Three Ways We Can Transform the Family Court System to Provide Better Outcomes for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence and Their Children

By Ana M. Martinez-Mullen, Esq. and Tracy Shoberg, J.D., April 2022

Family Court systems are in dire need of reform. It gives parents who are survivors of intimate partner violence conflicting messages that can cost them custody of their children.

If you are a parent with shared custody who takes action to protect your children from an abusive ex-partner. The judge calls you uncooperative. You try to co-parent your children with an abusive ex-partner. The judge labels your actions as "child endangerment." You give up and are traumatized by the system’s determination to make you “keep your family together", therefore being considered a selfless parent who deserves praise for being reasonable. 

Parents who are survivors of intimate partner violence trying to protect their children are diminished by the systems’ conflicting expectations of them. These parents are trapped between systems, and system actors, who leave domestic violence dynamics unaddressed. This leaves survivor parents and their children in dangerous situations, having to choose between following court orders that have the potential to be harmful – even lethal – or not following a court order and facing the threat of contempt and jail, like Julie Valadez in Wisconsin.

Although the number of case filings dropped during the Covid-19 pandemic, there were still a total of 991,657 domestic relations cases filed between March 2020 and June 2021. Many of these cases involve children and domestic violence. Whether you are a survivor entrenched in the family court or child welfare system, an advocate working tirelessly to help survivors navigate the confusing conflicting messages, or a judicial officer having to make determinations in these cases, it is not too late to work together to better a broken system.

First, we must bring the various systems together to create cohesive messaging for survivors of intimate partner violence. Family court and child welfare – and to an extent criminal court when concerning contempt– need to provide consistent messaging to survivors about protective behaviors and co-parenting efforts. When parents receive conflicting messages, it often leads to a lose-lose situation where a confluence of perpetrator behavior and the system's biases undermine the ability of the survivor parent to support and help heal their children, leading to longstanding conflict, entrapment, instability, and increased litigation.

Second, we need consistent, accessible, and up-to-date training for all court practitioners. Specifically, we need training for judicial officers and guardians at Litem (GALs) given their significant power in determining the outcomes of family court cases. Training like the ones that BWJP offers for guardian ad litems are essential to ensure justice in family law proceedings. Organizations such as the Cady Institute through the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) as well as the National Center for Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) offer accessible judicial training. Training on the signs of domestic violence will help practitioners recognize a pattern of violence and ensure they are looking at the nature and context of the violence to obtain a true picture of what is happening within a family.

Third, we must work to ensure a fair chance in court for survivors of intimate partner violence, especially for those who are representing themselves in court proceedings. This entails simplifying the over-complicated court processes so that survivors know what to expect and can meaningfully engage in a system that disincentivizes honest sharing about domestic violence and perpetrator behavior.

Our children deserve a system that works in their best interest. If we all commit to creating a better system for parents who are survivors of intimate partner violence, we allow children a chance to be supported and protected by the adults around them and, we work towards an improved system that provides safer outcomes for survivors and their children.