Five Webinar Takeaways: Domestic Violence and Family Law: Understanding High Risk and Potential Lethal Outcomes in Child Custody Cases

Domestic violence, including firearm violence, is a pervasive public health crisis impacting people of all backgrounds. In an OurFamilyWizard webinar hosted in October 2023, our guest experts, the Honorable Sherrill A. Ellsworth (Ret.) and Julia F. Weber, Esq., MSW, explore an important question: How does this issue affect you, as a family law practitioner?  

During this webinar, Domestic Violence and Family Law: Understanding High Risk and Potential Lethal Outcomes in Child Custody Cases, Judge Ellsworth and Weber explored how family law practitioners can work with their clients to prevent gun violence within co-parenting families by crafting more protective parenting time and child custody provisions.  

Here are five key takeaways from the webinar. You can request to watch the full recorded webinar here. 


1. It's about access, not ownership

Guns can be used for violence by anyone who has access to them, whether or not they own the guns personally. In fact, there are more firearms than people in the United States. The more you learn about the risks and availability, the better you can be prepared to help your clients.  

The important thing, Judge Ellsworth explains, is “just understanding that many, many, many households own guns. That’s neither bad nor good, it’s just the idea that there are a lot of guns out there. So this topic is one that you should consider to always be at the forefront of your regular screenings and discussions with your clients.” 

Gun ownership is not a problem by itself. The vast majority of gun owners support responsible gun ownership, safe gun storage, and violence prevention. It’s the context that matters; sometimes gun ownership or access is not safe, wise, or legal. Judge Ellsworth and Weber advocate for a harm reduction approach. 


A female family law attorney speaks to a client in her office.

2. Ask your clients about guns

Asking your clients about guns can just be part of a conversation, but don’t be afraid to probe to get the information you need to make informed decisions. Find out if either party owns or has possible access to any firearms. “Understand access and how to ask questions around this that give you the answers you need in order to be more helpful to your clients,” recommends Judge Ellsworth.  


3. You have an important role to play

“Remember,” says Weber, “you have an important role to play. This isn’t just somebody else’s problem.” She adds, “We’re on a mission to change the culture in this area to ensure that family law practitioners, whatever your role is, see yourselves as in a position to do something about these risky situations.” 

Domestic violence victims, for example, are 5x more likely to die if their intimate partner has access to a gun. If you suspect that gun violence is a possibility, contact the appropriate authorities.  


4. Virtual visitation is sometimes the best solution

In risky situations, virtual visitation via video calling is often the best option. If you worry for the safety of your client or their child, ask the judge to order virtual visitation rather than in-person visitation.  

“Given the availability of firearms—legal firearms and illegal firearms—we should all be very concerned about how quickly a high-conflict custody case can go horribly and tragically wrong if we’re not providing adequate protection and really being careful about when in-person contact might be appropriate,” says Weber. “Nothing is foolproof, and ultimately the people who commit these horrendous acts are responsible for the tragedy, but there are things that we can do to reduce risk and increase safety, including highlighting the value of considering virtual visitation.” 

Judge Ellsworth adds, “I am very excited about [OurFamilyWizard]’s announcement [of] their new feature, Calls, because that falls right into place with this. And what’s wonderful about that is that judges rely on [OurFamilyWizard] all the time, and have for years and years and years, so that now with this new feature, that also can be a very important message for judges to look at this as a possibility.” 


5. Offer hard evidence so the judge can make an informed decision

Family law cases are no different than cases in other areas of law. One person’s word against another isn’t enough. Give the judge evidence. Provide documented facts. Encourage the judge to make findings in the best interest of the child. “Evidence is testimony, evidence is affidavits,” says Judge Ellsworth. “We need to understand evidence and how to supply that evidence and then to extract the facts so that judges can make those findings.” 

She adds, “I want you to hold us judges to what we should do. I want you to tell me the story of your client when that client needs protection. I want you to give me something to hang my hat on. And if I’m not doing my job, I want you to make me do my job. … We need judges to do their job, and the only way they can do their job is if you give them the information they need.” 


A growing issue—with real solutions 

Weber notes, “We know that laws, policies, and procedures make a difference! So that’s good news. … When we actually implement the policies and procedures that are designed to reduce harm, designed specifically to address the intersection between domestic violence and firearms, we see a 16% reduction in domestic violence gun homicides.” 

“This is going to become more and more an issue,” says Judge Ellsworth, “and the way you approach it—in a nonpolarizing, nonpolitical way—is going to be the best remedy.” 

Judge Ellsworth adds, “We can all agree that if you ask any parent, even the ones that are challenging and difficult and don’t seem to be doing things for the benefit of their children, they all say they love their children and they want to be a parent and they want to do the best they can. Even if all their actions show otherwise. We need to assist them in putting into place agreements—in non-domestic-violence cases as well as domestic violence cases—that just create a safety plan for themselves, their family, and the community.”