Are battered mothers at a disadvantage in Pennsylvania custody cases?

Mothers who are victims of domestic violence may face a disadvantage in a child custody dispute with the abuser.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that over 10 million women and men are abused by a partner almost every 20 minutes in the United States. Furthermore, when categorizing violent crime in the U.S., 15 percent involves intimate partner violence. Children often witness the violence between their parents and may even become victims of the abuser.

In Wyomissing, some women decide to take a stand against their abuser, file for a protection order, submit a petition for divorce or separation and ultimately ask for custody of their children. However, evidence shows that battered mothers may actually be at a disadvantage in the courtroom.

Abusers will often contest a custody request

In recent years, courts in Pennsylvania and across the country have shifted their focus in custody matters to what is in the best interest of the child. This has been a positive move in giving fathers the ability to maintain a relationship with their children, but it has also created challenges for mothers who allege the father is abusive. The Advocates for Human Rights states that while courts are asked to make exceptions in case involving domestic violence, this does not always happen.

Furthermore, abusive fathers will often fight for custody of their children as a way to control the mother or continue to harass her, not because they want a relationship with the child. These fathers often have little to do with their children or may even abuse them. It is estimated that the percent of abused children, in a home where domestic violence exists, is around 30-60 percent. When a mother objects to visitation requests out of fear for her children's safety, courts often view her as uncooperative and difficult.

Custody evaluator study reveals prejudice

In a case where domestic violence is alleged, courts often conduct a custody evaluation, but a recent study shows that the evaluators' own previous experiences, knowledge and even gender can influence them to make decisions that put children and mothers at risk. The study involved over 1100 domestic violence program workers, family court judges, child custody evaluators and family law attorneys. The professionals were asked a series of questions that involved the following:

  • How much knowledge did they have of domestic violence?
  • Did they think that women often make false claims of domestic violence?
  • Did they know anyone who had been a victim of violence?
  • Did they think that a victim's reluctance to co-parent an accurate response?
  • How much experience had they had with domestic violence cases and custody?

When researchers compiled the responses from the participants, they found a clear pattern. Those who had more knowledge of domestic violence through education, or through knowing a victim, were more apt to believe that domestic violence had occurred and make recommendations in favor of the mother. Those who had little experience or education were prone to believe that the mother was making false allegations. Even in cases where domestic violence had been documented on more than one occasion, evaluators in this sector voiced that they would still recommend joint parenting.

More courts in Pennsylvania are beginning to educate judges and other professionals on the facts of domestic violence. However, this can still be a difficult time for victims and their children. Seeking legal advice may help.