The holidays are a time for family to come together, hold hands and sing “Joy to the World” … at least that’s what the festive Lifetime TV movies would like us to believe. Unfortunately, for survivors of domestic abuse, this is far easier said than done.
What about when the abuser’s family—parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles—ask, or maybe even demand, access to the shared children, conveniently ignoring the fact that their family also includes someone who abused you and caused irreversible trauma to the aforementioned children? Is the survivor obligated to continue this relationship?
When children are involved in abuse, there’s likely a custody order in place denoting which parent sees them when. For some survivors, the abuser may be fighting for custody as yet another means of power and control, sending the protective parent into emotional turmoil. For the lucky survivors who gain full custody, the abuser may be relegated to only supervised, sporadic visits.
“If there is still a lot of dysfunction and an unwillingness to acknowledge the abuse, or if the survivor feels she or her children are being manipulated, then the only obligation she has is to herself and her children,” says Karen C.L. Anderson, certified life coach and author of Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters.
Some survivors may feel pressure by an ex-partner’s family to let them see shared children, insisting that the children need this relationship with grandparents. Anderson disagrees.
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“I don't think it's in the best interest of a child to have a relationship with abusive, controlling, manipulative, gaslighting relatives,” she says. The only benefit, should sporadic contact be unavoidable, is as a way to practice boundaries.
“Healthy boundaries make healthy relationships possible,” says Anderson. “Children learn healthy boundaries when the adults in their lives demonstrate them. If the survivor has not yet have been able to demonstrate healthy boundaries—which would be understandable and not something to feel ashamed of—this is an excellent scenario in which to practice.”
Read more about this in “Where Are Your Boundaries?”
Is It Against the Law?
In all 50 states, grandparents have a right to petition the court for visitation rights to see grandchildren. However, several things need to happen first:
- Grandparents must prove in court that granting visitation rights to them is in the best interest of the child.
- In some states, courts will look at the prior relationship between grandparents and grandchild.
- In some states, courts will also consider the effect grandparent visitation will have on the relationship between the parent and child.
- Several states require that one parent be deceased before grandparent visitation rights are considered.
A survivor who is worried that an abuser’s parents will petition for these rights can consider making a case for how the grandparents were involved while the abuse was occurring. Were they present? Did they acknowledge it? Did they try to intervene? Were they complicit in letting the abuse continue?
A survivor may want to consider reaching out to a family law attorney for further advice if faced with the possibility of going to court against the abuser’s parents.
What if the Abuser’s Family Has Made Amends?
In some cases, a survivor might still get along with their ex-partner’s family. Maybe the abuser’s parents or other family members have offered their support, apologies or made amends in another way. But the survivor could still be fearful of what continuing this relationship means for her and her children’s safety.
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The grandparent visitation has nothing to do, legally, with whether or not the abusive parent gets access to the child. That should be determined in a different court proceeding. If the protective parent is worried that allowing the child to see his or her grandparents would also expose them to the abusive parent, the protective parent will want to make sure all visits are supervised.
Recommends Anderson, “It could be helpful for the survivor to have a list of steps she wants the family to take in order for her to feel comfortable with visitation.”
This might mean the protective parent meets the abuser’s family with her children on neutral ground—a restaurant, coffee shop or public park.
One option may be for the protective parent to explore holiday events taking place in the location the grandparents live. Maybe there is a play, musical event or festival they can take the child to visit and meet the grandparents at. It offers a public location that provides more protection, while also creating a family festive trip that reduces the potential for things to happen that a private setting could produce.
If all this makes you, the protective parent, or the children uncomfortable, Anderson says consider allowing grandparents a “visit” through a FaceTime call.
“If all goes well, then they can think about a face-to-face visit,” she says.
Still wrapped up in custody battles? Read “Protecting Your Children in the Court System” for more information about keeping kids safe from an abuser after leaving.
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