Domestic Violence and The Rebuttable Presumption

Posted June 17, 2015 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

Acts of domestic violence so often occur behind closed doors. Domestic violence has now been recognized as a “public policy issue with major implications for the health and safety of women and children.” Many surveys have projected domestic violence as the number one cause of injury to women in the United States. Unfortunately, the nature of the criminal justice system makes domestic violence cases harder to prosecute and history has shown that there has been little communication between the prosecutors, police, victim advocates, and the courts. Because of this lack of communication, “the chances are good that some of these problematic cases will slip between the cracks and that battering will continue, sometimes with tragic result.” For this reason, it is not surprising that many victims feel hopeless and decline to report incidents of domestic violence.

Given the faults of the criminal justice system, many victims find themselves without anywhere to turn. Unfortunately, the domestic violence continues and those with children may also suffer. Victims of domestic violence develop post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, traumatization, or suffer from some other psychological/physiological effect resulting from the abuse. These negative effects of abuse can cause the victim to experience a variety of symptoms that have a direct bearing on the capacity of her parenting. For example, victims may experience emotional numbness or withdrawal from their children, leaving the children to feel even more isolated in an already distressing situation.  Children may feel as though the victim parent does not care about them, when this may be far from the truth. Consequently, these negative effects of abuse compromises the victim’s parenting.

The question then becomes, what happens in child custody cases? The standard used by all family court judges, is the “best interest” of the child rule. However, deciding what is in the “best interest” of the child is often difficult depending on the particular set of circumstances. In a domestic violence situation, where the mother’s parenting was compromised due to years of abuse, but the father has shown that he is still a capable parent- who should be awarded custody? What is in the child’s best interest when an abusive father and an emotionally distant mother seek custody? “Taking custody away from an abused mother seems to penalize her for being the victim of domestic violence, and it discourages other mothers from seeking help or reporting domestic violence for fear of losing custody of their children.” Apart from the effect on the victims, awarding custody to the abusers also teaches children harmful lessons.

The California Legislature has recognized the potential problem that domestic violence can create in the family courts. To address this issue, the California Legislature drafted California Family Code § 3044. For traditional child custody cases, the court is to determine what is in the child’s “best interest” by considering several factors, such as the health, safety and welfare of the child, and the amount of contact that the child has with both parents. In domestic violence cases, the court must also consider any history of spousal abuse. Although the court is given discretion in how much weight they accord each factor, the factors are crucial in helping to guide judges on issues that they should consider in assessing a child’s best interest.

In addition to the factors, the California Legislature did specifically state that domestic violence is detrimental to the well-being of a child. This was codified in California Family Code § 3044. According to this section, if domestic violence is found to have occurred within the previous five years of the custody evaluation, then there is a rebuttable presumption that awarding custody to the abuser is detrimental to the “best interest” of that child. The court must also consider seven factors in determining whether the presumption has been overcome. These factors include, but are not limited to, whether the abuser is restrained by a protective order and has complied with its terms and conditions, whether the abuser has completed a program of alcohol or drug abuse counseling, and whether the abuser has committed any additional acts of domestic violence since the start of the custody case.

Additionally, under this section, a person is found to have perpetrated domestic violence when he or she either “intentionally or recklessly caused or attempted to cause bodily injury, or sexual assault, or to have placed a person in reasonable apprehension of imminent serious bodily injury to that person or to another. . .  .” It also includes behavior including, but not limited to, “threatening, striking, harassing, destroying personal property or disturbing the peace of another, for which a court may issue an ex parte order pursuant to § 6320 to protect the other party seeking custody of the child or to protect the child and the child’s siblings.”

With the rebuttable presumption, the hope is that victims will triumph in seeking custody of their children as they seek to regain control of their lives.

If you have any questions about this rebuttable presumption or any other issue, the Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich Patton Erlich Policastri have decades of experience handling complex family law matters. Please contact the Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich Patton Erlich Policastri for further information.  Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.


Source:    Patrick F. Fagan, Anna Dorminey, & Emily Hering, The Effects of Family Structure on Child Abuse, in CHILD ABUSE, FAMILY RIGHTS, AND THE CHILD PROTECTIVE SYSTEM: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS FROM LAW, ETHICS, AND CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING 155, 171 (Stephen M. Krason ed., 2013).

Source:     Alytia A. Levendosky & Sandra A. Graham-Bermann, Behavioral Observations of Parenting in Battered Women, 14 J. FAM. PSYCHOL. 80, 81 (2000).

Source:     Cal. Fam. Code § 3020 (West 2000).

Source:     Megan Shipley, Note, Reviled Mothers: Custody Modification Cases Involving Domestic Violence, 86 Ind. L. J. 1587, 1589 (2011).

Source:     Symposium, Domestic Violence, Child Custody, and Child Protection: Understanding Judicial Resistance and Imagining the Solutions, 11 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol’y & L. 657 (2003).

Source:     Cal. Fam. Code § 3011 (West 2013).

Source:     Cal. Fam. Code § 3044 (West)

 Source:     Amy B. Levin, Comment, Child Witnesses of Domestic Violence: How Should Judges Apply the Best Interest of the Child Standard in Custody and Visitation Cases Involving Domestic Violence?, 47 UCLA L. Rev. 813, 826 (2000).


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