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.
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.
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
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
http://www.mobar.org, or by calling (573)
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