During a separation or divorce, abusive partners are four times more likely to threaten the mother with taking or harming their children, according to a new study by Sam Houston State University researchers.
“When we look at the separation process, we know that women are at an increased risk of violence and sexual assault,” said Brittany Hayes, assistant professor at the College of Criminal Justice. “But we need to keep an eye out for other forms of abusive behavior that are not as obvious.”
In her paper, Hayes said victims of intimate partner violence continue to suffer from abuse after separation, but few recognize the indirect abuse of children during the process.
The study involved 339 abused mothers from the Chicago Women Health Risk Study which had surveyed over 700 women using health care services at a Chicago area clinic over a 10-month period. The findings showed that nearly 25 percent of abusers threatened to take the children away from their mothers, whereas eight percent threatened to harm the children.
Threats against the children are attempts to further control the victim, even after the abusive relationship has ended, the study found.
Although the legal process may provide additional avenues for abused women during separation, it may lead to new avenues of exploitation through child custody issues. Courts rely on “the best interest of the child” standards, which recommends joint custody unless there is evidence of child abuse.
The current system makes it difficult to balance the safety of the abused victim with the custody and visitation rights of the father.
Therefore, the authors note how important it is for child custody workers to screen for child abuse beyond physical violence, as controlling behaviors have been found to be a causative factor in victimization and may occur long before the actual separation.
Behaviors that child custody workers should screen for include the abuser promoting negative beliefs among the children, undermining the mother’s authority, or using the children to frighten the mother.
The authors also recommend the development of Family Justice Centers that can be used for supervised visits or safe exchanges of children in cases involving intimate partner violence. Family Justice Centers also can provide resources for the victims of abuse, including talking to an advocate, filing police reports, meeting with the prosecutor, creating a safety plan, obtaining medical assistance, and getting information on housing or public assistance.
“There is still much work that needs to be done on improving services for those involved in a child custody case where there is a history of intimate partner violence,” said Hayes.
Source: Sam Houston State University