Domestic violence victims make over 20,000 calls to Massachusetts police each year. The Massachusetts Supreme Court has noted that there are significant psychological problems in children who witness domestic violence. Because of this, Massachusetts courts will consider each parent’s history of abuse before deciding child custody.
This article explains how Massachusetts law 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.
In custody cases, Massachusetts courts will decide “legal custody,” which refers to how parents will make major decisions regarding their child’s welfare in areas of education, medical care, and religion, and “physical custody,” referring to the child’s legal residence, visitation with each parent, and how parents will make day-to-day decisions for the child.
Judges won’t automatically prefer one parent over the other, but instead determine custody based on what's in the child’s best interests. Courts may consider any of the following factors:
Massachusetts law defines domestic violence or “abuse” as any of the following acts between parents, a parent and child, or past or present dating partners:
If a parent has committed a serious incident of abuse, or has committed abuse more than one time, the court will consider that parent an “abusive parent.”
If someone has abused you or another household member, or you are in immediate fear for your safety, you should call 911.
If someone has abused you or another household member in the past, and you are afraid of future violence, you should obtain a “Protective Order,” which is a court order meant to protect a person from abuse. In Massachusetts, a protection order is also referred to as a “restraining order,” or “abuse prevention order.”
A protection order may include any of the following provisions:
To apply for a protection order, visit your county court clerk’s office and ask for the forms for a restraining order. You can go to any superior, district, family, or probate court in your county. After you complete the form, you will meet with a judge. If the judge believes you are in danger, he or she will issue a temporary restraining order lasting 10 days.
The court will schedule a hearing within 10 days and both you and your abuser must attend. If the judge at the restraining order hearing believes you are still in danger, the court will issue a protection order lasting one year.
The court may extend the protection order at the end of the year if the victim needs further protection. If the abusive parent violates the protection order, he or she can be incarcerated and fined.
Casa Myrna has a 24-hour domestic violence hotline that abuse victims can call for help. MassResouces.org also has a list of domestic violence resources, and a list of Massachusetts shelters for abuse victims.
If either parent claims that the other parent is abusive, the court must determine whether a parent has committed domestic violence before awarding custody.
When a parent has been abusive, Massachusetts courts begin custody decisions with the presumption that the abusive parent shouldn’t have custody or visitation with the child. For an abusive parent to receive custody or visitation, he or she must prove to the court that visitation is in the child’s best interests.
When a parent has committed significant physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse, the court will usually deny custody and visitation to that parent. If the court believes that it is in the child’s best interest to have contact with that parent, the court will restrict visitation to carefully controlled situations.
When a judge grants visitation to an abusive parent, the court must provide for the safety of the child and abused parent. The court can order any of the following protections:
In extreme cases, the court may terminate an abusive parent’s parental rights. The court may consider ending the child-parent relationship in cases when:
In any of these cases, the judge will still consider the child’s best interest before ordering a termination of parental rights.
If you have other questions about domestic violence and child custody in Massachusetts, contact a local family law attorney.