There are many things to consider when safety planning around domestic violence, such as physical or financial safety. For survivors with children, it’s crucial to involve their children in their safety plan. Sometimes, the only way someone feels safe is by leaving their home to escape from their abusive partner. At times, survivors feel they not only need to leave their home, but even leave the state, to escape the abuse. This is a valid feeling and can be necessary for your safety. However, there are important things to consider when leaving the state, especially if you have children with your abusive partner. One major issue that can occur when survivors with children leave is interstate custody.
What is interstate custody?
Interstate custody is a legal situation that involves the custody of minors whose parents are in different states. In an abusive relationship, interstate custody issues arise when one parent leaves the state with their children. There are various reasons this might happen.
- The parent is experiencing abuse and leaves the state to escape their partner who is abusive, and they take the children with them when they leave.
- The partner who is abusive has taken the kids to another state (with or without permission) and will not allow visitation or give up custody.
- The parents live in different states and each is filing for custody in their respective states.
Why is interstate custody an issue?
Interstate custody issues can affect abusive relationships in different ways. Survivors fleeing the state with their kids before determining custody could face parental kidnapping charges. This could create problems for the survivor, such as losing custody of their children or even potential jail time. For undocumented survivors, possible parental kidnapping charges could affect future visa applications or lead to potential deportation. An abusive partner could also manipulate the situation to shift blame onto the survivor and say they are abusive.
It can also be an issue if an abusive partner takes the children to another state. An abusive partner could use talking to or visiting the kids to maintain power and control over the survivor. They may also use the time away to turn the children against their other parent.
Safety Planning and Action Steps
As always, your safety and the safety of your children is a top priority. No matter what steps you plan, it’s crucial to safety plan as much as possible. The following ideas are suggestions, as each situation is unique, and what survivors are comfortable with varies. Our advocates are always here 24/7 to offer insight and support with your specific situation.
Before You Leave
- Document the abuse.
Documenting the abuse is crucial because it shows what you have experienced and what the children may have witnessed. This could include writing down when abusive incidents occurred and what happened; photos of any injuries you received or destruction of your items/living space; threatening text messages or emails; or any police reports or previous court proceedings. This documentation could be helpful in a custody case.
- Speak with a lawyer or legal advocate.
Interstate custody is complicated. Each state has different laws related to custody and taking children out of state. It then gets more complicated because you must also consider the laws of the state you’re going to as well. If possible, speak with a lawyer or legal advocate in your area before leaving. They can explain what your state’s custody laws are and explain any potential legal trouble you may run into. You can search for local legal resources here. You can also contact the Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women. They specialize in interstate custody issues with survivors of domestic violence.
- Consider getting a protection order.
A protection order (PO) is a legal order barring someone from speaking with or seeing another person. It can be used as a form of documentation showing the abuse that has happened and is enforceable nationally. Custody can also be awarded as part of a protection order, which makes leaving the state easier. However, custody might not be awarded in the PO, or the abusive partner may be awarded visitation. This would make it impossible for the survivor to leave the state. That’s why it’s important to consider all your options and speak with an advocate or legal aid for more information.
Questions to Ask About Interstate Custody
If you are considering leaving the state with your children to escape abuse, asking some questions before you leave is helpful. Regardless of if you speak with a legal advocate, lawyer, or clerk at the courthouse, here are some valuable questions to ask.
- Are there existing court orders in place already?
If a custody agreement is already in place, that could affect a survivor’s ability to leave.
- What are your state's parental kidnapping laws?
WomensLaw.org is a great resource to learn about the laws in your state, including custody.
- What are your state's relocation laws?
While these laws are civil and not criminal, knowing what they are is still good. Violating them can potentially cause issues.
- Where might the custody case take place?
Because the parents live in different states, two different court systems are involved. Different factors decide where the custody case takes place, so it’s helpful to know before potentially leaving.
Each abusive relationship is different, which can affect how quickly someone might need to leave the state. Because of this, not all survivors have the time or resources to ask questions before leaving the state. These tips could be helpful regardless of what your plan is.
When a Survivor Leaves
- Check whether a case has been filed in the jurisdiction you left. You don’t have to share too much information, or you could ask a trusted friend or family member to ask for you. Check frequently, as a left-behind parent may be permitted by a judge to move a custody case forward, even if the other parent did not receive notice.
- Participate in all court proceedings in the home state, either in person or by video. Thankfully, many programs like Zoom can make it easier to attend by video.
If the Abusive Partner Leaves
- If you already have a custody order in place, show that to the judge in the state where the abusive partner has taken the children. Oftentimes, police are less likely to enforce an out of state custody order. Once you have a custody order for that state, the police are more likely to enforce it and help you get your children.
Help is Available
For someone who is experiencing abuse, safety is crucial. Sometimes this means leaving the state with your children. If possible, it is important to get support before taking those steps. We are not legal advocates, but our advocates are here 24/7 to offer support and connect you to legal resources. Interstate custody can be complicated, but help is available.