UW News

August 8, 2005

Intimate partner violence often ignored in determining child custody

Most states mandate some consideration of intimate partner violence (IPV) in child custody proceedings, but the existence of such abuse is often unknown to the court when custody is at issue. This finding, by investigators at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC), is published in the August 2005 issue of Violence Against Women.

Evidence of IPV is important in determining custody, because children exposed to their mothers’ abuse by an intimate partner are more likely to be victims of abuse themselves and to suffer adverse psychological consequences from abuse exposure, according to earlier research by Kernic and other IPV researchers. The American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and Congress have supported model statutes that call for recognition of these effects and the presumption that it is not in the best interest of a child to be under the sole or joint custody of a parent who has committed spousal abuse.

The researchers studied Seattle couples with minor children who filed for divorce between Jan. 1, 1998 and Dec. 31, 1999. This group was merged to police- and court-reported sources of IPV data to determine whether a substantiated history of male-perpetrated violence existed. The investigators analyzed 324 cases with a history of IPV and 532 cases without a history of IPV from the total pool of 2,396 eligible marriage dissolution filings.

The researchers found that, although mothers in general were far more likely to be awarded custody, mothers with a history of IPV victimization were no more likely to receive child custody than those without such a history. Fathers with a history of IPV perpetration were no more likely to be required by the court to have child visitation supervised by a third party. Although fathers with a substantiated history of IPV that was known to the court were more likely to have been denied child visitation compared to fathers with no history of IPV, only 17 percent of fathers with a known history of substantiated IPV were denied child visitation.There was no mention of IPV in the dissolution case files in 47.6 percent of the cases in which male-perpetrated IPV had in fact occurred, indicating that no IPV allegations were made and none of the prior police or court records were submitted as evidence during divorce proceedings for almost half of the cases with a documented history of abuse. Based on police incident reports, court orders and dissolution findings of male-perpetrated IPV, the investigators estimate that at least 11.4 percent of Seattle dissolutions with dependent children involve a substantiated history of male-perpetrated IPV.

“Assuming the rate in Seattle is an appropriate approximation for the U.S., 125,400 children from households with male-perpetrated IPV are the subjects of custody actions each year,” says Mary Kernic, Ph.D., M.P.H., a University of Washington (UW) assistant professor of epidemiology and principal investigator for the study. “Though the goal in many states is to consider IPV in adhering to ‘the best interests of the child,’ the success of this approach depends foremost on the court’s awareness that this violence has occurred.”

In addition to Kernic, the investigators were Daphne Monary-Ernsdorff, a research assistant at the HIPRC; Jennifer Koepsell, M.P.H., formerly a research assistant at the HIPRC; and Victoria Holt, Ph.D., a UW professor of epidemiology.

This study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice.

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