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Coparenting in the Context of Family Violence I

Part 1: Deliberations of the Fifth International Conference on Shared Parenting.

The International Council on Shared Parenting recently held its fifth international conference, which brought together scholars and family practitioners from two fields of practice, shared parenting and family violence, under the conference theme the Intersection of Shared Parenting and Family Violence. Our goals were to open channels of communication and begin a dialogue on the topic. We also wanted to develop guidelines with respect to reform of family law and therapeutic best practices when parenting after divorce is a contested issue between parents and family violence may be an issue of concern, whether in the past, present or future. We sought to resolve the present impasse concerning how family law reform should proceed given that family violence is often an issue of concern in contested cases of child custody.

The conference drew over a thousand participants from over 50 countries and demonstrated the degree to which the state of knowledge about family violence in contested child custody cases has advanced significantly in recent years. The conference presentations focused largely on the implications of these new research findings on law reform and professional practice.

First, in the arena of child custody, although most cases of high conflict over the issue of parenting involve no violence, we also know that the incidence of violence is significantly elevated during and after parental separation and divorce. A very high proportion (fully 50%) of first-time family violence occurs during and after separation and divorce. The adversarial “winner-take-all” child custody system seems almost tailor-made to produce the worst possible outcomes, where parents become polarized when the stakes are high, and disagreements become intense conflicts, with the potential to escalate into situations of violence. The threat of losing one’s children in a custody contest exacerbates and creates violence. Thus in previously non-violent families, sole custody determinations are associated with increased conflict and first-time violence.

Thus, the assumption that in non-violent high-conflict cases shared parenting is not a viable option was challenged at the conference. In fact, shared parenting is associated with decreased parental conflict levels. A high-conflict case not involving violence has a much higher likelihood of escalating to violence when one’s relationship with one’s child is threatened by loss of custody. The sole custody regime elevates the risk of spousal abuse in these cases.

Second, the conference found that when spousal violence does exist, it usually involves bilateral or reciprocal violence. Cases of family violence in the context of child custody disputes come in different forms, including ongoing or episodic male battering, female initiated violence, male controlling interactive violence, separation and divorce violence, and psychotic and paranoid reactions. Mutual violence is the most common type, with male battering (the classic “cycle of violence” paradigm) constituting only one-fifth of family violence in separation and divorce cases. Not all acts of intimate partner violence in contested custody cases have motivations and expressions derived from a structurally derived male assumption of entitlement and need for control.

Third, the conference examined the issue of false allegations of violence, but also the issue of unreported and hidden cases of family violence. On the one hand, family violence allegations are often used to deprive children of contact with their parents; this is of particular concern to fathers. On the other hand, research has shown that false denials by abusers are just as common as false allegations by victims, and that shared parenting orders often overlook the presence of family violence in couple relationships.

However, the majority of high-conflict child custody cases do not involve family violence, and relatively few contested child custody cases involve substantiated cases of child abuse, including children witnessing abuse of a parent. Less than one-quarter of all child abuse allegations in child custody cases are substantiated after investigation. It was concluded that if the “child in need of protection” standard were to be applied in a consistent fashion in child custody disputes, the problem of violence in custody cases would be addressed by means of investigations by trained professionals; without this standard, the current sole custody framework will continue to increase the likelihood of first-time violence in separating families with no previous history of violence or abuse.

There was no debate that judicial determination of custody in cases of established family violence is needed; it is erroneous, however, to assume that high conflict cases, in which parents disagree on custodial arrangements for children after divorce, commonly involve serious family violence. This places children at risk of losing one of their parents via a sole custody or primary residence order, and increases the risk of family violence in the majority of contested custody cases that did not previously involve violence.

In cases of family violence where there is a finding that a child is in need of protection from a parent, the safety of children requires that the abusive parent has limited, supervised, or no contact with children because of potential harm to the children and the spouse. Parents with a proven history of severe violence will need different resolutions, but the majority of non-violent litigating parents in conflict over the care and custody of their children are best served, in the interests of prevention of first-time violence, by a shared parenting approach to child custody.

On the question of protracted parental conflict, there is no debate that exposure to ongoing and unresolved high conflict is harmful to children. What is under debate is the amount of parenting time that is advisable in high conflict situations. Recent studies have found not only that shared parenting is not harmful in high conflict situations, but can ameliorate the harmful effects of high conflict: A warm relationship with both parents is a protective factor for children, and the benefits of shared parenting on children’s well being exist independent of parental conflict. Shared parenting is beneficial for children in both low and high conflict situations.

And shared parenting is positively related to parental cooperation. Comparing parental outcomes in joint versus sole custody families, shared parenting is associated with a significant reduction of parental conflict levels. There is no evidence that to support the contention that shared parenting increases parental conflict, and research does not support a presumption that the amount of parenting time should be limited in cases of high conflict, and high conflict should not be used to justify restrictions on children’s contact with either of their parents.

Our conference conclusions were divided into recommendations for theoretical development and further research on the one hand, and law reform, policy and professional practice on the other. Primary among these was the need for a more inclusive conceptualization of family violence, beyond the gender paradigm and encompassing different forms of violence, including parental alienation; and the need to recognize family violence, particularly violence against women, as a criminal offense, with corresponding reforms in the family and criminal courts systems. The conference conclusions are the subject of part two of this series.