Coordinated Community Response Column

Domestic abuse affects many aspects of society, including custody and placement cases involving children. The law allows courts to consider custody and placement in a number of types of legal actions, including divorce or cases in which parents have never married.

When papers are filed with the proper court to address custody or placement of children, Wisconsin courts often orders parents to participate in mediation concerning the children. For many parents, mediation is a good opportunity to sit down together with a trained mediator to discuss and resolve issues concerning the children, particularly custody and placement. But mediation is ill-advised, at times, when the parents have had an abusive relationship. Domestic abuse is not only physical violence. Too often domestic abuse includes threats, bullying, intimidation or manipulation. Such unhealthy or abusive tactics prevent an honest exchange of thoughts and concerns about the children, which is important for mediation to serve the family’s best interest. Some mediators meet with the parties at different times or in adjoining rooms to minimize the effects of abusive communication tactics. Meeting separately may be necessary when “no contact” or restraining orders are in place.

If mediation does not result in an agreement concerning custody and placement or if mediation is not appropriate for parents who have been involved in an abusive relationship, the Court may appoint a guardian ad litem, an attorney who represents the best interests of the child or children. Guardians ad litem and judges are typically educated in the effects of domestic abuse on a family. Many attorneys and judges are familiar with the unique power and control issues in abusive relationships.

Victims of physical abuse are often fearful of encountering their abuser in a hearing or mediation session. The victim should communicate this information to his or her attorney. If the victim is not represented by an attorney, domestic violence advocates sometimes assist in requests for security in the courtroom or in the area of a hearing. Most courts are very sensitive to security issues in all types of cases, especially cases involving parents and their children that can become extremely emotional.

The Wisconsin legislature has enacted a number of laws that account for the influence of domestic abuse on custody and placement cases. Wisconsin statutes include several matters that the court must consider concerning custody and placement when any party or child has been involved in domestic abuse. Wisconsin law includes examining domestic abuse involving a parent’s new partner, roommate or spouse or any person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest. If sufficient evidence shows that a parent has engaged in domestic abuse, as described by certain statutes, the safety and well-being of the child and the safety of the parent who was the victim of the battery or abuse shall be the paramount concern in determining legal custody and periods of physical placement. Safety considerations may include specific times and locations for the pick-up and drop-off of a child for periods of placement. Many communities have supervised exchange programs to assist in transferring the children from one parent to another for purposes of physical placement. In some cases, supervised visitation with the children may be ordered.

It is difficult for most people to go through a divorce or other legal disputes concerning custody and placement, but the law of Wisconsin reflects the unique difficult issues that must be addressed in families where there has been domestic abuse.

You may call HELP of Door County, Inc. at 1.800.9.1.HELP.1 or 920.743.8818 for domestic abuse services.

The Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence Team is committed to the prevention of domestic violence by coordinating a consistent message and response to domestic violence. It is also dedicated to promoting cooperation, coordination, communication, and education among the criminal justice and other community systems with service providers thus, creating a safe community environment for victims of abuse, ensuring that abusers are held accountable for their behavior, and decreasing the tolerance for violence in the community.

Attorney Jennifer A. Moeller, of the Sturgeon Bay law firm BROOKS, MOELLER & WINGROVE, S.C., was previously a member of the Coordinated Community Response to Domestic Violence Team for Sturgeon Bay, and she includes family matters in her general law practice.