Strategies to Improve Supervised Visitation in Domestic Violence

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The following article was written by M. Sharon Maxwell, LCSW, Ph.D. and Karen Oehme, J.D. and is merely a portion of the larger article which can be found by clicking here. Professional Providers are encouraged to stay informed regarding “Best Practices” in domestic violence visitation cases.

If supervised visitation programs are to continue to be used in domestic violence cases, there

must be a more critical examination of the current provision of services in programs with the

goals of enhancing the safety of participants and confronting evidence of domestic violence as

it is manifested in supervised visitation programs. There are a number of strategies that can be

recommended but they must be addressed system-wide and become part of a coordinated

community response to ending domestic violence.

Judicial Strategies

• A formal evaluation of the alleged perpetrator and the victim should be ordered prior to the

court-order for supervised visitation. A key component of this evaluation must be a lethality

assessment. The evaluation should be conducted by a mental health professional who has

had specific domestic violence training in conducting such evaluations.

• If domestic violence is confirmed, judges should order the batterer to complete a certified

batterers intervention program before ordering supervised visitation. This is currently

mandated in Louisiana ( Ver Steegh, 2000 ).

• Once a family court judge orders supervised visitation, a schedule for judicial review of the

case must be established and maintained ( NYSPCC, 2000 ).

• Family law judges should collaborate with their local supervised visitation programs on a

regular basis regarding non-case specific issues which involve operational and policy

aspects of the program. Program limitations in accepting certain cases should be delineated,

procedures for handling court orders from other jurisdictions should be established,

procedures for providing services to families with special needs covered under the American

with Disabilities Act should be determined.

• Family law judges must acknowledge that supervised visitation programs are not appropriate

in all domestic violence cases. The potential for lethality is so great in some cases, as has

been demonstrated by program reports and experiences, that visitation programs cannot

offer an adequate assurance of safety.

• Courts should work with their local supervised visitation providers to develop formal letters

of agreement which specifically outline policies and procedures for accepting domestic

violence referrals, conditions of supervised visitation orders, and the role of the supervised

visitation monitor ( Saunders, 1998 ; NCJFCJ, 1995 ; Ver Steegh, 2000 ).

• Courts should collaborate with their supervised visitation providers in developing observation

report forms for visits or exchanges and establish a mechanism for these reports to be

conveyed back to the court on a routine basis ( NYSPCC, 2000 ).

• Finally, courts must acknowledge that supervised visitation services are provided in a very

artificial setting. While the visit or exchange may go well and there are not reports of violence,

it must not automatically be inferred from a family’s experience that unsupervised visitation

will be without risk ( Straus, 1998 ). Further evaluation by domestic violence experts is

necessary before the order for supervised visitation is withdrawn.

Program Strategies

• Staff and volunteers of programs serving domestic violence cases must be adequately

trained in the dynamics of domestic violence, the impact of domestic violence upon child

witnesses, behaviors common to batterers and how these behaviors are manifested in

supervised visitation settings. They must also be informed about legal remedies, such as

orders for protection ( NYSPCC,2000 ; Maxwell &Robinson, 1998 ).

• Programs must require participants to share orders for protection with staff and these orders

should be placed in the family’s case file. If the program employs security officers, they

should also be given an opportunity to review the order ( NYSPCC, 2000 ).

• Program staff and volunteers must pay strict attention to the confidentiality of program

participants. No information about addresses, living arrangements, means of transportation,

telephone numbers and children’s school should be released. To violate a participant’s

confidentiality in this manner could dramatically increase the physical risk to the victim and

the child(ren).


American Bar Association. (2000). Commission on Domestic Violence. Policy 00a109A.

Bailey, M. (1999). Supervised access: A long-term solution? Family and Conciliation Courts

Review , 37: 478-486.

Edleson, J. L. (1999). Children’s witnessing of domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal

Violence , 14(8), 839-870.

Field, J. K. (1998). Visits in cases marked by violence: Judicial actions that can help keep

children and victims safe. Journal of American Judges Association , 35: 3.

Johnston, J. R. (2000). Building multidisciplinary professional partnerships with the court on

behalf of high-conflict divorcing families and their children who needs what kind of help? University

of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, 453.



Behaviors of Batterers That May Impact Supervised Visitations

Photo_Trainer in action-2

If, after conducting an intake, the Provider accepts a referral for visitation in a domestic violence case, it is important to identify behaviors that may subsequently impact visitation. It is critical to keep in mind that the goal of providing supervised visitation services, including Provider exchanges, is to provide a safe, neutral setting for parent-child access. If this cannot be accomplished, the visitation program must not accept the referral.

The following are behaviors sometimes used by batters that may affect a program’s ability to provide safe visitation:

  • Threats of violence toward the victim. This may include verbal abuse as well as attempted or actual physical assault.
  • Threats of violence toward children. This may include verbal abuse, threats, attempted or actual physical abuse, kidnapping.
  • Using visitation to send messages to the victim through the children.
  • Stalking the victim and children upon arriving or departing from visitation program. This can be done in person or through a third party family member or friend.
  • Intimidating children to reveal their current living arrangement, their custodial parent’s activities, their phone numbers.
  • Testing or violating staff or volunteers.
  • Intimidating visitation staff or volunteers.
  • Pitting one staff member against another to encourage divisiveness.
  • Requesting “special” privileges, such as unsupervised time with children.
  • Denial or minimization of abusive behavior (“It’s all a misunderstanding.”).
  • Blaming other parent for necessity of having to use visitation services.
  • Attempting to bring weapons (guns, knives, etc.) into program.
  • Threats or attempts to commit suicide.

Reducing Risk and Enhancing Safety for Visitation Providers

The point at which visitation services are ordered is often the period of greatest risk to the victim and children. Research indicates that victims leaving violent relationships face the greatest risk of death or serious injury in the period following separation. To enhance victims’ and children’s safety, programs should structure services in the following ways:


  • Providing well-designed security arrangements on site. This may include a formal policy for using on- site law enforcement officers, panic buttons to alert local law enforcement to problems, and other tools that staff are thoroughly trained in using, such as weapon detectors;
  • Having a safety plan in place for each family. This plan includes initial and ongoing identification of the risks to each member of the family;
  • Ensuring that perpetrators and victims do not come in contact with each other during visitation or Providers exchanges;
  • Arranging for separate arrival and departure times for victims and perpetrators;
  • Intervening in the visit if perpetrator denies, minimizes, or blames his or her partner for violence;
  • Reporting to the referring court any incident which affects the safety of program participants or staff; and
  • Requiring victims to bring a copy of their injunctions for protection for program records.