How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Rhode Island

Rhode Island judges must consider domestic violence in making custody and visitation decisions.

By , Attorney

While sticks and stones may break bones, threatening and cruel words can be just as damaging, particularly to children. Both physical and emotional abuse are forms of domestic violence, and both may be considered by judges in making custody and visitation decisions.

In fact, a parent's history of domestic violence will likely affect the outcome of a custody case. And, a parent with a history of inflicting abuse may have restrictions placed on his or her visitation, including supervised visitation. This article explains the role domestic violence might have in determining child custody issues in Rhode Island. If you have questions about how these rules will play out in your case, contact a Rhode Island family law attorney.

Child Custody Orders

At the heart of any custody decision is the well being and safety of the child involved. A judge will decide what type of physical custody (which parent the child lives with) and legal custody (which parent has the right to make decisions on behalf of child) will serve the child's best interests. Domestic violence is one of several factors a judge considers when making a custody decision; it may affect the outcome of the case. (Read more about Child Custody in Rhode Island.)

What Is Domestic Violence?

Rhode Island defines domestic violence as physical violence, sexual assault, or threats to harm a household or family member. Under the domestic violence law a family or household member includes:

  • current or former spouses
  • relatives through blood or marriage
  • persons who have lived together at some point during the last three years, or
  • current dating relationship partners or those who were dating during the last year (including same-sex partners).

Seeking Help

If you or your child is a victim of domestic violence, help is available. Contact the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence for shelter and resource information. Additionally, the Sojourner House of Rhode Island offers a 24-hour helpline at 401-765-3232.

Seeking a Temporary Restraining Order

If you have been abused and feel that you are in danger on a holiday, evening or weekend, you may be able to get an emergency restraining order in Rhode Island by calling the domestic hotline above or the police. Additionally, forms and instructions for completing a temporary restraining order are available your local courthouse.

A restraining order may require or prohibit a variety of things, depending on the situation. A restraining order can require the abuser to stay away from you, to vacate the home you share, or to comply with custody and visitation orders, for example.

Once you have filed the correct forms, a judge will hold a hearing on your case. If the judge determines that domestic violence has occurred and will likely occur in the future, your restraining order will be granted.

Effects of Domestic Violence on Custody Orders in Rhode Island

Although an isolated incident of domestic violence will probably not result in the abusive parent losing parental rights, any evidence of domestic violence will be considered when awarding custody. Under Rhode Island law, each parent must disclose any domestic violence or resulting restraining orders in the custody proceeding. A judge will then weigh all the evidence and determine what visitation restrictions, if any, would ensure the safest environment for the children involved.

Supervised Visitation

Supervised visitation is often a temporary or probationary requirement to ensure the safety of a child. Supervised visits take place in the presence of a third-party adult or at an authorized agency. Once the probationary period is completed or an abusive parent can show a judge that traditional visitation would be in the child's best interests, a supervised visitation requirement may be lifted.

Termination of Parental Rights

A termination of parental rights is a permanent decision and cannot be undone, even if the abusive parent makes true and lasting changes. Only in the rarest circumstances of abuse or neglect are parental rights terminated. Some situations that may result in a loss of parental rights include:

  • cruelty or chronic abuse of the child or another child
  • sexual abuse of the child or another child
  • felony assault resulting in serious bodily harm to the child or a sibling of the child, and
  • murder or attempted murder of a sibling of the child.

A termination of parental rights is justified in only the clearest of cases and only if it would serve the child's best interests.

If you have additional questions about the effects of domestic violence on custody rights in Rhode Island, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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