The high value that society places on two-parent households adversely affects survivors of domestic violence, a provocative New York Times Sunday op-ed piece asserts. This societal pressure leads some survivors to remain in or return to abusive relationships in an effort to maintain the two-parent ideal for their children, thereby endangering their own lives. At Legal Aid, where we represent hundreds of survivors of domestic violence each year, we witness—and help—our clients struggling with these and many other challenges day in and day out.
D.C. law has protections that take into account the complex relationship between domestic violence and custody. In the District, in any proceeding where custody of a child is at issue, the best interest of the child is the primary consideration of the Court. In civil protection order (CPO) cases where the survivor and the abuser share children, upon a finding of domestic violence, the law allows a court to award visitation between a minor child and the abusive parent can only if it finds that the child and the survivor parent can be adequately protected from the abuser. Additionally, in custody cases, where there is a history of domestic violence, there is a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is not in the best interests of the child. In fact, there are D.C. cases that acknowledge that the interaction between a child and an abusive parent could have detrimental effects on the child.
Many survivors are not aware of these protections and when unrepresented, may feel compelled to agree to custody orders that require them to interact with their abuser or forgo pursuing custody at all because of fear that they may lose their child to the abuser. When representing survivors, Legal Aid attorneys ensure that they are aware of these protections and that these issues are addressed in Court proceedings.
While we are zealous in our advocacy when we represent survivors, we also recognize that there may be value in some level of involvement by the abusive parent in the child or children’s lives. In both CPO and custody cases, there are ways for survivors to maintain a parental relationship with their abusers while creating a safer environment for survivors and their children. Legal Aid attorneys are able to draft orders that take into account the survivor’s safety as well as the survivor’s concerns about the parental involvement of the abuser. One of those ways is by allowing the abuser to have visitation with the minor child at the Supervised Visitation Center (SVC) located at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. At the SVC, survivors should not have to interact with their abusers during visitation, however if they do, there are court appointed professionals present to intervene if the Court’s order is violated.
We work hard however, to make sure our advocacy is client-centered. Although the op-ed focuses on the societal pressure to keep an abuser involved in a child’s life, there are of course a wide variety of factors that influence a survivor’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. These factors include but are not limited to fear of retaliation and financial constraints. Legal Aid attorneys strive to provide our clients with legal solutions and holistic resources as they grapple with the complex challenges surrounding decisions about their children and their safety.
Your support of Legal Aid’s Generous Associates Campaign this month allows us to continue to provide this critical legal assistance to survivors.