Part 2: COVID-19, Custody & Access and Domestic Abuse: How to assess and respond

By David Mandel, Founder & Executive Director of the Safe & Together Institute

During this time of crisis, adapting our work with families impacted by perpetrators’ behaviors is a critical task.  Disasters and crises are associated with a differential impact on vulnerable individuals and families. (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008; Molyneaux et al., 2020) The COVID-19 outbreak and the stresses of the social responses is affecting a wide swath of our societies including adult and child domestic abuse survivors. The Safe & Together Institute is committed to doubling its efforts during this time to provide critical and useful information and virtual options for training and support. The following is the first in a series of COVID-19 specific practice-oriented blog posts.   

Partnering with adult survivors is more important than ever. While the basics of partnering with survivors have not changed, understanding the significance of the changing context, and differences in perpetrators’ patterns is critical. As the effects of the pandemic and social distancing ripple through our communities, all aspects of everyday life are impacted. Custody and access have always been areas where perpetrators can use children as weapons against their partner, continuing coercive control post-separation. In the context of the current situation, custody and access may be disrupted by social distancing mandates, and a perpetrator’s use of fears around COVID-19 to control her contact with children, and even her employment or contact with other people. In situations where there are custody and access arrangements, perpetrators may threaten to or actually not return a child to the adult survivor. He may also use COVD-19 as a way to attempt to control how his partner manages her contact with the others, e.g., “I won’t return the child unless you stop working.” He may also use the closing of supervised visitation centers as an excuse to force more direct contact even when it isn’t safe or legal.

Courts are likely to be less accessible to assist in the resolution of these matters, leaving survivors more reliant than ever on their strategies and planning. It is unclear yet how family courts will respond to a parent who refuses to return a child to their other parent, using fears of COVID-19 as a justification. If prior history is a guide, the response may be gendered with parental alienation accusations more likely to be leveled at survivors than perpetrators. (Meier, 2020; Saunders & Oglesby, 2016) We can also expect that as perpetrators use COVID-19 as a justification of their custody and access-related control, we will observe increased a) behavioral and emotional symptoms in children, b) direct abuse of children where they are isolated with a perpetrator, and c) increased emotional distress in survivors.

As we all keep moving forward and learning together about how to work in this changing environment, the basics of the Safe & Together Model’s perpetrator pattern-based approach with an emphasis on partnering with survivors is even more relevant than ever. Here are few practice tips to keep in mind as you work with families.

  • Practice tip: If you are working with a survivor who has a formal or informal custody arrangement with their abusive (ex) partner, ask her about how her child’s other parent is handling custody and access arrangements. Does she feel safe sending her child to his home? Is he using COVID-19 to threaten or coerce her around custody and access? Safety plan with her around choices she has in this current situation, which includes learning about how family courts in your area are operating and handling these issues.
  • Practice tip: Partnering with a survivor in these circumstances means understanding her evolving hopes and fears in this fast-moving situation. She may be wanting to have more contact with a current or former abusive partner because he is the father of her children, and she doesn’t want to deny him contact during this emotionally difficult time. Her partner may also be able to provide more practical support during this time of crisis. As always, do not project your priorities and values on to survivors. Just as you, as a practitioner, have been making new choices and adapting quickly, understand that survivors are doing the same thing. Use the same process of partnering as before:
    • Validate the perpetrator’s responsibility for his choices;
    • Ask about his pattern of behavior;
    • Assess her protective efforts using a holistic lens;
    • Validate her concerns and strengths;
    • Collaboratively plan with her; and
    • Safely document those interactions.
  • Practice tip: If you have access to the children and can speak to them in a safe environment (and they are old enough), asking them about their wishes about custody and access can be both therapeutic and practically beneficial. The conversation with them may help you further assess risk and safety, provide the children with an opportunity to explore feelings, and assist with safety planning safely. Also, with the right legal support, the information provided by the children may influence any decision a court may make. (Fotheringham et al., 2013)
  • Practice tip: It may be easier, given the generally increased levels of anxieties, to collude with perpetrators’ justifications around controlling custody and access due to COVID-19. As a thought experiment, to help you think critically and clearly, ask yourself how a domestic abuse perpetrator, who was owning or claiming responsibility for his behavior, would act in this context. For example, you want him to continue to remember that COVID-19 doesn’t wipe the slate clean or require his partner to suddenly trust him. We would want a perpetrator who is changing his behavior to act differently than he would’ve in the past, be understanding of his partner’s needs, and to continue to work to build trust back (where that’s possible). It’s reasonable to expect all this even now.

    COVID-19 doesn’t suspend a perpetrator’s accountability and needs to change. 

For more Safe & Together Institute-specific and other COVID-19 domestic violence specific resources.

Read the Safe & Together Institute whitepaper on how to set high expectations for perpetrators and change: Perpetrator Intervention Program Completion Certificates are Dangerous.

Listen to our most recent COVID-19 podcast from Partnered with a Survivor

Check out our Virtual Academy page for more information on distance learning options

• Reading List •

Fotheringham, S., Dunbar, J., & Hensley, D. (2013). Speaking for Themselves: Hope for Children Caught in High Conflict Custody and Access Disputes Involving Domestic Violence. Journal of Family Violence, 28(4), 311–324.

Mandel, D. (2020). Perpetrator Intervention Program Completion Certificates are Dangerous. Safe & Together Institute.

Meier, J. S. (2020). U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: What do the data show? Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 42(1), 92–105.

Saunders, D. G., & Oglesby, K. H. (2016). No way to turn: Traps encountered by many battered women with negative child custody experiences. Journal of Child Custody, 13(2–3), 154–177.