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Supervised Visitation Keeps Kids Safe After Domestic Abuse
To keep young children safe, some judges only allow contact between a noncustodial parent and their children under supervision
- Mar 13, 2023
After parental separation, domestic abusers often fight for more time with a child than they ever spent while they were all still living together. Their motivation can vary, from an effort to “get back at” their ex-partner to a tactic to evade financial child support to a genuine desire to spend more time with their child. Increased contact without the abused partner’s presence may give the domestic abuser more opportunities to harm a child directly.
Some parents fear for the well-being of children left in the abuser’s care. Examples from domestic abuse survivors:
- When they were still together, George abused his partner, Keandra, in alarming ways. He also threatened to do bizarre things to his infant daughter like putting her to sleep in the garage so her cries wouldn’t wake him or giving her lemon juice “to see what happens.” When Keandra finally left George, she was terrified that he might hurt their baby because she wasn’t there to stop him.
- Pat often brought Jamie back from visits hungry and thirsty, sunburned, with diaper rash, or covered in mosquito bites
- Anna had seen her ex escalate into a rage when the kids did the things that kids sometimes do—like make noise, knock things over, have tantrums or cry.
- The pediatrician diagnosed 6-year-old Keegan with intestinal problems that required taking medication and avoiding certain foods. His father simply “did not believe” the pediatrician. He failed to give the child his medication or follow the prescribed diet when Keegan was with him.
- Jean smoked pot and drank throughout the day most days, sometimes making it difficult or impossible to care for the children adequately. Jean drove when drunk and sometimes brought the children to bars and other unsafe settings.
The presence of a supervisor can help alleviate these fears. In all these instances, the protective ex-partners petitioned the courts to allow supervised visits only, with varying success. Judges will typically order supervised visits if they believe the child’s well-being could be at risk with a noncustodial parent if unsupervised. For instance, if a noncustodial parent has a history of child abuse, neglect or domestic abuse and has not accepted responsibility for these acts, is actively abusing alcohol or drugs or suffering from acute mental health issues or has threatened to kidnap the child. Some judges will also order supervised visits if the child is traumatized from past abuse or exhibits fear of the noncustodial parent. Supervised visitation is most important when children are too young to describe what has happened on visits with a noncustodial parent and are too young to call for help. Evidence for risk can include dated texts, photographs, videos or audio recordings, and reports from child protective services, pediatricians and therapists.
The orders for supervised visits typically cover a limited period, after which the judge will conduct a review to determine if supervision is still necessary. Sometimes the judge will order the parent to complete steps such as a batterer intervention program or substance abuse treatment before being considered for unsupervised visits. It is worth noting that sometimes abusers can “keep it together” in a supervised setting for a short period of time and appear to be a “model parent.” This does not mean they will do the same if unsupervised and in charge of a child’s care for long periods or overnights.
Supervised Custody Visit Conditions
Supervised visitation can be ordered to take place in a public place such as a restaurant or park, in an approved community resource or visitation center, at the courthouse, or in the home of one of the parents or another relative. Sometimes a judge will ask the parents if they can agree on a friend or family member to supervise visits.
Advantages of using an approved supervision center:
- The supervisors are at least minimally trained, and the setting should be child-friendly and safe.
- Drop-off and pick-up should be monitored for safety, and the abuse survivor may be able to arrange for a third party to drop off and pick up their child.
- Many centers have video cameras and security guards to deter danger.
- The cost of this supervision may be covered by public funds, making it free of charge.
Disadvantages of using an approved supervision center:
- It may not be convenient for where the child lives.
- While some centers are warm and inviting, others feel cold and institutional.
- There may be long waiting lists.
- If the parents are deemed able to afford it, one or both may have to pay for the supervised visits at the center, which can be expensive.
Advantages of supervision in a public or private setting that is not a visitation center:
- The setting may be more comfortable for the child than a formal visitation center.
- A home setting may give the noncustodial parent more opportunities to behave “normally” with a child, such as preparing them food, watching TV and putting the child down for a nap.
Disadvantages of supervision in a public or private setting that is not a visitation center:
- Alternative settings offer more opportunities for abuse and manipulation, especially if the visitation occurs in the abusers’ home.
- The visits are likely to be less well documented (no cameras, etc.).
- The informal setting of a public space that is not a visitation center may encourage supervisors to develop friendly relationships with the noncustodial parent and fail to maintain appropriate records and boundaries.
Friend and Family Member Visitation Supervision
Friends or family members of the survivor may say they are willing to supervise visits with the noncustodial parent. Most of the time, however, these situations eventually feel uncomfortable or even dangerous and the informal supervisor withdraws from this position.
Marta’s sister, Isabel, agreed to supervise her nephew’s visits with the baby’s father, who had abused Marta and continued to stalk her even after they had separated. The father kept changing the times of the visits, inconveniencing Marta, Isabel and the child. The father was also rude to Isabel, and she began to feel threatened by him. Marta returned to the court to request a professional visitation supervisor on a regular schedule.
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If friends or family members of the abuser offer to supervise visits, they may be so allied with the abuser that they fail to supervise visitation adequately.
The court asked Vanessa and Tom to agree on three possible supervisors for Tom’s visits with their twin infants. Vanessa agreed to Tom’s ex-wife as one possible supervisor. She later regretted this when she realized that because Tom paid his ex-wife child support and continued to intimidate her, the ex-wife would not be able to stand up for the twins.
Sometimes, judges will suspend contact between a child and a domestic abuser altogether rather than ordering supervised visits. This is more likely to occur when:
- There is a significant history of violence, abuse, threats and control
- When the abuser shows little remorse for past abuse
- When the abuser shows little investment in treatment or counseling
- When the abuser has failed to comply with the terms of supervised parenting time.
Sometimes abusers will use tactics of "provoke and record” or claim “parental alienation” to gain custody of a child and then persuade a judge not to restrict the survivor to supervised visits only. This can be maddening for the survivor. Here, a good lawyer can help a survivor recover contact with the children. Supervised visitation should be used only to protect children, not to punish one parent or the other. One abuse survivor who was limited to supervised visits for a time counsels survivors to never miss supervised visits, and to “Love, love, love with all your heart and soul.”
For more information, visit Judicial Options for Parenting Rights & Responsibilities, a court guide.
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