What Constitutes Child Abuse?
Child abuse doesn’t have to be extreme for a parent to lose visitation or custody rights. As a general rule, in the family law context, any activity or behavior by a parent that threatens a child’s physical or emotional well-being is considered abuse. This includes verbal abuse that results in emotional trauma and physical abuse that results in visible bruises, scratches, or broken bones. Neglect is another form of abuse, where a parent refuses or fails to provide for a child’s most basic needs. For example, a parent may commit neglect by failing to feed, bathe, or provide necessary medical care for a child over an extended period of time.
Judges take all forms of child abuse seriously, as children are vulnerable and unable to protect themselves. While parental rights are fundamental and constitutionally-protected, a child’s best interests and safety are the primary objectives of any custody decision. Parents who abuse their children may lose some—or all—of their parental rights.
How Will Child Abuse Affect My Custody Case?
No one wins in a child abuse case. Both parents risk losing custody rights if the non-abusive parent knew about the abuse and didn’t prevent it. For example, if one parent sexually or physically abuses a child, while the other parent stands by and does nothing, the child may be removed from the parents’ home. A state or local agency like Child Protective Services will get involved in abuse or neglect cases, and may place a child in foster care or with relatives. If a judge determines that the abuse is likely to happen again in the future, a judge may terminate the abusive parent’s rights, permanently cutting off the parent-child relationship.
In less severe cases of abuse, a judge may restrict the abusive parent’s relationship with the child. Restrictions may include limited visitation or supervised visits. Specifically, a judge can:
- reduce a parent’s visitation hours
- prevent overnight visits, and
- require supervised visitation, where a third-party supervises all of the parent’s visits with the child.
If you have real concerns about ongoing child abuse, you may need to call police and hire a local family law attorney for your custody case.
Getting Help During the COVID-19 Outbreak and State Lockdowns
Many police departments, domestic violence organizations, and news outlets have reported a spike in violence against women and children since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association and Josie Serrata, PhD, crises ramp up stress among couples and families and can lead to a rise in domestic violence and child abuse. Increased stress from financial problems, social isolation, and disconnection from social support systems are all risk factors for violence.
The COVID-19 outbreak has created a perfect storm of risk factors by causing:
- a massive surge in job losses, with over 26 million unemployment claims filed in just 5 weeks
- shelter-in-place orders in most states—these rules force people to stay home unless they have to go out to meet essential needs, and
- day care and school closures at every grade level.
If you have concerns about your child's safety while in your ex's custody, in addition to asking for help from the local police, you may need to ask a court for emergency custody and/or restraining orders.
Although courts around the country have temporarily closed and postponed hearings and trials, most family law courts remain open for Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO) requests. You can also contact a family law attorney for help—family law attorneys are working remotely in most states and remain available for phone or virtual consultations.
How Do I Prove that My Child Has Been Abused?
If you’re alleging that your spouse or ex partner abused your child, you’ll need a lot more than circumstantial evidence. Relatives, neighbors, family friends, health care providers, and others who’ve witnessed abusive acts may testify during a custody hearing. Additionally, medical records from your child's therapists and doctors are often used at a trial. Evidence that your spouse has a history domestic violence against you or the child's siblings is also relevant. Evidence of emotional harm may include bedwetting, stuttering, or unusual behavior at home or at school. You’ll need supporting testimony from an expert, counselor, or teacher about the child's mental health to convince the court of both past and potential harm.
A custody evaluator can be helpful in cases where abuse is difficult to prove, or where you need help gathering evidence. A custody evaluator will take the lead in interviewing family members and therapists to prepare custody recommendations for a judge. There must be clear and convincing evidence of abuse for a court to limit a parent’s time with a child. A judge doesn’t have to follow a custody evaluator’s recommendation, but it's usually persuasive, especially in parental abuse cases.