When domestic violence survivors seek a divorce, they often run head long into a host of problems that result in an increased risk of violence for them and their children. Maryland law requires that all decisions regarding custody be made “in the best interests of the child,” yet judges regularly penalize survivors for raising concerns about the abuser having unsupervised time with the children. Many judges are quick to view female survivors as manipulative, and are highly suspicious of survivor testimony about past abuse, even when a final protective order was granted.
We were very concerned by what we learned from one domestic violence survivor recently about her experience in Circuit Court during her divorce case. We’ll call the survivor Sheila.
Last year Sheila went to a Montgomery County hospital emergency room after her husband assaulted her when she tried to breastfeed their child. The assault caused significant injury. The physician insisted on bringing in police due to the severity of her injuries. Sheila described many additional times that her husband had assaulted her.
The hospital also called Child Protective Services. The Child Protective Services worker insisted that the survivor leave the home and file for a protective order. Sheila did so, and obtained a final order in District Court.
The Circuit Court judge found in the custody case that the violence appeared to be an isolated incident, even though testimony included descriptions of ten incidents. Incredibly, despite the clear severity of the assault and the existence of a final protective order, a Child Protective Services safety plan and a police report, the judge gave the father the “tie-breaking” vote on matters to do with the child.
Just what would it take to convince this Circuit Court judge that a father’s behavior is inappropriate enough to affect their custody and visitation rights? Was this decision in “the child’s best interests?” We don’t think so.
When domestic violence survivors seek a divorce they should not be subject to the same criteria and approach used in divorces between non-violent partners. Maryland law needs to address the differences and provide a system that ensures domestic violence survivors and their child remain safe.