When domestic violence occurs, it can destroy the lives of everyone involved and also affect who gets custody of children after a breakup or divorce.
This article will explain what domestic violence is and how it affects child custody. If you have any questions after you read this article, consult with a family law attorney for advice.
Domestic violence comes in many forms, both physical and emotional. Missouri law provides that domestic abuse includes all of the following behaviors:
People sometimes don’t seek help for domestic violence because they aren’t sure they have a close enough relationship with the abuser to get protection. Missouri protects “family and household members” from domestic violence. Family and household members include:
If you’re a victim of domestic violence, you can go to court and ask for a domestic abuse protection order. For more information, see this pamphlet from the Missouri Attorney General.
Missouri has lots of assistance for victims of domestic violence. The Missouri Bar Association has written a free online handbook entitled “Domestic Violence and the Law: A Practical Guide for Survivors.” Legal Services of Missouri, a legal aid organization, and A.A.R.D.V.A.R.C. (An Abuse, Rape, and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection) maintain listings of domestic violence information. The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence also maintains a geographic listing of service providers who can give direct assistance to victims of abuse.
Finally, victims can always call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800799-7233. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In Missouri, there are two kinds of custody: legal and physical. Physical custody is simply where the children will live. Legal custody, on the other hand, refers to a parent’s legal right to make major life decisions (e.g., medical, educational, cultural) for children. In all custody cases, judges have to decide which one of the following arrangements is in the children’s best interests:
The judge makes a decision about what’s in a child’s best interests by examining evidence about all of the following factors and issuing a written order:
Clearly, domestic violence is a factor in the court’s custody decisions. However, just because there’s been domestic violence in a relationship doesn’t mean that the abuser is absolutely barred from receiving custody. An abuser can theoretically still get sole or joint custody if the judge rules, in a written court order, that a pattern of domestic violence has occurred and that it is nonetheless in the child’s best interests that the abusive parent receive custody. There’s one important caveat: custody and visitation rights can only be awarded in a manner that protects the child and the victim parent.
A parent, even an abusive one, can’t be denied visitation without a hearing. When the court makes its decision, itmust consider evidence of domestic violence. If there is evidence that domestic violence occurred, the court can only allow the abusive parent to have visitation if the judge specifically finds that visitation is in the best interest of the child. The judge has to consider the abusive parent’s history of inflicting harm or fear of harm on the other parent, the child, and other family and household members.
If the court believes there has been domestic violence, it can give supervised visitation to the abusive parent to keep everyone safe. Supervised visitation is monitored by a responsible adult, and the parent and child are never left alone. The judge can order the abusive parent to pay for all costs of supervised visitation. Unsupervised visitation will not be allowed until the abusive parent shows proof of treatment and rehabilitation.
If the court rules that a parent is unfit, unsuitable, or unable to be a custodian for any reason, including domestic violence, or if it is in the best interests of the child, a child can be placed with a third party, such as a trusted relative or friend. Such a placement is only temporary, until the judge can make a final decision.
The termination of parental rights means that a parent loses all rights to both physical and legal custody of his or her child. The termination of parental rights is fairly rare, and courts only use this remedy in the most extreme circumstances, for example, where a parent has subjected a child to severe abuse, including abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, or sexual abuse, or has committed similar acts against the other parent. This is also permanent, meaning a parent cannot regain parental rights once they have been lost.