How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Vermont

Understanding the implications of domestic violence on child custody rights.

By , Attorney

Abuse takes many forms, and invisible threats can be just as painful as visible scars. The unseen actions of an abusive spouse or partner are brought out in the open during a custody case and can have long-term implications for the abusive parent. Emotional or physical abuse, called "domestic violence," may alter the outcome of a custody case or even result in a modification to a previous child custody order. In the most extreme cases, a parent's history of chronic domestic violence can lead to that parent having limits placed on visitation or even a loss of parental rights.

This article provides a general overview of the effects of domestic violence on child custody orders in Vermont. If after reading this article you have questions, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Child Custody Orders

The best interests of the child are of paramount importance in any custody case. A number of factors are weighed in determining what type of custody arrangement would best serve the child's emotional and physical well-being. In Vermont, judges prefer joint custody arrangements, where parents share "physical custody" (meaning where a child lives) and "legal custody" (meaning the right to make important decisions on behalf of the child). Nevertheless, a history of domestic violence could be justification for a judge to deviate from a joint custody arrangement and limit or restrict a parent's visitation with his or her child. Learn more about Child Custody in Vermont.

Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence involves more than just bruises, scars and broken bones. Vermont law defines domestic violence as situations where a family member or partner causes or intends to cause physical harm or fear of immediate harm, injury or sexual assault to an adult or child. Such harm can be visible physical violence or invisible emotional abuse such as threats to harm you or your child.

Resources for victims of abuse

Incidents of domestic violence are treated very seriously in Vermont. If you are a victim of domestic abuse, you can get help and locate nearby shelters through the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. You can also find additional resources through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Seeking a protection order

If you are a domestic violence victim and fear future abuse by your current or former spouse or partner, a protection order may be necessary to ensure you and your child are safe. Protection orders are also referred to as "Relief From Abuse Orders" or RFAs in Vermont. To learn more about the process of obtaining a protection order, visit the Vermont Judiciary's Relief From Abuse information page.

A judge will grant a protection order if you are able to demonstrate that domestic violence has happened in the recent past and will likely occur in the future. A conviction of domestic violence can alter the outcome of a custody case or provide grounds to modify a previous child custody order.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Child Custody Orders in Vermont

Although Vermont courts do not prohibit an abusive parent from having visitation with his or her child, a parent's domestic violence conviction will have an impact on any custody and visitation arrangement. A domestic violence conviction during the last 10 years can preclude an abusive parent from having custody of his or her child if there is a history of chronic physical or sexual abuse. Nevertheless, the abusive parent may still exercise visitation with his or her child if the court determines that:

  • the abusive parent's visitation with the child would be in the child's best interests
  • the abusive parent has completed a domestic violence intervention program
  • a visitation order designed to protect the child exists
  • the abusive parent may have his or her visitation supervised, and
  • the abusive parent will abstain from alcohol 24 hours before any visitation.

Supervised visitation

Supervised visitation is visitation between a parent and child that takes place at an agency or in the presence of another designated adult. Although supervised visitation limits a parent's visitation rights, supervised visitation is not necessarily a permanent requirement. Supervised visits may be required for a short reintroduction period or something longer. Nevertheless, before a supervised visitation requirement can be changed, an abusive parent would have to prove to the court that there is no risk of future abuse and unsupervised visitation would be in the child's best interests.

Termination of parental rights

In cases of extreme abuse or neglect, a parent's rights to visit with and parent his or her child could be terminated by a Vermont court. Before a parent can lose their parental rights, a court must find clear and convincing evidence of the extreme abuse or neglect and decide that a termination of the parent-child relationship would serve the child's best interests.

Some circumstances which might result in a termination of parental rights include violation of a protective order, assault of the child, chronic abuse of the child, or a conviction of sexual abuse of a child. If a court elects to terminate parental rights, the decision can't be reversed - parental rights cannot be reinstated on grounds of good behavior. A termination of rights is only appropriate in the most extreme circumstances and is permanent.

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

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