SIX YEARS ago in Illinois, James Lutgen strangled his wife, Carol, in front of their two daughters, 6 and 8 years old. He was arrested and, after plea bargaining, charged with voluntary manslaughter. Upon his release less than two years later, he sought custody of his children, who had been placed in the care of his sister-in-law. Over their aunt's protests, the judge returned the children to Lutgen because he was their natural father and because, until he killed Carol, he had a good record.

If a parent's alcohol or drug abuse is a bona fide area of inquiry by the courts in custody issues, why is a parent's violent behavior irrelevant? Why is violence committed against another human being in the privacy of the home acceptable behavior?

Domestic violence or battering is a means of establishing control over another person through fear and intimidation. Generally, battering is physical, but it also includes emotional, economic and sexual abuse, and the kind of isolation experienced by hostages or prisoners-of-war.

Domestic violence is a brutal criminal act, mostly but not always committed by men against women. The shocking reality is that every 15 seconds, a woman is beaten in her home. An estimated 3 to 4 million American women are assaulted each year by their husbands or partners. Often their children watch.

There are many theories about batterers and why they resort to violence. These include career and economic stress, violence on TV and in the movies, poor socialization and sexism in our society. Whatever the causes, battering continues because too many people look the other way, and our judicial system has often been guilty of indifference. For many victims of domestic violence, the courts, in fact, have become their adversaries, not their allies.

The most blatant examples of judicial indifference and negligence, however, are to be found in child-custody cases. Only a handful of states and the District of Columbia require judges even to consider evidence of spousal abuse in determining custody. (Sadly, Maryland and Virginia are not among them.)

Dr. Lenore E. Walker argues in her book, "The Battered Woman," that spousal abuse is child abuse. Walker reports that 53 percent of men who abuse their wives also abuse their children. And, she adds, "whether or not {children} are physically abused by either parent is less important than the psychological scars they bear from watching their fathers beat their mothers. They learn to become part of a dishonest conspiracy of silence." Lying to avoid further unpleasant confrontation, often escaping into a world of make-believe, feeling guilty because they could not "protect" their mothers, these children grow up in an environment where violent behavior is the acceptable approach to problem solving.

In testimony at a House subcommittee hearing on spousal abuse and child custody, several witnesses underscored the terrible consequences of domestic violence on children. As Lorraine Chase, a social worker from the YWCA Women's Center in Annapolis, described it, "When children are raised in homes where violence occurs, they learn two basic ways of coping with life: aggressive behavior or passive indifference . . . . Passive indifference is evidenced in behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy and teen suicide. Aggressive behaviors are evidenced by increasing violence in our schools, truancy and crime." And, unfortunately, spousal abuse -- and its effects on children -- does not end with divorce. In fact, the abuse may increase. Custody litigation or the threat of it becomes another weapon for the batterer. Shared or joint custody, when there is a history of abuse, sets the stage for continued access to the victim and the children.

Marcia Shields of Silver Spring told the subcommittee an all-too-familiar tale. Terrified that her abusive husband would carry out threats to quit his job and disappear with their children -- he had announced plans to leave the area and left airplane tickets where she could find them -- Shields agreed to his demands for joint custody. She soon realized her mistake.

After an incident involving the physical abuse of one of Shields's sons, Montgomery County Protective Services reprimanded her husband. When her husband was reported a second time for abusing their daughter, Protective Services refused to intervene because Shields and her husband were about to go to court for a custody trial. "Let the courts handle it," she was told.

To her shock and disbelief, the courts handled it by upholding the original joint-custody agreement. Evidence of spousal abuse was deemed not pertinent to the issue of custody. "A person may be violent and vindictive toward a spouse and yet be the best, most loving parent in the world," the judge told her.

Last year, when her ex-husband came to pick up the children for an unscheduled visit, Shields refused. He assaulted her in front of their children. Found guilty of battery and assault and sentenced to two years probation, he still has joint custody of the children. The criminal court judge, however, ordered that a third party pick up and deliver the children for visits with their father during his probation.

Many women are not as "lucky" as Marcia Shields. Carol Lutgen was one of the more than 4,000 women in the United States killed each year by their spouses or intimate partners. Closer to home, in 1989 more than 120 women were killed by husbands or boyfriends in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

And what about the children? How many of our children are learning from their first and best teachers -- their parents -- that violence is the expected, accepted and most expedient way to solve life's problems? Shouldn't the rest of us help them learn otherwise?

This fall Congress unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) supporting the concept that credible evidence of physical spousal abuse should create a presumption against granting child custody to the abusive spouse.