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Home / Articles / Legal / When Domestic Abusers Share Legal Custody with their Victims

When Domestic Abusers Share Legal Custody with their Victims

6 reasons why judges should not grant shared legal decision-making to abusers

parenting with an abuser

True joint decision-making is not possible where one person dominates the other. Still, sometimes family courts award shared legal decision-making to a domestic abuser. This exposes victim-survivors to repeated risk and control while their children are young.  This also harms the children. It is retraumatizing for survivors to have to “negotiate” decisions with someone whose main goal is domination—not the best interests of the children.

Here are six ways domestic abusers block true joint decision-making.

1. Abusers often interfere with recommended psychotherapy. The abuser may not want to admit that their child is suffering. Or they don’t want to be responsible for copayments. Or they are afraid the therapist might learn family secrets. 

      Charlie often missed or brought his son late to therapy appointments. After several months of this, the therapist refused to keep working with their child.

      Chris drilled his 6-year-old daughter, Carmen, about all the things he did not want her to discuss with her therapist. Carmen trembled and refused to speak at the therapy office. The therapist said that she thought the child needed therapy but could not benefit from it now, because of the pressure.

      Sara said, “My children’s father would not stop harassing their therapist. I had to get a court order outlining how we as parents can communicate and interact with the therapists.”

      2. Abusers often interfere with children’s medical treatment. Abusers may decide the pediatrician sides with the other parent. Or they may resent a doctor who has filed a report with child protective services. Sometimes abusers interfere with important medical care just to “mess with” their ex. Abusers will sometimes use medical visits to intimidate their former partner.

      Sandra had to cooperate with her ex, Tommy, around every medical appointment, because of the judge’s order. But cooperation was impossible. Tommy always gave her the wrong time or date for their child’s medical appointments, causing her to miss them. This made her look irresponsible to the medical staff. If she made the appointment, her ex would change it without telling her.

      Chari wrote, “I have had to get court orders that primary care cannot be switched without the consent of both parents. He was always changing their doctors.”

      3. Abusers often interfere with childcare and schooling. Domestic abusers sometimes use their children’s childcare and school to disrupt the protective parents’ life. 

      Patrick was falling behind at school. His mother refused to support Patrick by checking his homework or helping him study. His school difficulties intensified. 

      The court ordered Sam to pay for half of the childcare expenses. Although he earned well, Sam refused to pay on time. The childcare center repeatedly threatened to unenroll the children.

      Allen was angry when his teenage son, Tomás, decided to live with his mother. In September of his senior year, Allen unenrolled Tomás from the school he had been attending, to punish him.

      After their divorce, Adam insisted on enrolling their children in a religious day school. His ex-wife, Miriam, claimed they had moved to their community precisely for the excellent and diverse public school system. Miriam had to spend thousands of dollars on an attorney and then a guardian ad litem to resist Adam’s plan.

      4. Abusers turn special events into battlegrounds. Abusers fight simple, day-to-day decisions, robbing children of ease and security. 

      Ten-year-old Alexa handed her mother a permission slip, saying she needed it signed that very night to be able to go on a field trip with her class the next day. Through their co-parenting app, the mother let the child’s father know and requested permission to sign it for them both. The father said he would take a look at the form over the weekend, knowing full well that this meant that their daughter would not be able to attend. Alexa blamed the mother for not signing the slip.

      Candace and Zac’s court order did not specify a timeframe for making decisions. Candace asked Zac to inform her well in advance which two weeks he wanted to take the children on vacation during the summer. Every year, Zac refused to inform Candace until the week before summer vacation. Candace could not enroll the children in the summer camps of their choice or make plans of her own.

      5. Abusers refuse to allow children to take part in the lives of the other parents’ family. To isolate the child and the child’s other parent, abusers reflexively block their children from contact with their ex-partner’s family.

      Grant refused to allow his daughter, Carla, to attend the out-of-state funeral of her maternal grandmother. He offered no reason. Carla’s mother had to file an emergency court order to bring her daughter to the funeral.

      6. Abusers interfere with the other parents’ time with their child. Abusers try to reduce the amount of time the other parent spends with the child and try to create stress during that time.

      Natalya and Gerardo had agreed they would each take the children to their native country on alternating winter vacations. Their divorce decree required each parent to sign the required form. Natalya always refused to sign the form, requiring Gerardo to submit an emergency court petition. She seemed to enjoy inflicting this tiresome and stressful ritual on her ex-husband.

      Gene started his calls with his daughter at 7pm, when she was at her mother’s house. Gene was inflexible about the start time, even with advance notice. He would call the police if he was unable to reach his daughter at exactly 7pm. 

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      Judges Have Options

      Judges have choices about allocating decision-making when parents separate. They can give sole legal decision-making to one parent. They can order joint decision-making. They can order one parent to consult with the other but give that parent final say if a joint decision cannot be made. They can give one parent legal decision-making in most areas, but order that a specific areas (such as medical decisions) be made by the other, or jointly.

      Some judges do not seem to understand that it is not in a child’s best interest to give a domestic abuser legal decision-making power. The abuser will pressure the victim-survivor to bend to his will, even when it hurts the child. Legal decision making gives abusers a way to dominate the child’s other parent for years to come. And the couple will end up back in court, again and again.

      What Can a Victim-Survivor Do?

      • Document how previous attempts at making joint decisions have (not) worked.
      • Request sole legal decision-making. Or ask the judge for final say in situations where a joint decision cannot be reached.
      • If a judge decides in favor of joint decision-making, try to make it work. But if you are being bullied, pushed, and intimidated into decisions, then document every event. You may need to file a request to modify the court orders based on the changed circumstance of the failure of joint decision-making.
      • Pick your battles, and do not expect the abuser to act in the best interest of your child. Abusers who were unreasonable before the separation are unlikely to become reasonable now.