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Parsing Through Public Records: When and How is Self-Reported Violence Documented and When Does it Influence Custody Outcomes?


We investigate when and how two types of self-reported intimate partner violence (IPV), situational couple violence (SCV) and coercive controlling violence (CCV), are documented in divorce cases. We further examine how IPV influences child custody decisions and how this association is moderated by whether custody was contested or involved third-party intervention. This study involved data collected in two federally funded projects on IPV, divorce, and custody. The initial phase involved self-reported data collected from 195 mothers early in the divorce process. The second phase involved matched administrative divorce, civil protective order, and criminal court records. Self-reports of IPV among a general sample of divorcing mothers were generally not documented in divorce cases regardless of whether situational couple violence or coercive controlling violence was reported. Women who self-reported IPV (of either type), however, were more likely to use mental cruelty grounds for divorce. Sole custody was more likely when IPV was self-reported or documented (regardless of type). When CCV was reported, sole custody was more likely when cases also involved third-party intervention. When IPV was not reported, sole custody was more likely when the custody decision was contested or involved third-party intervention. Reliance on voluntary self-disclosure results in courts not being made aware of IPV. Routine screening and training for family court practitioners is needed to ensure protective custody outcomes. Furthermore, financial and logistical constraints may disincentivize contesting custody or third-party intervention when doing so could result in greater protection.

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The authors wish to thank Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson for her assistance with the legal aspects of this research and the many undergraduate research assistants and law student volunteers who assisted with data collection.


This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Justice (NIJ) [Award No. 1555701], the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) [R21HD061559A], the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and Office of Research in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Hatch Grant 793–338 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Correspondence to Brian G. Ogolsky.

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Ogolsky, B.G., Hardesty, J.L., Theisen, J.C. et al. Parsing Through Public Records: When and How is Self-Reported Violence Documented and When Does it Influence Custody Outcomes?. J Fam Viol 38, 543–555 (2023).

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  • Child custody
  • Court records
  • Divorce
  • Family courts
  • Intimate partner violence