinations, see Child Custody in D.C.: Best Interests of the Child.
D.C. judges consider several factors when determining legal and physical custody:
Domestic violence in D.C. (also called "intrafamily violence") is defined as any crime involving physical violence, sexual abuse, or threats of physical violence or sexual abuse against a relative by blood, adoption, legal custody, marriage or domestic partnership, or against someone with whom the abuser has an intimate relationship or a child.
D.C. has several organizations you can contact if you are a victim of domestic violence. My Sister's Place has a 24-hour hotline victims may call, and there is a National Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline also available to D.C. residents. The D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence can provide assistance if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence. You can also access a list of domestic violence resources on the D.C. government website.
You should call 911 if you are in immediate danger. If you have experienced domestic violence and are afraid of future violence in your home, you should get a "Civil Protection Order" (CPO). The CPO orders your abuser to stop violence and threats against you or face up to a year in jail. The CPO can last up to one year.
To get a CPO in D.C., the domestic violence incident needs to have occurred in D.C., and you need to either live or work in D.C. Arrive at the Domestic Violence Intake Center as early as possible since the process can take a few hours; the center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. You will speak to a judge, who can immediately issue a temporary CPO (lasting until your hearing). The court will also set a hearing date your abuser must attend, where the judge may issue a year-long CPO.
D.C. courts begin with the presumption that a domestic violence offender should not have custody of a child. In most cases, the court will grant legal and physical custody to the parent who did not commit domestic violence. If a parent has committed domestic violence, it's that parent's burden to prove that receiving custody or visitation rights will not harm the other parent or the child.
At the beginning of every custody case in D.C., both parents must give the court any information about domestic violence in the household, including any protection orders, police reports, and other evidence of abuse.
Once you notify the court that your child's other parent has committed domestic violence, the judge must decide whether abuse occurred before giving visitation or custody to your abuser. If a judge believes domestic violence occurred, the judge can only give the abuser visitation if:
A D.C. court will never grant visitation to a parent convicted of conceiving the child by rape or sexual abuse.
If a judge grants visitation to a parent who has committed domestic violence, the judge will also decide the visitation conditions needed to protect you and your child. A judge may order that any visitation with an abusive parent be supervised. Supervised visitation means that a third party must be present during the entire visitation period between the abusive parent and child. Normally, the abusive parent must pay the supervisor's fees.
In extreme cases of domestic violence, a judge may decide that the parent-child relationship should be ended – this is called "termination of parental rights." Termination of parental rights is rare, and typically happens only when the judge believes that the child is in serious danger.
Before terminating parental rights, the judge will consider all factors that affect the physical, mental, and emotional needs of the child, the quality of the relationship between the child and remaining parent or guardian, as well as the child's opinion.
If you have other specific questions about domestic violence and child custody in the District of Columbia, contact a local family law attorney for advice.