Domestic Violence as a Bar to Custody/Visitation Rights – or Not?

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there are approximately 10 million people physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States every year. Unfortunately, 1 in 15 children are exposed to this violence and 90% of these children personally witness the incidents. It is no secret that the effects of domestic violence extend far beyond physical injury to trigger mental illness, substance abuse, and even suicide. With this in mind, courts typically find that it is not in the best interest of a child to be placed in the physical custody of a parent who has a history of committing domestic violence.

A “history” of domestic violence includes not only a pattern of abusive behavior, but also any isolated incident that caused “serious bodily injury” to a partner or another family member. However, it is not impossible for people with this kind of past to get physical custody of their children. In fact, a court may find that parental custody would be in the best interest of the child even if both parents have a history of domestic violence. According to Mississippi Code § 93-5-24(9)(a)(iii), the court may consider the following factors when determining whether or not physical custody will be awarded to a parent with a history of domestic violence:

(1) Whether the perpetrator of family violence has demonstrated that giving sole or joint physical or legal custody of a child to the perpetrator is in the best interest of the child because of the other parent’s absence, mental illness, substance abuse or such other circumstances which affect the best interest of the child or children;

(2) Whether the perpetrator has successfully completed a batterer’s treatment program;

(3) Whether the perpetrator has successfully completed a program of alcohol or drug abuse counseling if the court determines that counseling is appropriate;

(4) Whether the perpetrator has successfully completed a parenting class if the court determines the class to be appropriate;

(5) If the perpetrator is on probation or parole, whether he or she is restrained by a protective order granted after a hearing, and whether he or she has complied with its terms and conditions; and

(6) Whether the perpetrator of domestic violence has committed any further acts of domestic violence

If custody is not awarded to the parent with a history of domestic violence then visitation may be allowed instead. Generally, the court can mandate any condition that it deems necessary in order to ensure the safety of a child during visitations. Conditions may include, but are not limited to, supervision of the visitation, parent’s restraint from drug and alcohol use during and for twenty-four hours prior to the visitation, or prohibited overnight visitation with the parent.

Another rather interesting option the court has regarding visitations is to require payment of a bond for the return and safety of the child. In other words, the parent would pay a fee to take the child and then receive the money back once the child was returned without harm… Compared to the alternatives, this option often seems a bit out of place. For example, one may ask whether the safety and welfare of a child is really guaranteed by the leverage of a monetary payment. However controversial this option may seem, it is rarely used and is usually a last-resort measure. We must trust the chancellors of Mississippi to use the highest discretion to apply this option appropriately.

“Ne Exeat” (Latin for “do not leave”) security bonds are used to ensure the safe return of a child by preventing another party from leaving, or removing the child from, the jurisdiction of the court or state. Although Mississippi lacks a statutory provision for these bonds, they could still be required through the use of a chancellor’s broad equitable powers.

Ultimately, parents may still be granted physical custody or visitations with their children despite a history of domestic violence. If you or someone you know has a question about the custody or visitation rights of a parent with a history of domestic violence, please don’t hesitate to call us. The Law Office of Matthew S. Poole is highly experienced in these types of situations and we would be happy to help.

Written by Jessica Jasper, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2020, Mississippi College School of Law

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