While Wisconsin is considered a leader in the movement to treat fathers as equal caregivers, and its percentage of cases with shared custody is among the highest in the nation, spouses who’ve been abused say that model still has not adjusted to the realities of domestic violence and that the courts seem unwilling to listen to their fears and unable to keep them safe, reports Propublica. Advocates for women in Wisconsin describe the family court system as unprepared for the complexities presented by domestic violence, often giving little consideration to the risk of harm to women and children and compounding the trauma they face.
Experts from around the country say the court process is still influenced by outdated ideas about abuse and abusers — held not just by judges but by lawyers and social workers who assist victims. Absent convincing proof of a parent hitting a child, some family courts seem to view domestic violence as unrelated to parenting. Judges who don’t understand the complex dynamics of domestic violence sometimes conclude that once a couple splits up, the toxicity will end and the abusive spouse will be a decent parent. A 2018 study by End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin concluded that decisions in family court are not sufficiently accounting for domestic violence. Researchers in 20 Wisconsin counties reviewed every divorce case between 2010 and 2015 in which one parent had a prior conviction for felony domestic abuse or misdemeanor battery against the other parent. There were a total of 361. They found that half the cases resulted in joint legal custody, requiring victims to cooperate in decision-making with their abusers. The reviewers also found that only 27 percent of the cases made any reference at all to domestic violence, despite the prior criminal conviction.