Women and Justice: Keywords

Domestic Case Law

Gonzalez v. Munoz California Court of Appeal (2007)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

Maria Elena Gonzalez (“Gonzalez”) filed for a temporary restraining order against her former partner, Maurelio Francisco Munoz (“Munoz”). She complained that Munoz violently attacked her on numerous occasions including burning her with hot grease, choking and beating her, and abusing her three-year-old daughter Flor. The trial court granted a temporary ex-parte restraining order to keep Munoz from Gonzalez and Flor. The court also issued personal conduct and stay-away orders, and granted physical and legal custody of Flor to Gonzalez with no visitation rights for Munoz. At a subsequent hearing regarding the orders, Gonzalez and Munoz both appeared without counsel and spoke through an interpreter. At the beginning of the hearing, the court told the parties it would make some “temporary orders under certain circumstances regarding custody and visitation” but could not make a paternity judgment. The court advised Gonzalez and Munoz that they would need to file a separate paternity suit to resolve issues related to custody and visitation of Flor. Munoz indicated he was not Flor’s parent but requested “reasonable visitation” on weekends. The court issued a restraining order that excluded Flor and extended for one year the portion of the prior restraining order that kept Munoz away from Gonzalez. But it did not address custody or visitation. Gonzalez then asked the court about child support, an indication she did not understand the discussion about a separate paternity proceeding. In a subsequent hearing a judge granted Munoz weekly supervised visits with Flor despite the abuse allegations. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and found it erred and violated Section 6340 of the California’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act (the “Act”) when it failed to issue permanent custody of Flor to Gonzalez. The Act directs the court when applying the Act to “consider whether failure to make any of these orders may jeopardize the safety of the petitioner and the children for whom the custody or visitation orders are sought.” The Court of Appeal noted that, given Flor’s potential exposure to violence from Munoz, the trial court was charged with eliciting evidence about Flor’s parentage and whether the earlier custody and visitation orders needed to be modified or extended to “ensure the mutual safety of Gonzalez and Flor.” Also, because Munoz failed to show or to claim a parent-child relationship with Flor, the trial court should have extended the restraining order to cover Flor and entered the permanent custody order Gonzalez requested. The Court of Appeal admonished bench officers to play a “far more active role in developing the facts,” even at the expense of a particular court’s procedures, to avoid the high potential for danger to the Act’s target population—“largely unrepresented women and their minor children.” It noted the “special burden” on bench officers who “cannot rely on the propria persona litigants to know each of the procedural steps, to raise objections, and to otherwise protect their due process rights.”