Male consoling Female

Domestic violence affects many families in Chicago, Illinois; the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports it served more than 40,000 adult survivors in 2012 alone. For victims, seeking help and leaving an abusive relationship is often difficult. Sadly, when battered mothers try to separate from their abusers and protect their children, they often face contentious child custody disputes. In extreme cases, these mothers are even in danger of losing custody completely.

Biases against mothers 

When legal and physical custody is determined, the court must consider various factors, including the child’s safety and well-being. The Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act states the threat of physical violence and any history of abuse should be weighed when custody is awarded. However, such incidents are not grounds for automatic denial of custody. Frequently, individuals who have threatened or committed violence still win custody, according to a literature review on custody and visitation in domestic violence cases from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

Studies cited in the literature review show allegations of abuse often have little impact on custody orders. Custody recommendations vary minimally between cases involving domestic violence and other non-violent cases. Studies also indicate that judges with little experience with domestic violence are more likely to doubt allegations, trivialize the violence or even blame the victim. This can leave children exposed to danger while adding to the mother’s ordeal.

Mothers who report abuse or vocalize concerns about the safety of their children may be accused of alienating their children from the father. Mothers who appear uncooperative by opposing unsupervised visits or refusing to disclose their new addresses may face similar accusations. One study found three in four child custody evaluators would not seriously consider domestic violence against the mother when awarding custody. However, they would advise against awarding custody to a parent who alienated the children from the other parent.

Fighting for custody 

Battered mothers seeking custody must show that awarding the father sole or shared custody would not be in the child’s best interests. Mothers may remind the court of the risk to the child’s safety. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, domestic violence, and child abuse often coincide; roughly half of the men who abuse their wives abuse their children. Mothers may also consider taking other legal action. One study found fathers were generally not awarded custody when an order of protection was in effect. To ensure the best outcome, though, battered mothers should speak with a family law attorney about the situation. An attorney can help a mother protect her rights and children.