Child Custody Lawyers Can Help Victims of Domestic Violence Protect Themselves and Their children

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You’re not alone

According to an article by Jennifer O’Neill in the February 2016 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, Domestic violence is “a quiet epidemic.”  Though most of them are in plain sight, the victims are often “invisible,” as they deny the situation and pretend to live in a happy home.

But the statistics reveal a shocking reality.  Every nine seconds, a woman in America is assaulted or beaten, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  O’Neill notes that a mind-boggling one in three women and one in four men has been a victim of physical brutality by an intimate partner, making intimate partner violence “the single greatest cause of injury to women,” according to the DVIP – Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

These statistics do not come as a surprise to us.  We’ve had many clients who are not upfront with us about the abuse they’ve endured. Even though they might be in the process of divorce or custody litigation opposite their abuser, they feel afraid or ashamed to talk about the abuse.  Once we’ve established a strong attorney/client relationship, however, these clients feel comfortable enough to confide in us, which helps us to better advocate on their behalf.

To illustrate the scope of the domestic violence problem, O’Neill explains, the number of women killed by a current or former male partner added up to nearly DOUBLE the soldier lives lost in war in Afghanistan and Iraq over the same 11-year time frame. Despite the alarming statistics, Amy Sanchez, director of Break the Cycle, suggests that as a society we often close our eyes to it.  Unlike heart disease or smoking, domestic violence is often considered a “private issue,” or a “family matter,” and people don’t talk about it.  In fact, according to the DVIP, the majority of marriages WILL include some violence; the FBI estimates that violence will occur during the course of 2/3 of all marriages.

It seems like domestic violence incidents are a regular headline in the news

Domestic violence and its impact on children

According to a publication in 2014 by the Childhood Domestic Violence Association, children from homes where there is violence are much more likely to experience significant psychological problems, both short and long term.  Many of them meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and the effects on their brains are similar to that suffered by combat veterans.  Living with violence even ages a child’s DNA, aging them prematurely 7-10 years. Those children who grow up with domestic violence are 74% more likely to commit a violent crime against someone else.

Leaving a domestic violence situation

Obviously, removing children from an environment where there is domestic violence would appear to be the solution, but the answer is far from easy.  For one thing, only 34% of women injured by their domestic partner receive medical care for their injuries, and even fewer get law enforcement involved.  Just 25% of domestic physical assaults against women are reported to the police annually. Sometimes, the reason women stay in abusive relationships is fear of death or serious injury, if they leave.  Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the 2 weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship, according to the DVIP.  And for the half of women who DO manage to leave abusive partners, an estimated 98% of abused women also experience “financial abuse,” in which their partner controls all of the money. Leaving will often cause abuse victims to lose their jobs, so they may escape, but with no income or financial resources.

However, it is important for victims of domestic violence to know that they have rights and resources available to them.  In Allegheny and surrounding counties, there are shelters that women and children can stay in if they are in danger.  These shelters are in confidential locations, and the courts are required to keep their locations secret in custody, divorce and child support proceedings.  Some of these shelters even have programs that allow women and their children to reside in apartments or houses (also at secret locations), for minimum rent to enable to the victim of domestic violence to get back on her feet and learn to live independently from her abuser.

Because the courts keep these locations secret, women should not fear that filing for child and/or spousal support will lead their abuser to them.  In addition, the Allegheny County Family Division, it’s satellite offices, and the Washington County Courthouse have many Sherriff’s deputies on standby.  If there is a concern that an incident will occur at a child/spousal support proceeding, we simply have to notify the court ahead of time, and they will make sure that deputies are nearby and watching.

Domestic violence victims shouldn’t be afraid to obtain a PFA

Among the 1 in 15 kids exposed to domestic violence, a heartbreaking 90% are eyewitnesses, who will feel the effect of it for their entire lives.  Assuming the mother of the children is able to take the children and leave her abuser, the abuser will often turn to the courts to continue his abuse.

As noted above, it is usually the abuser who has the superior financial resources, and they often use them to battle their ex-partners in court. Protection From Abuse (PFA) orders are required to be obtained almost immediately upon the experience of a threat or domestic violence, but as we know, most victims don’t report these assaults to the authorities or delay in doing so, thus robbing the courts of jurisdiction to enter them.

Victims should not refrain from attempting to obtain a PFA just because they think the court wouldn’t grant one, however.   In most cases, the court will grant Temporary PFA’s for a period of 10 days.  This means that the victim has at least 10 days in which the abuser is prohibited from contacting them before a final hearing on the PFA is held; this small window in time can enable the victim to secure housing for herself and the children, as well as file for child support.    At the time of the final PFA hearing, the PFA Plaintiff (the victim) is provided a lawyer for free to represent them at that final PFA hearing.  These lawyers are very qualified and experienced in handling PFA matters.

Domestic violence issues are a challenge in custody cases…

In custody cases, however, there usually is not enough funding to provide free lawyers for victims in custody cases, at least not in Allegheny and Washington counties.  When represented by an effective lawyer, abusers often deny the problem, making it a he-said-she-said  issue. Even in cases in which children appear in court in these custody or visitation issues, the mothers are often accused of instilling false stories in children’s minds to turn them away from the other parent.  It is essential that the victim of domestic violence have a child custody lawyer represent her.

We’ve found that there is such a strong inclination by the courts to see every case as a potential shared custody case, it can be difficult to get the court to focus on the very real issue of domestic violence and its effects on children, as well as the potential effects of allowing the abuser to have unsupervised custody of his children.

Very few courts have funding available to appoint a guardian ad litem (independent spokesperson) for children involved in custody disputes, or the funds to get unbiased studies on the parents and children by psychologists.  Supervised custody programs are also rare, because there is simply no source of funds for provide safe visiting arrangements for most of these families.  In fact, there often appears to be an unwillingness by judges to restrict contact between children and abusive parents, under the theory that “children deserve time with both parents.”

…but not insurmountable!

Fortunately, this is a problem that PA is starting to recognize in determining awards of custody. In 2011, a new custody statute was enacted which requires the court to consider the safety of the child as the most weighted factor in determining awards of custody.  The court must also consider “the present and past abuse committed by a party or a member of the party’s household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party, and which party can better provide adequate safeguards and supervision of the child” whenever making a determination of an award of custody. So, when a parent is abusive towards the other parent or the children, the court must consider whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child and decide which party would adequately protect and safeguard the child from further abuse.  The custody statute also provides that in cases of domestic violence where safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm, the courts cannot consider such measures an attempt to turn the child against the abusive parent. (See 23 Pa S.C.A_§ 5328)

The requirement that the courts consider the safety of the child is often at war with its need to fashion some kind of custody schedule.  Unless there are cases of extreme abuse, the courts are unlikely to prohibit the abusive parent from seeing the child at all.   This is a particular challenge considering the lack of facilities and organizations available to provide supervised visits.

We’ve found that if we can come up with a creative solution that will ensure the safety of the child but that allows time for visitation, the court will often grant it.  In many cases, we request that a trusted family member or friend be present for the visits, or visitation in a public place.

As your child custody lawyers, WE CAN HELP!

If you’re a victim or family member of a victim of domestic violence, don’t try to go it alone.  You should schedule at least a consultation appointment to learn what avenues of assistance are available to victims of domestic violence and their children.  We can help file for both child and spousal support.  We are experienced child custody lawyers, experienced in fighting for survivors of domestic violence and their children in court.  We are familiar with counseling and other kinds of services available for those who are coming out of a domestic violence situation.  We’re here to help.



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