A victim of domestic violence wishing to break free of the abusive relationship faces hurdles those in other break-ups don’t have. If there are children of the relationship, the stakes are even higher. A domestic violence victim should have a safety plan in place before leaving the abuser, because that is the point when the victim is in the greatest danger, and the safety plan needs to include considerations about the children.
Preparing to leave a violent relationship
The life of a domestic violence victim is one of fear and angst, for the victim and for the parties’ children. Domestic violence is often about control of the victim. An open attempt by the victim to leave the relationship would undermine that control, potentially prompting a violent encounter. To avoid such a conflict, and to prepare for a potential custody fight, the victim who has decided to leave a violent relationship should privately make preparations and have certain things prepared before actually leaving.
Before leaving the relationship, a domestic violence victim should keep detailed records of the abuse, including the date and nature of each incident, where it occurred, the type of injuries suffered, and the medical treatment obtained. Regarding the children, record all time spent with them and the care provided them by both the victim and the abuser. If the parties later disagree about custody, the court can consider the information from these records.
The victim should also set aside money and pack some provisions, such as clothes and toiletries, for themselves and for the children. Store these items away from the residence shared with the abuser and somewhere the abuser would not think to look. Also, arrange for a place to stay that the abuser would not think to look, such as with a co-worker the abuser does not know or in a shelter. If possible, consult an attorney or a program that serves domestic violence victims on how to apply for a protective order immediately upon leaving the relationship.
Leaving the abusive relationship
When finally taking the step to leave the relationship, the victim should take the children along or make sure they are in a safe place where the abuser would not find them. The victim should immediately apply for a protective order and ask the court for custody. The records of abuse will be helpful in establishing the court that the protective order is necessary and that custody should be with the victim at that point. Because such a protective order is usually temporary, the victim should be prepared to have a later hearing at which the abuser will be present. The precise steps and time involved are determined by state law.
Be aware that the existence of a protective order does not necessarily mean the abuser will not be given visitation, but the victim may ask the court to order that the visitation be supervised. Having a plan for supervised visitation, such as suggesting a supervisor and a neutral location where visitation could take place, could be helpful.
After relocating with the children, continue to seek legal help in severing the relationship by filing for divorce, legal separation, or other legal means. In such proceedings, the court will again consider the appropriate custody and visitation orders for the children. It is not unheard of for an abuser to get custody of the children, so being prepared and having appropriate legal representation is important. Courts consider several factors in making a custody award where there was domestic violence in the relationship:
- How frequent and severe the domestic violence was, which may also be an indicator of the abuser’s future behavior;
- Whether the children or the other parent is still at risk of suffering further abuse by the abuser;
- Whether criminal charges have been filed against the abuser;
- The nature and extent of any evidence of domestic violence, such as written accounts or photographs;
- Police reports documenting the domestic violence;
- Whether any of the domestic violence was perpetrated in front of or against the children or had an effect on the children.
Domestic violence can also impact the abuser’s visitation with the children. Courts can require an abuser to participate in parenting, anger management, or domestic violence classes in an attempt to stem further incidents of abuse. More restrictive consequences are also possible. For example, a court may issue a restraining order or order of protection, which may or may not permit continued access by the abuser to the children. In even more extreme cases, the court may revise a visitation order by limiting access to the children, requiring all visitation to be supervised or even revoking the abuser’s visitation rights in the short- or long-term.
In addition to seeking protection through orders regarding custody and parenting time, counseling may also be warranted for the victim and for the children. The psychological injuries from domestic violence affect both the actual victim and the children who witnessed the abuse. Counseling for the victim can help the victim and children move forward and heal and can help the victim prepare to be the best witness possible in court.
If you have been a victim of domestic violence and would to remove yourself and your children from the abusive relationship, contact one of your local or national resources on domestic violence to find service providers and shelters near you. It is also wise to consult with an attorney who is licensed in your state who can provide legal advice tailored to your circumstances.