Safety for Children
A report on the impact of Rhode Island's custody system on victims of domestic violence and their children
Even when victims of domestic violence attempt to build violence-free lives and protect their children, they too often continue to suffer injustice and abuse throughout the child custody and visitation process. As a result of this issue surfacing as a priority concern for its members, SOAR, with the support of the RICADV, launched the Child Custody and Visitation Solutions (CCVS) Project in 2007.
The objective of the project was to assess the effects of the custody and visitation process on domestic violence victims and their children and to create solutions to improve the system.
The importance of a collaborative process and community leadership led to the creation of the Child Custody and Visitation Advisory Committee (CCVAC). The role of the Advisory Committee was to guide the process and to facilitate the examination of the system’s response to victims and their children.
From May to October 2008, data was gathered through different methods, including surveys of survivors, focus groups, key informant interviews, case reviews, and research. The data was reviewed by members of the CCVAC, who then crafted the final recommendations.
This work resulted in the Safety for Children report, which was published in 2010 and can be read in full here.
SOAR and the Child Custody and Visitation Advisory Committee (CCVAC) examined the strengths and gaps of the child custody and visitation process in cases involving domestic violence.
In addition to meeting with attorneys and judges, SOAR held numerous focus groups and collected 101 surveys from domestic violence survivors who had gone through, or were currently going through, the Rhode Island child custody and visitation process.
From the information gathered, the committee identified some of the key problems of the Rhode Island family court system’s child custody and visitation process:
Children continue to suffer violence and abuse during the child custody and visitation process.
Violence continued to be a part of children’s lives, even as their victimized parent sought safety, in an overwhelming majority of the cases reviewed.
- 89% of the survey respondents stated that their children witnessed domestic violence before and/or during the custody and visitation process.
- According to survey respondents, 71% of their children were also abused by the abusive parent, and many of these children suffered from more than one type of abuse (Figure 1).
- Moreover, 53% of the survey respondents reported that the child abuse occurred during visitation.
- In spite of this reality, 58% of the participants’ cases where abuse was present were decided in favor of joint custody.
- According to the survey results, the majority of children suffered some negative emotional and/or psychological consequences from the process (Figure 3). At least two parents in the survey commented on suicidal behavior by their children: “(My) five-year-old said she didn’t want to live, life was 'too difficult.'"
Services to protect children are insufficient.
- Focus group participants had very little information about the Supervised Visitation Program. The main source of information they had about this service came from other survivors or another third party.
- Focus group participants also expressed a distrust of the Supervised Visitation Program.
- 75% of the survey participants who accessed supervised visitation services were unsatisfied with the supervision. “Lack of proper supervision” was the most frequent explanation for this dissatisfaction.
Child custody and visitation cases drive victims of domestic violence into debt and poverty.
- 73% of victims surveyed were employed at the beginning of the child custody case.
- About one-third reported to have lost their jobs as a direct consequence of the custody case. Another one-third perceived that the custody case had negative consequences on their employment (Figure 5).
- According to the case reviews conducted, most cases had a final disposition in approximately one year, although subsequent miscellaneous motions made different proceedings ongoing. One woman reported being involved in different court proceedings for about 17 years.
- For many survivors, the court process resembled the cycle of violence in abusive relationships (Figure 6).
- “The tension phase” manifested itself by the abuser’s escalation of conflict and tension.
- During “the explosion phase,” the abuser used the court, police, and attorneys as a tool to harass or harm the victim.
- In the “honeymoon phase,” the conflict diminished.
Victims of domestic violence continue to suffer abuse and violence.
- 76% of victims reported being abused during a visitation exchange, with most suffering more than one type of abuse (Figure 8).
- 81% of the visitation exchanges took place in the victim’s or batterer’s home.
- Participants in the focus groups chronicled being followed, harassed, threatened, and assaulted, even in cases where a valid restraining order was in effect. Some of this intimidation took place inside the courthouse.
Domestic violence is minimized.
- 82% of the victims interviewed in focus groups said that domestic violence was either minimized or filtered out of their child custody and visitation case.
- In 64% of the cases where the court took action after a domestic violence report was made, the most common action was granting a restraining order.
- Restraining orders granted in child custody and visitation cases are treated as a civil matter and are not enforceable by the police.
- 57% of the participants’ cases have joint custody despite the existence of domestic violence.
SOAR and the CCVAC developed the following recommendations to help victims and their children safely navigate the custody and visitation process in Rhode Island’s family court system.
However, they also recognize that the effective implementation of these proposed recommendations will require a community approach. Due to the complexity of this issue, one system alone cannot make all the changes that are needed. For this reason, the CCVAC intentionally crafted the recommendations not as mandates for one system but as an open invitation for the Rhode Island community to get involved in improving this process.
- Coordinate court services and information-sharing strategies within the court system to reduce fragmentation and to provide continuity and consistency in cases involving domestic violence.
- Implement court protocols that ensure the safety of victims and their children in custody and visitation cases.
- Utilize statutes and policies to prevent abusers from using the court system to further victimize domestic violence victims and their children.
- Create programs that provide information about parental rights, education about the court process, and advocacy services to victims of domestic violence during the custody and visitation process.
- Recommend changes to the Rhode Island General Laws to create a clear custody standard and guidelines to be followed in domestic violence cases.
- Create safe visitation centers and safe exchange programs throughout the state to ensure accessibility for domestic violence victims and their children.
- Develop collaboration among all stakeholders to increase victims’ access to a) affordable and competent legal representation and b) guardians ad litem and other resources that benefit children who are impacted by domestic violence.
- Expand the Rhode Island Family Court Domestic Violence Advocacy Program and other court services to provide consistent case management, information, referrals, and assistance with investigation of child custody and visitation in all cases where domestic violence has been identified.
- Establish specialized domestic violence courtrooms in all counties.
- Educate attorneys about domestic violence to enhance representation of domestic violence victims and to protect children in divorce and child custody and visitation cases.
- Increase judicial awareness of the ongoing impact of domestic violence and the court process on victims of domestic violence and their children in order to increase the number of times special safety considerations are ordered in cases involving domestic violence.
- Strengthen domestic violence education for professionals who are involved in the custody and visitation process, including but not limited to mediators, guardians ad litem, Family Court Investigative Unit staff, supervised visitation facilitators and mental health professionals.