Domestic Violence and Child Custody

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

Often people believe that when a parent leaves an abusive relationship they will gain primary custody of the children; however, many family courts don’t consider a history of domestic violence as grounds for denying the abuser partial or full custody. Survivors often face an uphill battle for custody. And abusers are more likely than non-abusers to challenge custody ruling. 70% of the time abusers succeed in getting partial or full custody.

Abusers are more likely to have the money and resources to hire the better lawyer. With or without legal support, abusers are 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 can work, 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 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. 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

  • King County Domestic Violence Protection Order Advocacy Program: The Protection Order Advocacy Program (POAP) is a program within the Domestic Violence Unit of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. POAP assists King County residents and those who recently fled to King County (because of domestic violence) as they petition the courts for protection orders.
  • Eastside Legal Assistance Program: Eastside Legal Assistance Program (ELAP) is a non-profit organization that provides high-quality, no-cost civil legal services to survivors of domestic violence throughout King County and to low-income residents of East and Northeast King County.
  • The Family Law Toolkit for Domestic Violence Survivors: Created by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, this provides tools to help domestic violence survivors access the information, resources and support they need to navigate the family law system successfully and to protect themselves and their children from further harm.