One of the most challenging aspects of custody decisions is the issue of domestic violence. About 20% of divorces require judges to appoint a custody evaluator to assist in the determination of custody arrangements. There are a wide range of estimates (50% - 90%) of the extent to which these divorce cases involve aggression and violence. One of the central questions that the custody evaluator must decide is whether the domestic violence is likely to continue and how to handle custody arrangements in a way that does not put family members at-risk of further violence. At present there are no universal standards for conducting custody evaluations and most custody evaluators have little training in domestic violence.
In a recent study Megan Haselschwerdt, Jennifer Hardesty and Jason Hans (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2011) examined how custody evaluators think about domestic violence in their decisions regarding custody. They conducted in-depth interviews with a small sample (N=23) of custody evaluators that had on average about 14 years of experience conducting evaluations.
Even among behavioral scientists there has been much debate about the nature of domestic violence. Professor Michael Johnson at the University of Michigan has clarified the dispute by explaining that there are two major types of domestic violence. On the one hand, some violence is the result of stressful situations in which husbands or wives lash out in physical or verbal aggression. He called this "situational violence." On the other hand, some domestic violence involves the use of extreme forms of control that forces a partner to do something she does not want to do. Johnson labeled this form of violence as "intimate terrorism." He also notes that in addition to physical violence, intimate terrorists use psychological abuse, isolation and intimidation to control their partners.
Custody evaluators are likely to encounter couples who are engaged in both types of violent situations. How custody evaluators assess violence can influence their recommendations about custody outcomes. These researchers found that custody evaluators tended to hold a view that either viewed violence as situational violence or intimate terrorism.
The custody evaluators whose views tended towards viewing aggression as situational violence reported less training in domestic violence. This group generally viewed domestic violence as stress induced, normative and mutual. As a result, these evaluators minimized spouse abuse as relevant to child custody decisions. They also thought that false allegations of violence were common. In terms of custody and parenting plans, they prioritized coparenting and father-child relationships.
On the other hand, custody evaluators who characterized domestic violence as intimate terrorism took a different view of custody. They were more likely to report extensive training in domestic violence. These evaluators viewed spouse abuse as a significant factor in determining child custody. They thought that false allegations of abuse were rare. This group of evaluators distinguished between types of violence and expressed strong views that custody and parenting plans should be different for each of these types of violence. In the case of intimate terrorism, they prioritized victim safety over ongoing contact with fathers.
Although based on a small sample of custody evaluators, these findings raise important questions about the degree to which domestic violence is being thoughtfully considered in custody decisions. It is important for the legal system to develop training and policies such that custody evaluators can appropriately consider custody arrangements in domestic violence situations.