Washington State’s Parenting Act helps protect domestic violence survivors and ensure a safe and healthy upbringing for their children by requiring certain restrictions on the abusive parent. When courts fail to impose those restrictions, they put survivors and their children at risk. Yet, that is exactly what happened to Maresa, a mother of two whom we represent in an appeal of her custody case.

After splitting with her abusive partner, Maresa (who could not afford a lawyer) asked a Pierce County court for a parenting plan for their children. During his oral ruling, the judge granted primary custody to Maresa and acknowledged her former partner’s history of domestic violence. Yet the judge decided not to include the father’s history of domestic violence in the court documents, claiming that it would “dog” and “haunt” him – that it would “follow him around like some ghost.”

Then, the court gave the abusive partner unfettered access and decision-making over the children, even though the law does not allow that when one parent has a history of abusing the other.

Legal Voice is standing with Maresa in her appeal of this decision. In our brief, we argue that the court’s error removes a critical protection created by the Parenting Act, and leaves Maresa and her children at risk of further abuse.

We also address the court’s use of victim-blaming, as Maresa was told, “I’m just not sure how you let these things happen, frankly. You’re too strong for this, at least the way you present yourself. I don’t understand, I really don’t.” We would have preferred to see a court use its power to influence the actions of abusers, not lecture people who are physically assaulted by their partners.

A court cannot let its concerns about the impact of domestic violence stigma on the abuser’s future outweigh its legal obligation to protect the survivor and her children.