Protecting victims and their children through supervised visitation: a study of domestic violence injunctions.

Author:Oehme, Karen


When confronted with petitions for civil protective orders (called Injunctions for Protection Against Domestic Violence) to shield victims of domestic violence from their abusive partners, courts are also often required to make decisions about the abuser's access to the couple's children. Judges frequently turn to supervised visitation programs to help protect children and vulnerable parents from harm while preserving the abuser's parent-child relationship. Thus, these programs have evolved rapidly as an intervention in litigation involving domestic violence. This article examines new data collected by supervised visitation programs in 2011 and analyzed by the Clearinghouse on Supervised Visitation that demonstrates the utility of supervised visitation programs as a judicial tool to diminish domestic violence.

Part I of this Article offers an overview of the history of and reasons for supervised visitation in domestic violence cases. Part II presents an analysis of 146 Injunctions for Protection against Domestic Violence (1) in which supervised visitation was ordered by a court in Florida, revealing substantively complex cases with histories of substance abuse, mental health issues, and children witnessing the violence. Part III highlights the role that supervised visitation programs play in reducing violence and recommends further research on the long-term dynamics of victims and batterers.


    Supervised visitation programs provide a vital service to parents who may be a risk to their children or the other parent: the opportunity to have parent-child contact (2) monitored by a trained third party in a controlled environment that enhances the safety of all vulnerable parties. (3) Although these programs were initially created for cases of child abuse and neglect in the child protective system, (4) courts began using supervised visitation services in domestic violence and other family court disputes nearly two decades ago. (5) The problem of domestic violence (6) is alarming: an estimated 1.3 million women (7) are victims of a physical assault by an intimate partner each year, (8) and domestic violence remains one of the most chronically underreported crimes. (9) Although separation often marks the end of the intimate partner relationship, studies show that separation actually increases the batterer's violence and manipulation, including physical and emotional abuse as well as stalking and harassment. (10) Victim advocates have emphasized the importance of keeping vulnerable children and parents safe. (11)

    When an abuser with children is separated from his/her partner, the court has a quandary as to how it should balance the right of a parent to have access to his/her child while providing safety for vulnerable children and parents. In Florida, as in many states, (12) it is public policy to assure that each minor child has frequent and continuing contact with both parents after separation. (13) Parental responsibility is to be shared by both parents unless the court finds that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child. Domestic violence is evidence of detriment under the statute, (14) although many researchers and commentators have protested that batterers often get visitation and even custody of their children. (15)

    The data regarding children and domestic violence are startling: every year millions of children witness the crime, (16) and children who are exposed to it suffer considerably more problems than children who are not. (17) Although many factors--such as frequency, severity, and physical injury--can affect how a child is impacted by such violence, (18) researchers have emphasized the importance of minimizing a batterer's ability to continue to involve the children in the violence after separation or divorce. Many batterers are violent role models who disrupt their children's relationship with their mothers, (19) even after separation. A 2006 study of 156 mothers explored the extent to which abusers use children to control, manipulate, or harm their mothers. Eighty-eight percent of the mothers queried reported that their abusers had used their children against them in some way. (20) This behavior is also apparent during unsupervised visits between the battering parent and the children. These types of concerns about a battering parent's threats, denial of abuse, blaming of the victim parent, surveillance/stalking of the victim parent, and other abusive behavior helped to prompt the call for the development of supervised visitation programs in domestic violence cases. (21)

    Supervised Visitation programs offer advantages over supervision by a friend or family member, who may be vulnerable to an abuser's threats or intimidation. (22) Congress recognized the need for federal funding of the service and established a new grant program designed to increase supervised visitation services for victims of domestic violence within the Violence Against Women Act of 2000. (23) Entitled "Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program" ("Safe Havens"), the program's primary focus has been to provide supervised visitation services in domestic violence cases. (24) Such developments have arisen in the context of research that highlights the prevalence and dangers of domestic violence. (25)

    Approximately 20% of the adult victims of intimate partner violence annually obtain civil protection orders. (26) These are called Injunctions for Protection Against Domestic Violence in Florida. (27) The court orders batterers to have no contact with the victim in these Injunctions, and can also order other protections and assistance for the children and victim, including batterer intervention programs, child support, and supervised visitation. Victim advocates also emphasize the importance of holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. (28) Although supervised visitation is not the same as accountability in the criminal justice system, it can be a clear consequence for abusive behavior. (29) Supervised visitation programs now exist in every state, (30) and those that offer services in domestic violence cases in Florida operate in a variety of settings in each of Florida's 20 judicial circuits. Some are small, non-profit entities; others operate within larger agencies that offer a multiplicity of services. (31) Florida's programs operate under a set of standards adopted by the state's Supreme Court in 1999, and with a set of best practices adopted by the state's Supervised Visitation Standards Committee in 2008, pursuant to a mandate of the Florida Legislature. (32)


    In 2010, five supervised visitation programs agreed to participate in a closed case study of families referred to their programs. (33) Numerous research parameters were established for the study. For example: 1) the orders for supervised visitation were included within Injunctions for Protection Against Domestic Violence, 2) the children at visits were the children of the litigants, and 3) both the custodian and the visitor in the supervised visitation were the parents (instead of grandparents, or relatives serving as custodians or visitors). This means that the court received the written Petition for the Injunction, granted the Injunction, and then identified supervised visitation as a means to protect the vulnerable parent and the parties' children. (34) The parameters also included the requirement that all cases had to be "closed" (the family was no longer using the supervised visitation program) for at least one year. A total of 146 cases were randomly identified for the exploratory analysis. (35) The program directors met by phone conference to choose which variables to study. Given the nature of supervised visitation as a resource to protect children, researchers hypothesized that a) the majority of the cases referred to supervised visitation through injunctions would allege that children had witnessed the domestic violence, and b) that the violence in the family would decline during and after supervised visitation. (36) They were surprised, however, by...

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