Minnesota Child Custody: Are Battered Mothers At A Disadvantage?

In Washington County, many women are victims of domestic violence and many of them are mothers. The Star Tribune reports that in 2012, over 63,000 women came forward and asked for help against their abusers.

While multiple resources are available to help these women, they may find themselves revictimized in the court system when they and their abusers are in the middle of a child custody dispute. At an annual conference in Washington, D.C., domestic violence advocates, victims and other experts come together to discuss the challenges battered mothers face in the court system.

Battered Mothers And The Courts

Human rights advocates point out that battered mothers face an uphill battle in the courts, attributed to a shift in court attitudes regarding custody. Now parents are encouraged to share custody, but this puts a battered mother in a difficult position. If the mother is unwilling to cooperate out of fear of the father, she faces accusations of trying to alienate the children from their father and could actually lose custody of them.

Studies show that abusers with children are more likely to seek custody of their children than fathers who are not abusive. Among other study findings:

  • Abusive parents use the courts as a tool to maintain control over their victims or harass them.
  • Over half of abusive partners have also abused their children either mentally, emotionally, physically or sexually.
  • Abusive fathers often win custody of their children.
  • Courts have issued joint custody rulings in cases clearly involving domestic violence, even though laws discourage this type of action.
  • Abusive fathers often show little interest in their children.

In addition, abusive partners usually control the money and will use such resources to lengthen the court process, exhausting battered mothers emotionally and financially.

Child Custody Evaluator Study

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice was given a report based on a study of child custody evaluators and their beliefs about domestic violence. The report was compiled from surveys conducted among judges, private attorneys, battered mothers, case workers and public aid attorneys. They volunteered to participate and answered several questions that centered on their knowledge of domestic violence, their beliefs regarding mothers' and fathers' accusations of violence and the actions they would take.

The results showed that personal experience with domestic violence made child custody evaluators more likely to believe battered mothers' claims and make recommendations that fathers' visits be limited. Evaluators who did not have personal experience were less likely to believe the accusations and therefore would make recommendations for joint custody and unsupervised visitation.

Battered mothers should find an attorney who understands the challenges they may face in the legal system to make sure that their rights are protected.