1 Introduction

Domestic violence is the leading cause of female poverty1  and homelessness2  in America. The overwhelming majority of homeless families in the United States are made up of single mothers with children, and domestic violence is a direct cause of homelessness for many, if not most of them.3  Although it is true that domestic violence exists at all levels of our society, the lower a woman’s income, the more likely she is to experience violence across more stages of her lifespan and at the hands of more perpetrators.4  At the same time that poverty increases a woman’s risk of repeat victimization, the victimization women experience often keeps them trapped in poverty.5  For all of these reasons and more, intimate partner violence perpetuates a intergenerational harm and economic deprivation in families and communities.

Unfortunately, Louisiana is among the most dangerous places a woman can live.6  We consistently rank in the top 5 states where women are most often killed by men.7  At the same time, Louisiana has the highest poverty rate in the nation8  and the second largest gender pay gap.9  These conditions correlate with both higher rates of domestic violence and fewer informal social networks to support survivors.10  Yet many face civil and criminal court systems that are challenging to navigate pro se, and are often outright hostile to their requests for protection. A 2019 Amnesty International Report issued scathing conclusions about the barriers Louisiana women face when seeking protection from abuse.11

In this context, holistic legal assistance is essential for domestic violence survivors and their children. The major reasons that women do not leave abusive partners include fear of retaliatory attacks, lack of economic resources, fear of losing custody of their children, and ineffective or harmful responses from law enforcement. Virtually all civil law practice areas provide opportunities to help abused women protect themselves and their children from abusive former partners.

This chapter focuses primarily on family law issues for domestic violence survivors. It is important to note up front that domestic violence cases in family court require specialized training and expertise that many family law practitioners do not have. Attorneys should not assume that domestic violence cases can or should be handled in the same manner as ordinary or even “high conflict” family court litigation nor that the types of outcomes that are acceptable in those cases would be safe for survivors of abuse and their children. Abusive former partners tend to approach and participate in family court proceedings differently than other adverse parties. Many abusive former partners are motivated by a desire to maintain power and control over a victim who has ended the relationship and attempt to do so by seeking custody of shared children, by avoiding support obligations, or by tying victims up in vindictive litigation.

Family law resolutions that are common and often legally preferred - such as shared child custody - are often physically dangerous and emotionally harmful for survivors and their children. Even when children have not themselves been physically abused, those who witness violence against a parent are traumatized by it and can suffer lasting effects into adulthood.12   Continued contact with an abusive parent can cause confusion and fear, especially in cases where the abusive parent refuses to acknowledge the abusive behavior and wants to ignore that it ever happened. And after separation, children are more likely to become the target of abuse - even if they have not been previously.  Whether a child was the subject of abuse, or witnessed it against a parent, it can take a long time (and a lot of therapy) before unsupervised visitation is in a child’s best interest.

Fortunately, Louisiana has enacted laws that recognize these problems, provide safe legal options for survivors and their children, and limiting the trial court’s ability to ignore or minimize the effects of violence on families.

Louisiana’s Post-Separation Family Violence Relief Act (PSFVRA) governs child custody determinations in family violence cases and is premised upon key legislative findings relevant to its interpretation by courts:

The legislature further finds that the problems of family violence do not necessarily cease when the victimized family is legally separated or divorced. In fact, the violence often escalates, and child custody and visitation become the new forum for the continuation of the abuse. Because current laws relative to child custody and visitation are based on an assumption that even divorcing parents are in relatively equal positions of power, and that such parents act in the children’s best interest, these laws often work against the protection of the children and the abused spouse in families with a history of family violence. Consequently, laws designed to act in the children’s best interest may actually effect a contrary result due to the unique dynamics of family violence.13

As discussed throughout this chapter, the Post Separation Act and other Louisiana laws designed to support survivors are often vitally important to the safety and well-being of our clients and their children.

  • 1Throughout this chapter, we refer to clients and survivors of abuse as female. We made this choice because the vast majority of adults who are subjected to abuse are women who are abused by men, almost 90% in most years. And most people living below the federal poverty threshold who seek free legal assistance for issues relating to the abuse they experience are single mothers with children who are abused by men. With that said, the authors recognize that men also experience abuse at the hands of both male and female intimate partners, and that intimate partner violence occurs between intimate partners of the same gender.
  • 2See generally Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States, Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control (2003).
  • 3Some Facts on Homelessness, Housing, and Violence Against Women, Nat’l Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty (2012).
  • 4Claire Renzetti, Intimate Partner Violence and Economic Disadvantage, in 1 Violence Against Women in Families and Relationships 73 (Evan Stark & Eve Buzawa. eds., 2009).
  • 5Id.
  • 6When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2020 Homicide Data, Violence Pol’y Rsch. Ctr. (2022).
  • 7Id.
  • 8QuickFacts, U.S. Census Bureau,
  • 9Inst. of Women’s Pol’y Rsch., Status of Women in the States (2018).
  • 10See generally Donna Coker, Why Opposing Hyper-Incarceration Should be Central to the Work of the Anti-Domestic Violence Movement, 5 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 585 (2015).
  • 11Amnesty Int’l, Fragmented and Unequal: A Justice System that Fails Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence in Louisiana, U.S.A. (2019).
  • 12Lundy Bancroft et al., The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics 156 (2d ed. 2012) (children whose mothers are subjected to abuse have increased risk of emotional and behavioral difficulties, including educational issues, substance abuse, increased suicidality, developmental delays, increased interaction with criminal justice system and violence).
  • 13La. R.S. 9:361.

Disclaimer: The articles in the Gillis Long Desk Manual do not contain any legal advice.