Family Violence: Legal Help for Those Living in Missouri With an Abuser

Family Violence. Unrecognizable African American Man Threatening Wife And Daughter With His Fist, Scared Mother Embracing Little Girl While Sitting Together On Couch, Selective Focus On Male Hand

Domestic violence is a serious crime under Missouri law in most situations, particularly when it involves physical violence or actions meant to put someone in fear of physical injury. Abuse victims often find it difficult to leave relationships with abusers. The period time when they are trying to escape can also be the most dangerous for them. Children who are experiencing abuse by a family member might not be able to leave the situation at all. Missouri provides resources and remedies for people who are dealing with family violence. In family law cases, courts will take current or past family violence into account in divorce and child custody proceedings.

What Is Family Violence?

The terms “family violence” or “domestic violence” may refer to a wide range of intentional acts perpetrated by one family member against another. Missouri defines domestic violence between adults as abuse or stalking between family or household members. Several of these terms have specific legal definitions. “Family” or “household members” may include:

  • Current or former spouses:
  • Parents of a child, whether or not they are married to each other or live together;
  • People who are related by blood or marriage;
  • People who live together or have lived together in the past; and
  • People who are or have been in a romantic or intimate relationship with one another.

The definition of “abuse” includes actual, attempted, or threatened violence.

“Stalking,” under Missouri family law, consists of a series of intentional and unwanted actions that have no legitimate purpose except to cause a reasonable fear of physical harm. Examples include repeatedly following, monitoring, or observing someone; or communicating threats to them directly or indirectly.

Other acts may be considered domestic abuse in family law cases, even if they are not criminal offenses. Emotional abuse by a family or household member can have severe long-term impacts on people. Courts may take this into account in family law proceedings.

What Can I Do if a Family Member is Committing Domestic Violence?

If you or your child is experiencing family violence, your first priority needs to be your and their safety. Steps that you can take include:

  • Putting all of your important paperwork, such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates, in a secure place;
  • Making and keeping copies of insurance information, bank statements, and other important documents;
  • Getting to a safe location, with your children, away from the abuser;
  • Calling the police if you believe you are not safe;
  • Contacting an organization like the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to obtain resources that can help; and
  • Contacting a family violence lawyer to discuss further options.

What Are Missouri’s Legal Protections Against Family Violence?

Anyone who has experienced domestic violence, as defined above, may petition a court for a protection order, also known as a protective order or restraining order. A court can order a person:

  • To refrain from making any threats of violence, stalking, and other activities;
  • To stay a minimum distance from the premises where the person seeking the protection order (the “petitioner”) lives or works; or
  • Not to communicate with the petitioner at all.

Violation of a protection order may result in a finding of contempt of court, which could be followed by fines or jail time.

A court can issue a temporary ex parte protection order, meaning that it issues the order without giving notice to the other person, if the petitioner can show “an immediate and present danger of domestic violence” to themselves or a child. The ex parte order remains in effect until the court can hold a hearing with both parties present.

A spouse may seek a protection order as part of a divorce case. A parent may seek one in any case that involves child custody, including divorce. In those cases, a protection order may include provisions awarding temporary custody to one spouse or parent, establishing a visitation schedule, and awarding child support. Those orders remain in effect while the case is pending.

What Are the Penalties for Family Violence in Missouri?

Missouri’s criminal laws identify four levels of the offense of “domestic assault”:

  • First degree: Attempting to kill a family or household member, or intentionally causing them serious physical injury. Class A or B felony.
  • Second degree: Knowingly causing physical injury, recklessly causing serious physical injury, or recklessly causing physical injury with a deadly weapon. Class D felony.
  • Third degree: Attempting to cause physical injury, or knowingly causing physical pain or illness. Class E felony.
  • Fourth Degree: Attempting to cause or recklessly causing physical injury, pain, or illness; along with other acts that place somebody at risk or in fear of injury. Class E felony or Class A misdemeanor.

Penalties can include fines of $2,000 to $10,000 and imprisonment for periods ranging from up to one year to ten to thirty years.

How Can Family Violence Affect a Divorce Case?

In addition to the availability of protection orders discussed earlier, Missouri courts may take domestic violence into account when making decisions about the division of marital property and debt. State law identifies several factors courts should consider, including “​​the conduct of the parties during the marriage.”

How Can Family Violence Affect a Child Custody Case?

Domestic violence can play a major part in a child custody case. All orders involving custody, support, and parenting time must be in the child’s best interests. While Missouri presumes that having access to both parents serve’s a child’s best interests, a history of family violence can lead a court to conclude otherwise. Any history of abuse is a factor courts must consider when making custody decisions. State law prohibits courts from awarding custody or unsupervised visitation to a parent who has been convicted of certain violent crimes.

Mark A. Wortman is a family attorney in Kansas City. He has dedicated his entire practice to representing people involved in difficult family law issues like divorce and child custody, including people who need help getting out of dangerous family situations. Please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.