Last week, an opinion piece was published in CT Viewpoints – The CT Legislature Must Protect Domestic Abuse Victims – arguing that a presumption of 50/50 custody or “shared parenting” is in the best interests of domestic violence victims. For many, if not most victims of domestic violence, this could not be further from the case.
Such a presumption creates a substantial disadvantage for many victims and potentially exposes them and their children to continued and increased danger.
Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV) has a few simple beliefs about domestic violence. First, domestic violence is learned behavior that is a choice. Second, domestic violence can be unlearned, abusers can make better decisions, and they can leave their past abusive behaviors behind. Third, and this is critical when considering an argument that a presumption of 50/50 custody is ever beneficial to victims or their children, an individual who chooses to abuse his or her child’s other parent is not and cannot be a good parent until he or she chooses to cease abusive behaviors and treat the other parent with respect.
Domestic violence does not always end when an intimate relationship ends. In fact, this is when it may get worse.
Domestic violence is about control and coercion, and the end of the relationship often signals a complete lack of control for the abuser. When faced with the loss of control, an abuser will often use children or the court system to regain their control.
While there are various parenting schedules that constitute shared parenting, all of which create endless opportunities to further the best interest of children, they sadly also create endless opportunities for abusers to continue to control the victim by fear, threats, intimidation, and litigation abuse.
Shared parenting works when both parents have a commitment to providing their children with the tremendous benefit of being raised by two parents committed to the child’s best interests above all else – even if they do not agree on what that is. Shared parenting cannot work when there is a significant imbalance of power, which is the case in abusive relationships where one person controls or is attempting to control the other.
Shared decision-making that forces victims of domestic violence into a vulnerable position of having to negotiate with an abuser who has already traumatized them is unlikely to be successful and will certainly lead to continued conflict not only for the victim, but also for the children. It can also lead to unsafe agreements or compromises and more court time.
It is not always just a question of whether a parent is actively abusing the child, as the opinion’s authors suggest with their “obvious solution” of a presumption of shared parenting “unless there is child abuse and neglect.” It is also the consideration of how a parent’s treatment of the other parent impacts the child. “He may have abused his ex, but he’s such a good dad.” CCADV disagrees with this common refrain. Any parent who chooses to abuse the other parent is subjecting their children to emotional and psychological trauma that will have lasting consequences and perpetuate the public health crisis of domestic violence.
A presumption of shared parenting would move Connecticut’s child-centered approach of joint legal custody to a parent-centered approach. Instilling a presumption into statute often shifts a legal burden to the party it is designed to protect. The court already has the ability to grant joint physical custody when it is in the best interest of the child. Having a presumption of shared custody may detract from consideration of the child’s welfare, particularly in situations where the family has experienced domestic violence.
So yes, domestic violence victims deserve support from the Connecticut legislature. Changing Connecticut’s custody laws to include a presumption of shared parenting would have the opposite effect.
Meghan Scanlon is the President & CEO of Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV).