How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Maine

Learn more about domestic violence and its impact on custody decisions in Maine.

The Maine legislature believes that domestic abuse is a serious crime that produces an unhealthy and dangerous environment for children. Abuse in the household is not conducive to healthy childhood development. For this reason, the legislature allows courts to consider domestic violence when deciding child custody.

This article will explain how the Maine legislature 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 Maine

In all custody cases, Maine courts must determine "legal custody," referring to which parent has the responsibility to make major decisions on the child's behalf, and "physical custody," meaning where the child primarily lives and his or her visitation schedule with the other parent.

Courts won't automatically prefer one parent over the other. Instead, judges make custody decisions based on the child's best interests. The judge can consider all of the following factors when making custody decisions:

  • the child's age
  • the child's relationship with parents and any other people who may significantly affect the child's welfare
  • the child's preference, if old enough to have a meaningful opinion
  • the length of time the child has lived with each parent
  • the stability of each parent's household
  • each parent's ability to give the child love, affection, and guidance
  • the child's adjustment to his or her current home, school, and community
  • each parent's willingness to encourage a child's positive relationship with the other parent and cooperate in child care
  • any parental history of child or sexual abuse
  • the criminal history of any person living with either parent
  • domestic violence between the parents, and
  • any other factor affecting the physical and psychological well-being of the child.

What is Domestic Violence?

Maine law defines domestic violence, also called "domestic abuse" in Maine, as violence between family or household members, or dating partners, including:

  • causing bodily injury or offensive physical contact (including sexual assault)
  • threatening bodily injury or offensive physical contact
  • forcing a person to commit acts against their will
  • unlawful confinement or kidnapping, or
  • stalking.

What to Do When There is Domestic Violence

If you have just been abused or are in immediate fear of violence, you should call 911.

If your child's other parent has abused you or your someone in your household in the past, and you are afraid of future domestic violence, you should obtain a "Protective Order," which is a court order that prohibits an abusive parent from committing any future violence.

A protection order may include the following provisions:

  • direct the abusive parent to refrain from threatening, assaulting, molesting, harassing, attacking, stalking, or otherwise abusing the other parent and any children
  • prohibit the abusive parent from owning a firearm or other dangerous weapon
  • prohibit the abusive parent from visiting the other parent's home, school, business, or place of employment
  • order the abusive parent to have no direct or indirect contact with the other parent
  • evict the abusive parent from the household
  • award the abused parent possession of a residence, vehicles, pets, or other property
  • require the abusive parent to attend a batterers' intervention program or other counseling
  • order the abusive parent to provide financial support for the other parent and any children, and
  • order the abusive parent to pay the abused parent's attorney's fees.

To apply for a protective order, go to the county district court where either you or your abuser lives, and ask the clerk for a "Protection From Abuse Complaint." You should also tell the clerk you need to apply for a "Temporary Protection Order."

After you complete the forms and give them to the clerk, a judge will review your forms. If the judge believes that you or someone in your household is in danger of violence, he or she will issue a temporary protection order and schedule a hearing within 21 days. Both you and your abuser must attend the hearing. If you prove you are still in danger at that hearing, the court will issue a protection from abuse order.

The protective order can last up to two years. The court can extend the order at the end of the two-year period if the abused parent or children need further protection. If a parent violates the protective order, he or she can be arrested and/or fined.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has a 24-hour hotline, and several other resources for victims of domestic abuse on their website. The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence also has resources on their website.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Custody Decisions

At the beginning of every custody case, each parent must notify the court if either parent has had any court proceedings relating to domestic violence, protective orders, or termination of parental rights with other children.

The court will only award custody to a parent who has committed domestic abuse if the court believes that it is in the child's best interest, and that both the child and abused parent can be protected.

If a parent left a child with the other parent to escape domestic violence, the judge won't consider that parent's absence when deciding custody.

The court will presume that visitation with a parent who is a convicted sex offender is not in a child's best interest. The court will only give a sex offender parent visitation with a child when the court can ensure that the child will be protected. The court may order that a third party supervise all visits between the child and sex offender parent.

Visitation Restrictions

When a parent has committed domestic violence, the court can order certain protections for the other parent and child. These protections include:

  • appointing a parenting coordinator to ensure that parents follow the court order during visitation
  • ordering that child exchanges occur in a protected setting
  • ordering either parent to abstain from drinking alcohol or using controlled substances 24 hours before each visit and during visitation
  • ordering supervised visitation (all visits between the abusive parent and the child are monitored by a third party)
  • ordering the abusive parent to pay supervised visitation costs
  • ordering the abusive parent to post a bond to ensure he or she returns the child safely after visitation
  • ordering the abusive parent to attend counseling
  • prohibiting overnight visitation between the child and abusive parent, and
  • ordering any other condition necessary to protect the child, abused parent, or any other family member or household member.

When the court orders supervised visitation, the judge can require that a supervising agency is present for visitation or allow a family member to supervise visits. The court may also take steps to:

  • limit the amount of time that the family of the abusive parent supervises visits
  • ensure that visitation doesn't damage the child's relationship with the abused parent, and
  • require that the supervisor has no criminal history or history of abuse or neglect.

Termination of Parental Rights

In severe cases of domestic violence, the court may choose to terminate parental rights. The court may order a termination of parental rights when a parent has previously had custody taken away from him or her for severe abuse, and one of the following:

  • the parent is unwilling or unable to protect a child from danger
  • the parent is unwilling or unable to provide for the child's needs, or
  • the parent has abandoned the child.

The court will presume that a parent's parental rights should be terminated when a parent commits any of the following crimes against a child:

  • intentional death of another child (including murder or manslaughter)
  • aggravated assault
  • rape or other sexual assault or abuse
  • promotion of prostitution, or
  • kidnapping.

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

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