Family Law

Protecting a Child From an Abusive or Neglectful Parent During Divorce

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
No child should be abused or neglected by a parent. Learn more about what to do if you believe your ex is hurting your kids.
Getting divorced can take a long time. From the time you file and serve your divorce papers until the time the court issues a final divorce order, it can take many months to complete the process. Court dockets are jammed, and judges can only manage so many cases at a time. That’s why, if you believe that your spouse is abusive to or neglectful of your children, you need to take action right away instead of waiting for the trial.

Evidence of Abuse

Whether your kids live with you or with your spouse, or whether they spend a relatively equal amount of time with each of you, there are red flags that can signal your spouse is a danger to your children, including:

  • your child’s personality changes, appearing more shy and timid than before
  • your child seems afraid to—or doesn’t want to—spend time with your ex
  • your child has unexplained injuries, like bruises or welts
  • your child shies away from your touch
  • your child returns from being with your ex and appears dirty, disheveled, and hungry
  • your child doesn’t change clothes while spending overnight time with the other parent, and
  • your child regresses, displaying behaviors associated with younger children, like bed wetting, temper tantrums, or thumb-sucking.

What to Do If Your Child Is Being Abused

If you believe your ex is abusing or neglecting your children, don’t let them suffer any longer. Tell your attorney to file a motion (a formal legal request for help) that’s tailored to protecting the children. If the issues are severe enough, ask your lawyer to schedule an emergency hearing.

Judges can sometimes be skeptical of these motions, believing that parents are just trying to “get even” with each other, so it’s important to have evidence—like pictures, correspondence, witness statements, police reports, and medical records—to bolster your position. It’s also important that you make it clear to the court that you’re seeking help not because you’re angry with your ex, but because you want what’s in the best interests of the children.

When you file the motion, there are a number of things you can ask the court to do to protect the kids:

  • You can ask that all visits be supervised by a mutual friend, a relative, or a neutral party chosen by the judge.
  • You can ask that visits only occur in public places or supervised visitation facilities.
  • You can ask that overnight visits be suspended until the issues are resolved.
  • You can ask that your ex receive counseling and treatment if substance abuse or domestic violence is an issue. You can ask that your ex be prohibited from consuming any alcohol or drugs before or during visits.
  • You can ask the judge to require your ex to attend parenting classes.
  • You can ask that the court appoint an expert to visit with you and your ex, and with your family members and other witnesses, for purposes of preparing a custody evaluation report, which contains recommendations to help the judge see what’s really happening.
  • You can ask for a temporary award of sole custody of your children.
  • You can ask the judge to appoint a guardian for your children: A guardian is usually an attorney and is a neutral person who represents the best interests of your children in all legal proceedings, regardless of what you or your ex want.

You can also contact Child Protective Services, take your child to medical doctors and therapists who can help, and call the police if there’s an emergency. You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-3224. If you're looking for resources on your computer or smart phone, and you believe your ex has access to either, you may want to clear your search history and take other steps to protect your privacy.

Finally, as the situation unfolds, make sure you thoroughly document everything you can with pictures, official records, correspondence, eyewitness reports, and any other evidence that will help you and your attorney make a strong case when you ask the judge to help your children.

If you have questions, contact a local divorce lawyer for advice.

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