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Feature Article


Domestic Violence and Divorce

Ann Huey, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia
Jennifer Hardesty, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Nursing, Johns Hopkins University
Kim Leon, Former State Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia

Getting An Attorney

Many abused women fear losing custody of their children to their abusive husbands. If any aspect of the custody arrangement or visitation is being disputed, get an attorney!

Domestic violence cases involve complex issues (e.g., power and control dynamics, fear). Try to find an attorney who understands domestic violence and has experience with domestic violence divorce cases. To locate an attorney, ask:

  • Local victim advocate services
  • Other victims of domestic violence
  • Local legal services
  • The State Bar Association

Be sure to ask about attorneys who offer their services at a reduced fee or on a no-charge (pro bono) basis. You can also check with your local legal services office or the State Bar Association to see if you qualify for reduced-fee representation. Sometimes they give preference to victims of domestic violence.

Representing Yourself

If custody arrangements and visitation are being disputed and you cannot afford an attorney, you can represent yourself in court. Seek out expert advice from local domestic violence programs, law school legal clinics, and the State Bar Association. To reduce the costs of representing yourself, ask the court to waive fees you are unable to pay. Only represent yourself if you have no way of getting an attorney.

Protecting Yourself

Whether or not you are representing yourself in court, you should keep copies and records of the following:

  • Written records of all interactions with the abuser, including exact times and dates children are picked up and returned, dates and amounts of child support, and any violations of court orders of protection
  • Documentation of abuse, including police reports, medical records, photographs, and claims for crime victim compensation
  • Certified copy of marriage certificate
  • Rent receipts, bank statements, utility bills, credit card records, children's report cards

These documents may be necessary when going to court over custody arrangements or visitation. You may also need them if there are future incidents of abuse or motions to modify custody or child support.

During the divorce process, you may have to make a number of decisions about the future of your children. There is a great deal of emphasis by the courts on cooperation between divorcing parents. Remember, however, that mediation and joint custody arrangements can be dangerous for survivors of domestic violence and their children. You can ask the court to waive mandatory mediation because you are a victim of domestic violence.

Don't assume that mothers are favored in custody disputes. Sometimes courts favor the friendly parent, or the parent who seems most cooperative, so avoid making negative statements about your former spouse during the divorce process. Instead, focus on what is best for the children. However, it is still important to let the courts know about the abuse because it does bear on what is in the best interests of the children.

Whether represented by an attorney or yourself, learn more about these issues. You have a right to justice and safety!

If you develop a post-divorce parenting plan with your children's other parent, be specific. Don't assume your former spouse will cooperate because he or she promises to or is being nice during the divorce process. Get in writing what is expected of each of you in your new roles and what steps will be taken if there is a need to change the plan.

When making these decisions, think about the long-term well-being of your children. Many survivors of abuse just want to get the divorce over with so they can move on with their lives. In doing so, they compromise the safety of themselves and their children. Avoid compromising out of fear or for the sake of getting it over with. However, it is still important to take your safety seriously. Do not hesitate to go into protective custody or a shelter and to get an escort to court and elsewhere.

For more information about legal issues related to domestic violence, see Domestic Violence and the Law: A Practical Guide for Survivors. This is a free brochure published by the Young Lawyers Section of the Missouri Bar. It is available at, or by calling (573) 635-4128.

Also, see the feature article "Where to Look for Help if You Have Experienced Domestic Violence" on this website for more sources of help.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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