Domestic Violence and Child Custody

Two boys sitting and hugging on a playground
Courts as a tool for abuse

People often think that when a parent leaves an abusive relationship they will gain primary custody of the children. But many family courts don’t consider domestic violence a reason to deny the abuser partial or full child custody.

Survivors often face an uphill battle for custody. This is partly because abusers are more likely than non-abusers to challenge child custody decisions. And 70% of the time abusers succeed in getting partial or full custody of the children.

Abuse makes it harder for survivors to win custody

Over 94% of survivors experience financial abuse. Which means abusers are more likely to have the money and resources to hire the better lawyer. Abusers are also quick to go on the attack, questioning the other parent’s fitness—usually the mother’s—to care for the children. Abusers may accuse their former partners of abuse, mental illness, or drug and alcohol use. And it often works, because trauma can affect how survivors recount their abuse and how they present themselves in court.

Survivors, especially women, often struggle to be believed during custody proceedings. They may be accused of lying or exaggerating abuse in order to get sole custody. A judge might consider a “flat” affect a sign that a survivor doesn’t really care or is lying, when it’s really a response to trauma. Even if a survivor is believed, they may not get full child custody.

Understanding domestic violence helps

Survivors fair better in the court system when judges, lawyers, and custody evaluators understand domestic violence and how it affects survivors. Which is why LifeWire helps training local prosecutors and attorneys about domestic violence and how it can play out in the courts. Having a support system helps too. LifeWire legal advocates help survivors navigate the legal system and accompany them to court.

King County and Washington state legal resources

Call our 24-Hour Helpline at 425-746-1940 for information about local resources available to you, which include: