In reality many perpetrators never use physical violence. Some may follow through on these threats, but only when they are losing control over the victim. In the past, domestic violence and child abuse were frequently treated as separate issues. More recently, there is growing recognition that domestic violence is a child protection issue. Domestic violence and child abuse frequently co-occur within the same families . Australian studies of child protection cases similarly support the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse.
For example, utilising interviews with children living with domestic violence, recent research undertaken by Callaghan et al. United Kingdom established that children are directly entwined in the parental dyadic of coercively controlling violence. Children clearly expressed an awareness of the controlling behaviour and coercion being perpetrated within their families and described the negative impacts of this on their victimised parent, themselves and family life. Similar to adult victims, coercive control also imposes a sense of constraint on children’s lives. As clear strategies for keeping themselves and other family members safe, the children reported monitoring their speech, their self-presentation, self-expression and social interactions. Unfortunately for children and their mothers, family dissolution does not inevitably mean that the coercive control will come to an end.
When domestic violence ends in homicide, there is no doubt about the dangers of separation. What is known about parenting in contexts of domestic violence, and what family law legislation directs judicial officers to consider is juxtaposed with actual practice. Given the previously discussed impacts on adult victims and children, domestic violence should be highly relevant to child custody proceedings. However, this is but one feature of the multifaceted problems that pervade the lives of children with a domestically violent parent . The family is core to children’s socialisation. To recover from the trauma of living with domestic violence children need a nurturing, loving environment that includes appropriate structure, limits and predictability. Perpetrators tend to be self-absorbed and this can result in negligent or irresponsible parenting.
In addition, some may use intentionally neglectful parenting as a way to win children’s loyalty, e. Perpetrators of coercive control perceive their partners as their property and this perception may extend to their children. Perpetrators have, for example, been found to seek custody at higher rates than non-abusive fathers even when they have shown little prior interest in parenting. In addition to concerns around abusive men’s capabilities as fathers, mothers who have been victimised often experience specific parenting challenges. However, even if the domestic violence ceases post-separation, mothers and children still need time to heal. Similar to adult victims, it is not uncommon for children to remain fearful and anxious toward the perpetrator even when the domestic violence has ceased.
Similarly, in Ireland, Naughton et al. In the United Kingdom a recent study revealed that notwithstanding histories of violence , unsupervised contact was commonly ordered to abusive fathers . Concerning as this might be given what is known about the impacts on children, more problematic is research suggesting that domestically violent fathers are considered no differently or viewed more favourably than non-abusive men . O’Sullivan’s analysis of family court files in the United States found that fathers who had a domestic violence protection order out against them had a much high probability of being granted visitation compared with those fathers who never had a protection order against them. Rather her status as a litigant, a mother, and , seems to ensure that she will be viewed as, at best, merely self-interested, and at worst, not credible. The courts have a tendency toward over-valuing fathers’ claims of desire for extensive access to their children.
Evidence in Child Custody Proceedings: What does the Research Tell Us? Judicial officers are not domestic violence experts and can only make decisions on the basis of the evidence that is before them. 20 family court judgements sought to unpack the role of family reports in judicial constructions of the best interests of the child in cases where domestic violence was alleged. While it is the case that children from high-conflict families can experience adverse effects, their experiences and needs are different from those living within environments characterised by coercive control.
Even in the few cases where coercive control was acknowledged as an issue, any adverse effects to children were commonly ignored, minimised or de-contextualised from the violence. Judicial reference to family reports in the judgments analysed by Shea Hart also tended to construct women within stereotypical gendered frameworks which negated their credibility. Further, report writers and in turn judges, appeared to have limited or no understanding of domestic violence and its impacts. The outcome was the potential re-exposure of children and adult victims to domestic violence through parenting orders that did not provide an adequate assessment of domestic violence allegations. Australia to systematically consider the role of family reports in family court proceedings. However, given the small sample size and the fact that assessment of these reports was based on secondary judicial reference, we need to be careful before drawing definitive conclusions regarding the Australian situation. Her findings are nonetheless supported by more rigorous research undertaken in the United States and United Kingdom.
An emerging body of research exploring custody evaluations in cases of domestic violence exists in the United States . As summarised by Saunders et al. As reported above, research suggests that judicial officers often fail to take domestic violence into account when making assessments of the child’s best interests in child custody proceedings. The majority of the domestic violence cases in this study had protection orders in place, yet evaluators still failed to investigate the nature and extent of the abuse. Evaluator failure to understand the nature of coercive control is highlighted in the research of Hans et al. 607 custody evaluators from across the United States.