Recently we’ve been spending some time interviewing domestic violence survivors who want to talk about their experiences in court. Some came to court to obtain a protective order, others to give testimony in a criminal case. Some participated in a custody or divorce case. Their stories help us understand what may be working well at court and where there may be practices that put survivors or their children at risk.
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. 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.