Studies show that domestic violence has occurred at least once in two-thirds of all marriages, and some observers have estimated that it is the reason for at least 25% of all divorces. Many divorce attorneys believe that the actual numbers are much higher based on the cases that they have personally handled. In addition, many divorces of spouses who have experienced domestic violence also involve issues dealing with child custody, and in those cases, the victim is faced with the challenge of how to co-parent with their former abuser.
Victims of domestic violence can be anyone living in the household and extend to child abuse and elder abuse. The term “intimate partner violence,” however, is typically reserved for victims who are in a sexual relationship with the abuser. To some professionals, the term “intimate partner abuse” is preferred because many people associate violence with physical violence. However, such behavior comes in many different forms, including mental abuse and financial control.
There are also divorce and custody cases where children have been the victims of abuse by a parent. If this is applicable to your situation, it is important to discuss this with the divorce lawyer who you are working with. In child custody cases, the emphasis of the court is doing what is in the best interest of the child. As a result, in cases involving child abuse, the court may require supervised parenting time for the abusive parent, whereas they may be less likely to make such requirements if the abuse has been limited to the former partner.
Many experts in the field believe that co-parenting in this scenario is not possible. While the marriage may have technically ended, the victim never gets to move on from the abuse as the co-parenting continues to put the victim backed into the same situations. Because abuse does tend to continue when co-parenting, most family law attorneys recommend against it as well and instead advise another form of shared parenting, such as parallel parenting.
There are significant distinctions between parallel parenting and co-parenting. Both generally have the same goal as far as the children are concerned. Research has shown that children who spend at least 35% of their time with each parent are mentally and emotionally healthier than those who do not. Co-parenting is the ideal. It involves a shared foundation, such as having the same set of rules at one parent’s house as the children do at the other. This is often not possible in an abusive relationship, unfortunately. Studies show that in cases where the abuse continues, the detrimental effect on the children is just as great if not greater. Parallel parenting does require sacrifices that undermine the ideal of co-parenting, but it is a practical solution.
Many family law attorneys are in favor of parallel parenting because it allows both parents to remain in the children’s lives while allowing the abused former spouse the freedom to heal, regain their individuality and grow emotionally. The benefits for the children are that they experience:
For the victim, the goal of parallel parenting is to minimize and ideally eliminate any contact with the abuser. This does come with some sacrifices. In a healthy co-parenting environment, the parenting plan can easily evolve as needed, and the children can spend time as a part of a family unit even though the parents are no longer together. With parallel parenting, communication should be avoided. The parenting plan should be defined through the custody agreement or court order, and any evolution of that plan is likely going to require changes to those documents.
When the situation makes it necessary, courts are in favor of parallel parenting plans because they put the children above all else, and the best interests of the children is always the emphasis of the court. It is worth noting that parallel parenting is not limited to cases involving violence. Parallel parenting is appropriate for any custody case in which the relationship between the parents is toxic and the children are better off having the parents separated.
If one spouse has been controlling of the other during a marriage, divorce attorneys and family therapists warn that the behavior is likely to continue and thus co-parenting is not possible. There are also other cases in which a co-parenting environment becomes toxic and parallel parenting is necessary. This can include:
Whether the custody arrangement is defined by an agreement or a court order, it is legally binding. If the abusive parent does not adhere to the requirements, then the other parent has recourse. The plan should indicate the public location used for all handoffs. It should also set forth what each parent is responsible for, as it is more difficult to share responsibilities when parallel parenting. The plan can also deal with routines, chores, social activities, developmental milestones and how to approach behavioral issues.
A communication book is a simple concept but also a rather ingenious one that makes parallel parenting possible. It is a logbook that the parents share but through the child. The parent who has primary custody of the child records all important parenting information in the book. When the child goes to live with the other parent, the book goes with them. The non-custodial parent is now privy to all of that parenting information and can add their own information during the child’s stay.
Some divorce lawyers recommend therapy even when the divorce is amicable. Parenting after a divorce can become very stressful at times, and everything is heightened when there is a history of abuse. Having a therapist you have built a relationship with is also helpful should the abuse ever continue. If the abuse happens again, contact your therapist first, but then notify your family lawyer so that you can take whatever legal measures are available to you in order to protect yourself and your children.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse who needs to navigate a divorce and child custody agreement, Lawrence Law is here to assist you. Our New Jersey law firm has extensive experience with these types of matters. We have offices in Red Bank and Watchung. If you’d like to schedule an appointment with a family lawyer, call us at 908-645-1000 or contact us using the form on our website.