How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Virginia

Understanding the impact of domestic violence on child custody rights.

Flaring tempers and a parent’s momentary loss of control can have long-term effects on a family, both emotionally and legally. When parents argue in court over child custody, all the past abuse and threats will be brought out into the open and may change custody outcomes, including which parent receives custody of his or her child.

A history of emotional or physical abuse, also called “domestic violence,” often alters the outcome of a custody case and can lead to the modification of a previous child custody order. In families where there is a history of chronic domestic violence, the abusive parent may have limits placed on his or her visitation, and in the most extreme circumstances, may lose his or her parental rights completely.

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

Overview of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence extends beyond physical abuse, such as bruises and scars, and includes emotional abuse, sexual abuse and threats to harm another person. Virginia defines domestic violence as an action by a family member involving violence, force or threats which cause physical injury or reasonable fear of physical injury to an adult or child. For purposes of the domestic violence law, a family member includes:

  • current or former spouse
  • in-laws
  • persons who share a child, even if they live apart
  • roommates, and
  • persons who have lived together during the past year.

Resources domestic violence victims

If you or your child is victim of domestic violence, you can seek help through Virginia’s Guide for Domestic Violence Victims and the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-838-8238). Additionally, Doorways is part of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance and offer shelters and additional support services for victims and their children.

Protective orders

In situations where domestic violence is ongoing or you fear additional abuse, a protective order may be necessary to ensure the safety of you and your child. Virginia’s court website provides an overview of protective orders. To obtain a protective order form, contact your local county courthouse. If a judge determines that abuse has occurred in your case and is likely to occur in the future, your protective order will be granted.

Basics of Child Custody Orders in Virginia

In determining custody arrangements, a court will focus on a child’s emotional and physical best interests. Several factors, such as parental stability and home environment are considered when determining a child’s best interests.

Virginia courts generally prefer joint custody arrangements, where parents share "physical custody" (where the child lives) and "legal custody" (the right to make decisions regarding the child's health, education and welfare). Nevertheless, a history of domestic violence could influence a judge to deviate from a joint custody arrangement and limit or restrict the abusive parent's visitation with his or her child. To learn more about custody decisions in Virginia, see, Child Custody in Virginia.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Child Custody Orders in Virginia

While Virginia law does not prevent an abusive parent from exercising visitation with his or her child, a history of domestic violence can impact a parent’s custody and visitation rights. A single episode of unreported domestic violence will likely not be as significant in deciding custody as several recent convictions of domestic violence would be when evaluating the best interests of a child.

If a judge finds a history of domestic violence, an abusive parent could have restrictions placed on his or her visitation rights, including "supervised visitation" - where all visits with the child are supervised by a third party. In cases of extreme or chronic domestic violence, a judge could permanently terminate all parental rights to legal and physical custody.

Supervised visitation

Supervised visitation takes place between a parent and child in the presence of another designated adult or at an authorized agency. While restrictive, supervised visitation is not necessarily permanent - more often it's a stepping stone toward unsupervised visitation between the parent and his or her child. However, in cases involving domestic violence, a parent would need to complete a domestic violence course and prove to a judge that unsupervised visits would be in his or her child’s best interests.

Termination of parental rights

Unlike supervised visitation, a termination of parental rights is permanent. Once such an order is made, a parent’s good behavior cannot justify having parental rights reinstated. However, this remedy is reserved for the most serious cases - a Virginia court will not terminate a parent’s right to visit with and otherwise parent his or her child except in the most extreme circumstances. Some reasons a court may terminate parental rights include extreme neglect of the child, habitual abuse of the child, or sexual assault of a child.

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

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