The Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Testimony Against Shared Parenting Bill

Wisconsin–Background: Wisconsin Fathers for Children and Families is trying to get their shared parenting bill out of committee, and recently I asked you to write letters to the Wisconsin Assembly’s Children and Families Committee in support of the bill. Steve Blake, president of WFCF, wrote me and said that he spoke with one of the Committee’s clerks and was told that they are receiving “many, many E-mails” from you in support of the bill.

During the recent hearing on the bill, Tamara Grigsby, one of the legislators on the Committee, stood up and asked, “Why is my mailbox filled up with letters over this bill?!” The Committee has heard testimony but has not voted yet. Below is the testimony against the shared parenting bill from the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

To learn more about the bill, click here. I make the case for shared parenting in my co-authored column HB 5267 Will Help Michigan”s Children of Divorce (Lansing State Journal, 5/28/06).

Testimony in opposition to Assembly Bill 571
Patti Seger, Executive Director, Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to provide testimony today regarding opposition to Assembly Bill (AB) 571. I am testifying on behalf of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WCADV). WCADV is the statewide voice and membership organization of over 70 Wisconsin domestic abuse programs, victims of domestic violence and their children, and citizens who are concerned with ending domestic violence.

AB 571 creates a one-size-fits-all solution to the concerns of some parents who, despite their desire for equalized placement, are not awarded equal placement by the court. While we wonder if this is a resolution that is even desired by all parents, WCADV’s concerns are specifically focused on families affected by domestic violence and the devastating impact equalized placement could have on victim and child safety. Under current law, the courts are already directed by a presumption of joint custody (decision making) and are to enter court orders that maximize the time each parent has with each child. Under 2003 Act 130, the courts additionally must consider the impact of domestic violence on the safety of the children and must make attempts to protect children from further violence whenever possible. AB 571 creates yet another presumption that the courts must equalize placement unless it can be shown, by clear and convincing evidence, that it is not in the best interest of the children to do so.

Despite the overall trend in Wisconsin, and nationally, to recognize the seriousness of domestic violence, particularly within the criminal legal system, abusive men who fight for custody win 70% of contested custody actions, obtaining at least joint physical and legal custody or sole custody. As research has increasingly established, men who are violent and abusive towards their wives or partners often use the legal system as a tactic of abuse after separation and divorce. They pursue custody of the children, equalized physical placement, and unsupervised access as a means to continue to exert control over or to harass their estranged partners.

This is concerning because the existence of joint custody and placement orders can provide a batterer with access to information about the victim (child’s parent), including location, and activities. Not only is the victim of domestic violence placed at substantially increased risk, so are the children. Increased access to victims can contribute to stalking by domestic violence perpetrators, including the risk of homicide. While homicide is at the farthest end of the violence spectrum and rarely occurs in our society, the consequences of homicide are widespread, affecting families and communities alike. Even when homicide is not the final result, both the child(ren) and victim continue to be exposed to violence and abuse, undermining the safety and security of children from violent homes.

Since 2001 the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence has reviewed domestic violence related homicides in the state. The homicide analysis provides graphic illustrations of the way in which the intersection of separation, child custody, and domestic violence can produce lethal results, and why AB 571 should be rejected. Any measure that proposes to “equalize physical placement to the highest degree” only puts victims of battering and their children at risk. In many of the following homicide cases mothers who were attempting to protect themselves and their children were faced with just that kind of demand or order.

A 16-month-old was shot in the head and killed by his father, who then committed suicide. The boy’s mother was fearful for her own safety, as well as her child’s. The child was the focus of a custody action after she filed for divorce. She told investigators that she had not been able to keep her child away from his father, in spite of her fears. A temporary order required equalized placement.

A woman was shot and killed by her former partner, who was also her child’s father. She had been trying to distance herself from him, but felt obligated to stay involved because of their son.

A woman whose sons were the focus of an ongoing custody action was shot numerous times and killed, along with her parents. Her two sons had been the focus of a custody action since she had filed for divorce seven months earlier.

Police made several prior calls for what were described as custody-related issues to the home of a woman who was shot in the head at point-blank range by her partner while their three young children were in the home.

A five-year-old girl was shot in the head by her father, who then killed himself. Her mother had made many attempts to persuade the court that he should not have any unsupervised access to their child.

A woman was strangled, stabbed multiple times, and beaten to death by her estranged husband while their 18-month-old son, who was the focus of a custody action, was at home. Her 14-year-old daughter arrived home from church and found her mother near death.

AB 571 puts the wants and needs of parents over what is in the best interest of children. On behalf of both victims and children from violent homes, WCADV urges the Assembly to reject the notion that a presumption of equalized placement is in the best interest of children. We urge the Assembly to recognize that rigid, one-size-fits all solutions do not best serve children, particularly when violence is a factor. Indeed, it can result in continued exposure to violence and even result in tragic consequences, including homicide.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice reports approximately 30,000 reported incidents of domestic violence annually while the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services reports that local domestic violence programs serve more than 40,000 women, children and men annually.

2 R. Bachman and L.E. Saltzman, National Crime Victimization Survey, Violence Against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey, U.S. DOJ, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995.

3 For a detailed review, see Daniel G. Saunders, Child Custody and Visitation Decisions in Domestic Violence Cases: Legal Trends, Risk Factors, and Safety Concerns, October 2007, VAWNet Applied Research Forum. Also, Lundy Bancroft and Jay Silverman, The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics, Sage, 2002.

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