When survivors of domestic abuse in California make the decision to divorce, child custody can be a particular concern. Because child custody rulings can essentially mandate ongoing communication between parents, it can also provide an opportunity for abusers to continue manipulative and violent behavior against their family members.

Some experts have indicated that many domestic abusers attempt to seek control of the situation by seeking child custody. These experts use the term “coercive control,” which can include tactics such as emotional abuse, abuse of the legal process to harass a former partner, financial abuse and stalking. When abusers receive custodial rights, they might hurt or manipulate the child and attempt to alienate them from the other parent. In some cases, the abusive parent will constantly criticize or attack the ex in order to undermine their relationship with the child. In more severe cases, the abuser may threaten to physically harm the other parent.

Family court judges do not always consider histories of domestic abuse relevant to making custody decisions. This can be especially true when there has not been prior police involvement or a record with the criminal justice system. Instead, current practice in family court is to emphasize joint custody in order to support the involvement of both parents in a child’s life. Any expressed desire to be part of a child’s life is often viewed favorably in family court.

Advocates have urged legislative changes to include histories of abuse when making custody determinations. In the meantime, however, family court is the decisive area for a parent who is dealing with an abusive partner. A family law attorney can represent an abused spouse throughout the divorce and provide strong representation in seeking full custody.