Family Court System’s “Dirty Little Secret”: How Children End Up In The Hands Of The Abuser.

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Many people are aware that domestic violence (DV) is a common feature of many custody cases. What few people realize, however, is what has been referred to as the family court system’s “dirty little secret”: while half the men who batter their wives also abuse their children, in states across the nation (and in countries around the world), an alarming proportion of abusive men are likely to win custody of their children after separation or divorce.

According to the National Center for State Courts, there is documented evidence of domestic violence in 24-55 percent of custody court records. Yet, in 300 custody cases, studied, investigators found that in only 10 percent of the cases where allegations of child abuse were raised was sole custody awarded to the non-abusive (“protective”) parent. Despite the publics’ view that custody cases result in the children ending up in safe hands, each year approximately 58,500 are left at risk of physical and psychological damage after being forced into the unsupervised care of an abuser after their parents’ divorce. This number includes both those who are left in the exclusive care of an abuser and those who have unsupervised visits with the abusive parent while remaining in the custody of the protective parent.

In one study, 35 percent of mothers who reported domestic abuse got primary custody compared to 42 percent of mothers who made no abuse allegations. Women who were outspoken about their domestic violence allegations actually received less protection for themselves and their children. Many custody evaluators recommend custody to abusive fathers on the assumption that mothers either exaggerate the violence or are deliberately alienating their children from their fathers as a tactical advantage. Notably, they found that a higher rate of intentionally false reports of child abuse among noncustodial parents (43%), typically fathers; only 14 percent of knowingly false claims were made by custodial parents, who are most often mothers. Another reason judges give custody to the abuser is financial; over a quarter of the protective parents have reported filing bankruptcy as a result of fighting for custody of their children. The average cost of a court proceeding was reported to be over $80,000. These findings are particularly disturbing given that children exposed to domestic violence show similar levels of emotional and behavioral problems as children who were the direct sufferers of physical or sexual abuse. These psychological impacts follow children into adulthood. Victimized children suffer internalizing problems, such as anxiety, depression, and withdrawal, as well as externalizing problems, such as aggression, delinquency, and acting out. Yet, despite these findings, the public remains generally unaware of these facts, which need to be exposed in order to offer this generation’s children a future without fear of being abused.

There is a dire need for greater awareness of the true nature of custody cases involving intimate partner abuse and child abuse allegations among family court personnel. The decisions and recommendations of legal agents must be monitored to ensure that children are legally protected from abusive parents. Domestic violence professionals need to be involved in the proper assessment of family violence.


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Hannah, M. T., & Goldstien, J.D. (Eds). (2010). Domestic Violence Abuse and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues. Kingston, New Jersey: Civil Research Institute. Kingston.
Russell, K. (2009, October 14). Child abuse: when family courts get it wrong. States must reform a system that too often award custody to the abusive parent. Retrieved from
Saunders, D. (1998, August). Child Custody and Visitation Decisions in Domestic Violence Cases: Legal Trends, Research Findings and Reccomendations. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved from
Silberg, J.L. (2008, September 22). How Many Children Are Court- -Ordered Into Unsupervised Contact With an Abusive Parent After Divorce. Retrieved from

Student Researchers: Kristin Concordia; Kristina Dreps; Phyllip Martin; Renee Rogers, Siena College
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Mo Therese Hannah, Siena College