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Domestic Violence and Child Custody

Becoming a witness of domestic violence and growing up in a volatile and disturbing family environment can have a dreadful impact on the psychological development of a child. Hence, the issue of child custody in situations that involve domestic violence is one of great important.

The U.S. Department of Justice gives great importance toward protecting the rights of children who are exposed to domestic violence. Domestic violence in this context does not necessarily mean that the child has actually seen physical abuse or witnessed domestic violence. It may encompass circumstances where the child is simply present in the home during an incident of domestic violence. This type of abuse is commonly referred to as "secondary abuse." In a California case known as In re Heather A., 60 Cal. Rptr. 2d 315, 322 (Ct. App. 1996), the court found that two children were exposed to domestic violence by virtue of being in the same home as their mother, who was physically abused by her boyfriend, even though the children were in another part of the house and did not actually witness the abuse. The children were removed from the home and made dependents of the court upon a finding that the children were victims of secondary abuse.

Parents experiencing domestic violence within their family home are at risk of losing custody of their children. These children may be declared dependents of the court, removed from the home, and taken into the protective custody of the Department of Social Services. There are several means by which parents subjected to domestic violence can prevent losing custody of their children. The most important thing to do is to bring an end to the violent relationship.


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Joint or sole custody may be awarded based on the best interests of the child and other factors that include 1) the preference of the child, 2) the desire and ability of each parent to allow an open and loving relationship between the child and the other parent, 3) the child's health, safety and welfare, the nature and contact with both parents and 4) the history of alcohol and drug use. Marital misconduct may be considered.
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