Those of us who work in the area of family law know that fathers can and do play an invaluable role in the lives of their children. Yet, in relationships characterized by domestic violence, fathers are almost always the perpetrators of that violence. My colleagues and I were delighted, therefore, that the theme of the Family Court of the District of Columbia Superior Court’s Annual Conference this year was “Empowering Fathers: One Size Does Not Fit All.”
One panel in particular, entitled “Integrating Fathers After Domestic Violence,” dealt with the delicate balance of encouraging the involvement of fathers with a history of domestic violence in their children’s lives while seeking to maintain safe, violence-free households. The discussion that ensued also explored other, related issues, such as the kind of custody and visitation that courts should award, how supervised visitation can meet the needs of this population, what follows supervised visitation, how best to make visitation safe and productive for children, and the best practices of programs aimed at making the integration of fathers effective and successful.
The panelists recognized that abusive fathers trap not only mothers but also children in the sticky web of verbal and nonverbal behaviors that make up the abuser’s power and control over his victims. This web is typically woven long before individuals become the victims of serious threats or actual acts of violence. Accordingly, the instability of a relationship characterized by domestic violence can affect children even if they are not in the room during any particular incident. The resulting stress manifests itself not only emotionally and psychologically, but physically and developmentally as well.
The panelists also recognized that abusive fathers often use their children – directly or indirectly – as a means of controlling the mother. For example, the abusive father makes insincere requests for visitation with children with whom he has no relationship or even desire to get to know until the mother files for a civil protection order against him.
Finally, the panelists highlighted the importance of supervised visitation in protecting mothers and children from physical and psychological harm, as well as the role that supervised visitation can play in fostering and nurturing positive relationships between children and their fathers.
Overall, the Family Court’s recognition of options such as supervised visitation places a necessary emphasis on the need to successfully integrate fathers in their children’s lives in a way that may truly lead to empowering fathers. We at Legal Aid know that these are not easy issues with which to grapple, but they are ones that many judges, practitioners, and most important, families, must try to resolve, day in and day out.