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The Role of Judges in Understanding a Batterer’s Use of Violence in Co-Occurrence Cases

Judge AycockRuby White StarrHon. Steve Aycock (ret.), Assistant Director, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ

Z. Ruby White Starr, Assistant Director, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ

Summary: To protect children from the damaging effects of domestic violence, adult victims must get the help they need without losing custody to the child protection system, and batterers must be held accountable to stop their violent and coercive behavior.

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Judges play a vital role in responding to the overlap of domestic violence and child maltreatment (co-occurrence) in their dependency dockets. This responsibility includes ensuring that relevant system players—such as CASA volunteers, social workers and evaluators—serve as objective gatherers and reporters of facts and that they have the necessary domestic violence knowledge and training needed to adequately address and present the unique safety issues involved when multiple family members are at risk. A key precept for responding involves understanding a batterer’s use of violence inside the home and within the court setting.  

Battering in the Home

Batterers vary in the ways they are abusive toward their partners and children as well as in the ways they interact with others in their lives. In many cases, batterers can appear charming and in control outside of their homes, but within them they cause harm to their partners and children to gain control over their actions and decisions. A domestic violence perpetrator can harm children by:

  • Exposing children to abuse, whether children directly observe the violence, overhear it or see the aftermath
  • Hurting children during the course of violence or when children try to protect their mothers
  • Serving as role models that perpetuate violence
  • Using children as a weapon against or to manipulate the adult victim
  • Imposing rigid or authoritarian parenting and sowing division within the family
  • Undermining the adult victim’s parenting efforts or authority, or the mother-child bond

Batterers may coerce their adult victims by threatening to report them to child protective services because they “allowed” the abuse to happen. Or batterers may warn victims that they will lose custody if they seek divorce. These are valid concerns for many adult victims because an analysis of data suggests that in contested custody cases, men who use violence gain custody at the same or higher rate as those who do not. One reason for this could be powerful misconceptions that allegations of domestic violence or child abuse made within the context of a divorce are merely tactics to gain an advantage in the dispute. The Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody reports a paradox in this regard. Adult victims may be held responsible for failing to protect their children from domestic violence during child protection interventions. But after leaving the relationship, adult victims may be considered “hostile” within the legal system if they attempt to protect the children by limiting batterer contact or demonstrating other protective behaviors.

Battering in the Courtroom

Perpetrators may use court proceedings or threats of court proceedings and non-compliance with service plans or court orders to continue to exert control over the victim parent and children. Judges should be aware of how batterers leverage the courts, should identify and minimize batterer control tactics in the court setting, and should ensure batterers are held accountable. Batterers may leverage the courts by exploiting petitions that name the victim parent as responsible for the abuse with a charge, for example, of failure to protect. This allows a batterer to blame someone other than himself for the violence and to use the victim parent’s fear of losing her children to coerce her into meeting his demands by threatening to report her to child protective services or the courts. Batterers may also use the courts to make frivolous or repeated allegations, file pleadings, or use whatever methods are available to drag on investigations or sabotage a victim parent’s ability to meet the requirements of her service plan. In a court setting, batterers may take advantage of the victim parent’s fear through verbal or non-verbal intimidation and manipulation. If courts focus exclusively on the legal definitions of domestic violence, underlying patterns of abusive behavior may not be apparent in interventions, court proceedings, or the courtroom, and relevant information that promotes the safety and well-being of both the children and victim parent may be lost.

Holding Batterers Accountable

There are several ways judges can hold batterers accountable for their behavior:

  • When assessing reasonable efforts, ensure the information you receive includes reports with language that affirms the batterer’s role in harming the children, avoids victim blaming and contains a service plan for the batterer.
  • Conduct fact-finding related to service plans to ensure they address the safety risks the batterer poses and include compliance and progress information from relevant service providers, such as batterer intervention programs. Information is needed on change in behavior, not just on attendance.
  • Assess compliance at each hearing, modify orders if a victim parent and children are not safe, and ensure there are consequences for non-compliance.
  • Inquire if child protective services staff are working directly with the batterer instead of through the adult victim or children.
  • Do not allow proceedings to become a manipulative tool for a batterer. Research indicates that they best way to protect children is to keep their mother safe; therefore, the focus of hearings should be on the safety of the victim and children. Address the batterer’s behavior, not whether the victim attended her appointments, received “treatment” or left the batterer.

An effective response to domestic violence requires judicial leadership and an educated and coordinated response to co-occurrence. To protect children from the damaging effects of domestic violence, adult victims must get the help they need without losing custody to the child protection system, if the child is able to remain safely with them, and batterers must be held accountable to stop their violent and coercive behavior.

 

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