The Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering a measure, Senate Bill 1049, that would create a presumption of shared custody and shared parenting in child custody cases heard before the court. Unfortunately, any such presumption could have serious implications for victims of domestic violence and their children involved in such cases.
By creating a presumption of shared custody and shared parenting, the bill seeks to remove the existing concepts of joint legal and joint physical custody, which have significant case law built upon them. Currently, joint legal custody pertains to the decision-making by parents regarding the child’s health, education, and religious upbringing and joint physical custody means that the child will have continuing contact with both parents. Under this proposal, the court would be required to ensure that each parent exercises physical care of the child for substantial periods of time and that shared decision-making extend beyond health, education and religion.
This is a parent-centered approach, not a child-centered approach. The court already has the ability to grant joint legal and/or physical custody when it is in the best interest of the child. Having a presumption of shared custody may detract from consideration of the child’s welfare, particularly in situations where the family has experienced domestic violence.
Domestic violence does not always end when an intimate relationship ends. In fact, this is when it may get worse. Domestic violence, which is not always physical, is about control and coercion, and the end of the relationship often signals a complete lack of control for the abuser. All too often children are used by an abusive individual to continue to exert control over the other parent. While there are variations on what constitutes “shared parenting,” almost all versions create endless opportunities for the victim to be continuously subjected to every demand of her or his abuser. In efforts to regain control over the victim, the abusive parent may object to any proposed decisions for the children or create stumbling blocks for the implementation of any decisions once made.
An individual who abuses his or her child’s other parent is not and cannot be a good parent until he or she chooses to cease abusive behaviors and treat the other parent with respect. By choosing to abuse the other parent he or she is subjecting the child to emotional and psychological trauma that will have lasting consequences.
Shared parenting only works when both parents are on equal ground. This is simply not possible in abusive relationships where one person controls the other. Shared decision-making that forces victims of domestic violence into a vulnerable position of having to negotiate with an abuser who has already traumatized them is unlikely to be successful and may lead to continued conflict for both the victim and the involved child(ren). Shared parenting is certainly a reasonable goal, but the state should not codify into law a presumption that it is always in the best of interest of the child at the time a custody dispute is first initiated.