The child's best interest: Monitoring the presence of abuse in child custody exchanges

April M. Zeoli, Michigan State University (MSU) assistant professor of criminal justice, has been examining child custody exchanges in which violence has occurred.

April Zeoli (left), MSU assistant professor of criminal justice, and Cris Sullivan, MSU professor of psychology

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes violence against women as a substantial public health problem in the United States. According to CDC data, nearly 5.3 million acts of violence occur against U.S. women 18 and older each year, resulting in approximately 2 million injuries and nearly 1,300 deaths. In most cases, these victims are harmed by an intimate partner.

Women in these situations are encouraged to separate from and have no contact with their abusers. This strategy, however, can be very difficult to follow, particularly when the victim and the abuser have children together. Victims who leave abusive partners are often forced, through child custody orders, to continue interactions with their former partners — and subsequently, face the possibility of further abuse.

April M. Zeoli, Michigan State University (MSU) assistant professor of criminal justice, has been examining child custody exchanges in which violence has occurred.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to control the other. Often, these behaviors include stalking, physical or sexual assault, and psychological or financial abuse. It occurs among current and former partners, heterosexual and same-sex partners, and people in all walks of life. Though both men and women are victims, research indicates that women make up the vast majority and sustain disproportionately more injuries and deaths than men.

Zeoli, along with co-investigators Cris M. Sullivan, MSU professor of ecological and community psychology, and Echo Rivera, who recently received her doctorate in community psychology from MSU, wanted to determine the strategies that victims and the courts have deployed to protect against abuse during child custody exchanges.

“It’s important to know how courts are addressing domestic violence in child custody cases because it allows us to assess whether the interventions work to reduce violence,” Zeoli explained. “From there, we can make informed policy recommendations. The goal is to identify practices that will keep victims and their children safe. Children are often also abused in these circumstances.”

As part of a study, Zeoli and her colleagues recruited 40 mothers who self-identifi  as victims of domestic violence and intended to request a child custody order from family court. With support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health, Zeoli and her research team followed the progression of these court cases for 12 months, interviewing the women every four months.

“When we met, we talked in depth about their child custody cases and their interactions with their children’s fathers,” she said. “Specifi ly, we wanted to know if they experienced physical, financial or emotional abuse or stalking; we inquired about their mental health and well-being.

“We asked about their court progress and whether they had made any formal allegations in court against their partners, or if their partners had made any allegations against them. We also looked at the custody outcomes, including whether fathers exercised their court-granted rights to have contact with their children, and if that contact provided opportunities for abuse.”

Zeoli found that the majority of mothers reported emotional and/or physical abuse during child exchanges, regardless of whether they were conducted in public or supervised by a non-professional (usually a family member of the father). During unsupervised exchanges, mothers described numerous acts of mistreatment that occurred, from destruction of property to threats and physical abuse. In the 29 unsupervised exchanges, seven women were physically injured and eight were threatened with death.

“When exchanges were unsupervised, mothers experienced the most abuse,” Zeoli said. “We recorded instances of abuse in all of the domains we monitored: emotional abuse, physical abuse, physical abuse with injuries, stalking, threats of violence to the mother, death threats to the mother, and threats to others, including the children. It is important to note, however, that most of these types of abuse also occurred when exchanges were held in public and when members of the fathers’ families supervised the exchanges.

“By virtue of being present, children witness abuse that occurs during these exchanges, and this can have harmful health consequences for them,” she added. “Reducing children’s exposure to violence can help them heal. However, when violence continues, even as their mothers try to gain safety, their attempts to heal are thwarted.”

Zeoli said her findings suggest that child exchanges should have intervention when there’s a history of domestic violence between parents. She recommends professional supervision by a professional third party or an exchange that removes the opportunity for contact between the parents altogether.

Next, Zeoli and her colleagues will focus on sharing their research findings and informing policy changes that prompt the assessment of court protocols.

“The family courts are very open to improving their processes. Not because they have bad processes, but because they’re aware of the realities of domestic violence and the havoc it wreaks on families,” Zeoli concluded. “They are committed to making improvements that protect the best interest and welfare of children, as well as survivors of abuse.”

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