There is no doubt that domestic violence is a very serious issue. A parent’s momentary loss of control can have long-term effects on a family emotionally, psychologically and legally. This is particularly true for a divorcing couple who may find themselves in a heated debate over child custody and visitation issues. Not only can a history of emotional or physical abuse affect who gets primary custody of your child, instances of domestic violence can lead to the modification of an existing child custody order.
Domestic violence goes beyond just physical abuse; it includes emotional/verbal abuse, sexual abuse and threats to harm others. Virginia defines domestic violence (or, “family abuse”) as an action by a family member involving violence, force or threats which cause physical injury or reasonable fear of physical injury to an adult or child. For the purpose of this definition, a family member includes a current or former spouse, in-laws, people who share guardianship of a child (even if they live apart), roommates, and people who have cohabited within 1 year of an instance of domestic violence.
Domestic Violence and Child Custody Determinations
Every child custody and visitation order entered by a court considers, first and foremost, the best physical and emotional interests of the child. When determining a child’s best interests, several factors are taken into account including each parent’s stability, home environment and ability to form a safe and meaningful relationship with the child.
While Virginia courts prefer joint custody arrangements where both parents share physical and legal custody of their child and enjoy frequent visitation, a history of domestic violence can influence a court to deviate from a joint custody plan and restrict the abusive parent’s contact or visitation with his or her child. A judge may order supervised visitation with a minor child or in extreme cases, terminate an abusive parent’s parental rights altogether.
Under a supervised visitation scheme, an abusive parent is only allowed to visit with his or her child in the presence and supervision of a court-designated third-party, and often only at a neutral location (not either of the parents’ homes). Supervised visitation is not necessarily a permanent situation. Often it is a stepping stone to unsupervised visitation. Before reaching that stage, however, the abusive parent will likely need to complete a domestic violence and/or anger management course before a court will permit unsupervised visitation.
Termination of Parental Rights
Where a parent’s domestic violence is particularly egregious and/or perpetual, a court may terminate that parent’s rights. Unlike supervised visitation, a termination of parental rights is permanent. This is an extraordinary remedy, and one courts reserve for only extreme cases, such as habitual physical and/or sexual abuse of a child.
If you are concerned that domestic violence may be a factor in your divorce or child custody case, or have any other family law matter, you need to meet with a qualified attorney. The family law attorneys at the DiPietro Family Law Group are experienced with all family law issues in jurisdictions across Northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
Contact us today at (888) 530-4374.