How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Missouri

Learn how domestic violence can affect decisions about custody and visitation in Missouri, including when judges may allow an abusive parent to see a child or have parenting time.

By , Legal Editor
Considering Divorce? We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
First Name is required
First Name is required

Disputes over child custody can be difficult enough, but they become especially wrenching whenever there are accusations of domestic violence or child abuse. Learn how any history of abuse in a family—or crimes against children—will affect awards of custody or visitation in Missouri.

Abuse as a Factor in Judges' Decisions on Custody or Visitation

If parents haven't been able to agree on a parenting plan as part of their divorce or other custody case, a judge will have to decide for them. Under Missouri's law on child custody, judges must start by assuming that it would be in the best interests of children for their parents to have equal (or about equal) parenting time—unless a parent has proved otherwise.

Judges must consider certain factors when they're deciding if a custody arrangement other than equal parenting time would actually be best for the kids. One of those factors is any history of abuse or domestic violence in the family. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.375.2 (2023).)

A parent who doesn't get physical custody (meaning the child will live with the other parent) is usually entitled to reasonable visitation—but not if the judge finds that the visitation would endanger the child's physical health or emotional development. The judge must consider evidence that the parent has engaged in domestic violence. (Mo. Rev Stat. § 452.400.1 (2023).)

How Does Missouri Law Define Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence doesn't mean only physical violence. Under Missouri law, it includes a wide range of behaviors against a family or household member, including:

  • assaulting or threatening with physical harm
  • sexual assault
  • stalking
  • confining the victim against their will, or forcing them to do something against their will, and
  • injuring or threatening to hurt a family pet in order to upset a family or household member.

However, the law makes it clear that accidentally hurting a child during reasonable discipline (including spanking) isn't considered abuse. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 455.010 (2023).)

Can Missouri Judges Award Custody or Visitation to an Abusive Parent?

Just because judges in Missouri must consider any history of domestic violence when making custody decisions, that doesn't mean they can never award custody or visitation to an abusive parent. But if they conclude that it would be in the child's best interests to spend time with the parent, the judges must make sure that their custody or visitation orders include provisions to protect the child from future harm—such as supervised visitation with a responsible adult who's appointed by the court. The orders must also protect any other children to whom the abusive parent has access and any other domestic violence victim in the family or household.

However, Missouri law absolutely forbids awarding custody or unsupervised visitation to any parent who has been found (or pled) guilty to certain serious crimes against children, including child molestation, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, child abuse involving head trauma, incest, rape, female genital mutilation, and trafficking. The same prohibition applies if someone living with the parent is guilty of any of those crimes.

(Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 452.375.2(6), 452.375.3, 452.400.1, 452.400.2 (2023).)

When Can Missouri Courts Take Children Away From Abusive Parents?

If someone has reported that a child is being abused or neglected, the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services will investigate and may remove the child from the home of the parent or parents. If the parents are divorced or separated, the agency may place the child with the non-abusive parent or another relative.

In all but the most serious cases—such as when a parent murdered another child—the agency will make every effort to help parents get back with their kids by addressing the problems that led to the removal. But if those reunification services aren't successful, the juvenile court might eventually terminate the parental rights of the abusive parent. Termination of parental rights is a drastic action that prevents a parent from ever regaining the right to see a child, much less regain custody. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 411.477 (2023).)

Getting Help With Domestic Abuse and Custody

If you're involved in a custody battle and believe that your co-parent has been abusive, a Missouri family law attorney who's experienced with cases involving domestic violence and abuse can help protect both you and your child. If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, you may be able to get legal help from one of the services in Missouri for domestic violence victims. For instance:

By the same token, if you're a parent who's been wrongly accused of abuse as part of a divorce or other custody proceeding, you should strongly consider speaking with an attorney who can help protect your custody or visitation rights. If you believe that your co-parent has brainwashed your child into making false abuse accusations (what some people call parental alienation), your lawyer may ask the judge to order you and the child to participate in reunification therapy.

Considering Divorce?
Talk to a Divorce attorney.
We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you