How Domestic Violence Affects Child Custody in Wisconsin

Understanding the implications of domestic violence on child custody rights.

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School
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The invisible scars of domestic violence can be just as damaging as the visible bruises inflicted on victims of abuse. Nevertheless, the unseen violent actions of a spouse or domestic partner are in the spotlight during a custody proceeding and may have long-lasting consequences for an abusive parent.

Emotional or physical abuse by a family member, spouse or partner, also called "domestic violence," can alter the results of a custody order. In the most severe instances of domestic violence, parents may have limitations placed on visitation with their children or may even lose their parental rights altogether. This article provides a general overview of the effects of domestic violence on child custody orders in Wisconsin. If after reading this article you have questions, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Basics of Child Custody Orders

Central to any custody decision are the best interests of the child involved. Courts consider a number of factors including parental stability and living arrangements to determine what type of living and visitation arrangement would best serve the emotional and physical needs of the child. For more information on custody decisions, see Child Custody in Wisconsin.

Although a joint physical custody (where the child lives) and joint legal custody (decision-making power on behalf of child) arrangement is preferred by Wisconsin judges, a history of domestic violence can serve as a reason for a court to deviate from a joint custody arrangement. Depending on the severity and length of abuse, the abusive parent may have limitations placed on visitation with his or her child.

Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence includes both physical and emotional abuse. Specifically, Wisconsin law defines domestic violence as pain, injury, sexual assault or threats to inflict pain, injury or sexual assault by a family member, spouse or domestic partner.

Resources for Wisconsin domestic violence victims

If you or your child is a victim of domestic violence, you can seek help and locate shelters through the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Additional resources are available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Seeking protection from abuse

Whether you have experienced the first or fiftieth incident of abuse, a protective order may be necessary to protect you or your child from future abuse. Protective orders are also referred to as "Domestic Abuse Restraining Orders" in Wisconsin. You can read more about the process for obtaining a restraining order in Wisconsin on the Wisconsin Domestic Violence Coalition's Restraining Order page. A judge will grant your restraining order if domestic violence has occurred and is likely to occur in the future. To access restraining order forms, visit the Wisconsin Circuit Court site.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Child Custody Orders in Wisconsin

Although Wisconsin law does not directly prohibit an abusive parent from having visits with his or her child, a parent's domestic violence conviction will impact any custody or visitation arrangement. Wisconsin law presumes it is not in the best interests of a child to award joint or sole custody to a parent who has chronically abused or seriously abused a spouse or child.

While a parent's history of domestic violence makes it unlikely that the abusive parent would be awarded sole custody of his or her child, the abusive parent may still have joint custody rights if the court determines that:

  • the abusive parent has completed a certified abuser treatment program
  • the abusive parent does not abuse alcohol or any other drug
  • the best interests of the child would be served by awarding the abusive parent joint custody, and
  • there is no likelihood of future abuse.

Supervised visitation

Supervised visitation means that visitation between a parent and his or her child cannot take place except in the presence of a designated adult or agency. While supervised visitation is a limitation on a parent's rights, it is not necessarily a permanent situation. However, before a supervised visitation requirement can be lifted, the abusive parent would need to show the judge that there is no need for continued supervised visits, future abuse is unlikely and normal visitation would best serve the child's emotional and physical needs.

Termination of parental rights

A court will terminate (permanently cut off) a parent's rights to visit with and otherwise parent his or her child in only the most extreme cases of chronic abuse or neglect. Before a court will terminate a parent's rights, a judge must find evidence that shows the termination of parental rights would be in the child's best interests.

Some situations where a parent's rights may be terminated include the parent's murder conviction for death of the child's other parent, sexual assault of a child, or felony conviction for injury to a child. If a court elects to terminate parental rights, the decision is permanent and that parent cannot have their rights reinstated on grounds of good behavior.

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

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