How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Iowa

Learn more about domestic violence and how it impacts custody decisions in Iowa.

By , Attorney · Harvard Law School
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Domestic violence is the single greatest cause of women's injuries in Iowa. The Supreme Court of Iowa has stated that because domestic abuse reflects partners' ability to listen to one another and respect one another's feelings and opinions, domestic violence is a major factor when determining child custody.

This article explains how Iowa defines domestic violence and how it affects custody decisions. If you have additional questions after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney for help.

Child Custody in Iowa

Iowa judges deciding custody cases must determine how to award both legal and physical custody to parents. Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make decisions affecting a child's legal status, medical care, education, and activities. Physical custody refers to the time a child spends with each parent and the day-to-day care for the child.

The court can award joint custody to both parents or sole custody to one parent or the other. Iowa judges can consider all of the following when deciding custody:

  • each parent's ability to take care of the child
  • the child's psychological and emotional needs, and how they are affected by contact with each parent
  • the parents' communication about the child's needs
  • each parent's previous care for the child
  • each parent's support of the child's relationship with the other parent
  • the child's wishes, considering the child's age and maturity
  • the parents' wishes
  • the parents' proximity to each other
  • the child's safety
  • whether either parent is a sex offender, and
  • whether there is a history of domestic violence in the household.

What is Domestic Violence?

Iowa defines domestic violence as any assault between family or household members. The definition of assault includes:

  • any act intended to cause physical injury, or insulting or offensive contact
  • any act intended to cause another person to be in fear of physical injury or insulting or offensive contact, or
  • pointing a firearm at another person or threatening with any dangerous weapon.

Family or household members include:

  • spouses and divorced couples
  • parents of the same child
  • family or household members who lived together at the time of the assault or within the past year, and
  • people currently in a dating relationship, or in a dating relationship within the past year.

What to Do When There is Domestic Violence

If you have just experienced domestic violence or are in fear of immediate violence, you should dial 911 for help.

If you are in fear of future violence, you should obtain a "Civil Protection Order." A civil protection order prohibits your abuser form contacting you, and may include other conditions on his or her behavior. A protection order may include the following provisions:

  • order your attacker to stay away from you, your home, and your place of work
  • grant you custody of any children and child support
  • order professional counseling for you, your children, and/or your attacker.

You can get a civil protection order by visiting your local county district court clerk's office and asking for a "Petition for Civil Protection Order." A judge will review your petition, and if he or she believes you are in danger, the court will issue a temporary protective order, that will last until your hearing. Your protection order hearing will be scheduled 7 to 15 days after the temporary protective order.

At the hearing, your abuser can either agree to the civil protection order or request a hearing. If your abuser requests a hearing, you'll need to testify to the judge why you are afraid for your safety or your household's safety. If the judge agrees that you are in danger, the court will issue a civil protection order lasting one year. If your abuser violates that order, he or she can be arrested, sentenced to up to a year in jail, and fined.

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a 24-hour hotline and other resources on its website. You can also find domestic violence resources in your local area. The Domestic Violence Intervention Program of Iowa and Children and Families of Iowa also both have resources on their website.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Custody Decisions

If there is a history of domestic abuse in your home, the court begins its custody decision with a presumption that the abusive parent having custody is not in the child's best interest. At the beginning of each case, the court requires both parents to state whether either parent has had court proceedings relating to domestic violence, protective orders, or termination of parental rights with other children.

Domestic abuse outweighs all other factors when the court decides custody. The court must consider any claims of domestic violence before awarding either parent custody. If a parent is absent from the child's home based on fear of domestic violence, that absence won't be a factor in the court's decision.

Severe domestic abuse may cause a court to prohibit the abusive parent from having visitation with the child altogether.

Visitation Restrictions

If a court does grant an abusive parent visitation, the judge can order certain conditions to protect the abused parent and child. The court may:

  • order that the custodial parent's address and other information remain confidential from an abusive parent
  • order other restrictions on visitation, such as limiting the amount of time of visitation, or requiring that visitation be supervised
  • prohibit a parent from drinking alcohol before or during visitation
  • prohibit an abusive parent from taking the child out of state
  • order an abusive parent to attend batterer's education, therapy, or counseling before any visitation begins, and
  • require the abuser to post a bond to ensure he or she complies with visitation restrictions.

The court will not grant visitation to a parent who has been convicted of a sex offense against a minor while the parent is incarcerated. A judge may grant a parent who has been convicted of a sex offense against a minor after release from prison only after the parent completes a treatment program approved by the court.

Termination of Parental Rights

The court may terminate a parent's parental rights in extreme cases of abuse. If the court finds that a parent physically or sexually abused a child, and the abuse continues after that finding, the court may order the end of the child-parent relationship.

There may be other circumstances where a court terminates parental rights of an abusive parent; speak to a local family law attorney if you have specific questions.

If you have other questions about domestic violence and child custody in Iowa, contact a local family law attorney.

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