How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Maryland

Learn more about domestic violence and how it impacts custody rights in Maryland.

By , Attorney · Harvard Law School
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In 2012, victims of abuse reported over 17,000 instances of domestic violence to Maryland police, and many instances of household violence are never reported. Domestic violence harms children by creating an unhealthy environment that continues the cycle of violence in those children's lives when they become adults.

Maryland law allows courts to consider household abuse when determining child custody. This article will explain how domestic violence is defined in Maryland, 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 Maryland

In each custody case, the court must decide both "legal custody," referring to which parent has the responsibility of making major decisions on the child's behalf, and "physical custody," referring to the child's legal residence and visitation schedule with each parent.

The court won't prefer one parent over the other based on gender, and will always decide custody based on what is in the child's best interest. The court will consider the following factors:

  • each parent's fitness to have custody
  • each parent's wishes
  • each parent's ability to adapt to the child's needs
  • the child's age, sex, and health
  • the child's physical, spiritual, and moral well-being
  • the child's potential environment and surroundings in each parent's household
  • the child's preference, if he or she is old enough to have a rational opinion, and
  • the influences in each parent's household that may affect the child, including a parent's history of domestic violence.

What is Domestic Violence?

Maryland law defines domestic violence as abuse against another parent, spouse, or a child in the parent's household. Abuse includes any of the following acts:

  • causing serious bodily harm
  • threatening serious bodily harm
  • assault
  • all sexual crimes
  • false imprisonment, and
  • stalking.

What to Do When There is Domestic Violence

If your child's other parent has recently abused you or someone in your household, or you are in immediate fear of domestic violence, you should dial 911.

If your child's other parent has abused you or someone in your household in the past, and you are afraid of future violence, you should obtain a "Protective Order." A "Protective Order" is an order a judge issues to restrain a person from committing domestic violence against another person.

You can apply for a protective order by visiting your county district court and asking for a form "Petition for Protective Order." After you complete and submit the form, you'll meet with a judge. If the judge believes you are in danger of violence, he or she will issue an "Interim Protective Order."

The interim order usually lasts about seven days (until a court hearing on a more permanent order can take place). The interim protective order may include the following provisions:

  • order your abuser to stop abusing, harassing, or stalking you
  • order the abuser to stay away from you, your home, your school, your job, your child's school, and your family members' homes
  • evict the abuser from your residence, and
  • grant you custody of any children.

You and your abuser must both appear at a protective order hearing. If the judge believes you are still in danger, he or she will issue a "Final Protective Order," lasting one year. In addition to the protections provided in the interim protective order, the final order may also:

  • order the abusive parent to provide financial support for you and your child
  • award you use of a vehicle
  • order the abuser to attend counseling
  • order the abuser to surrender any firearms
  • order the abuser to pay your attorney's fees and court costs, and
  • decide what, if any, visitation the abuser will have with any children.

If a parent violates the final protective order, the court can extend a protective order for up to two additional years. The abusive parent can also be incarcerated and fined.

The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence has a 24-hour hotline for abuse victims, as well as a list of domestic violence programs in each county.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Custody Decisions

At the beginning of every custody case, each parent must notify the court of any court proceedings regarding domestic violence, protective orders, or termination of parental rights of another child. The court won't award custody until it receives information about these other proceedings.

If either parent claims that the other parent has committed domestic violence, the court must determine whether abuse has occurred before awarding custody.

If the court finds that a parent has committed domestic violence, the court won't award that parent custody or unsupervised visitation unless there is no likelihood of the parent committing future abuse. The court can award supervised visitation (all visits between parent and child are supervised by a third party) if the judge believes it will ensure the safety of the child.

Visitation Restrictions

The court may order certain protections for a child or abused parent, including the following:

  • expedite the child custody case
  • order that a third party, such as an off-duty police officer, supervise visitation between the child and abusive parent
  • order the abusive parent to pay for supervised visitation, and/or
  • prohibit all visitation and contact between an abusive parent and any children

The court will not award custody or unsupervised visitation to a parent who has been convicted of murder of the other parent. The court may award supervised visitation to a parent convicted of murdering the other parent only if the judge believes it is in the child's best interest and the child can be protected.

The court will also restrict or deny visitation for a parent when the judge believes the parent is a threat to the child's health or welfare.

Termination of Parental Rights

The juvenile court may order termination of parental rights in extreme cases. The court may terminate parental rights when a parent is unfit to care for a child, and it is in the child's best interests for the child-parent relationship to end.

The court will consider the following factors when deciding to terminate a parent's parental rights:

  • chronic abuse of the other parent or child
  • chronic and life-threatening neglect of a child
  • sexual abuse of a child, and
  • torture of a child.

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

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