I watched in court when a parent sued the other parent for fifty-fifty physical custody (50/50 child access) of their two primary school age children. The parents had already settled a high-conflict divorce. They had already spent thousands of dollars on attorneys, two parenting plan evaluations by a parenting expert, and months of parent coordination sessions recommended by the parenting plan evaluator.
Each parenting expert report, about two years apart, recommended that one of the parents should have all decision-making regarding the children’s education and health matters and that the children should spend more than half of the time with that parent. It also recommended parenting education classes for the other parent, a psychiatric evaluation, and individual and family psychotherapy. Nevertheless, the less capable parent was suing for 50/50 child access and criticizing the other parent!
Why would a parent whose parenting ability was twice evaluated by a parenting expert and twice deemed unworthy of fifty percent of the time with the children believe that he/she should have more time with the children? Wouldn’t a parent who learns that his or her children don’t benefit a great deal from contact with him or her try to improve parenting skills instead of suing for more time with them? That parent’s motivation must certainly be questioned. Love of the children certainly isn’t it.
- The personally distressing spectacle left me with several questions.
- Why isn’t the suing parent’s argument with the parenting expert who wrote the two reports? Why take the other parent to court?
- Why would the “more suitable parent” even bother to get an attorney, thereby giving credibility to the other parent’s argument for more time with the children?
- Why, oh why, would both parents leave the decision about parenting to a judge, who doesn’t even know them or the children?
- What would lead a judge to believe that he or she would know what’s better for kids than a parenting expert who spent hours actually observing the children with their parents?
- Why would an attorney actually take the “less suitable parent’s” case?
The whole endeavor seemed to me to be completely wrong-headed.
So what’s the remedy? A range of graduated, integrated and coordinated approaches to family conflict available according to a family’s needs. Services would include conflict resolution, education and skill training in parenting and communication, and mental health diagnosis and treatment and mediation. I didn’t make this up. Norway has been doing something like this for years, including mandated mediation.
Here’s a little more detail; services available as needed.
- Mediation for couples who can speak to each other without being overcome by emotion such as anger, hurt or sadness.
- Combinations of individual, couple and family counseling (with and without the children, depending on age) when parents cannot control their emotions. This type of counseling should address current concerns and conflicts, emotion control and tolerance of uncomfortable emotion, active listening, and skill training in personal expression and negotiation.
- Parenting education with skill training, including role-playing and feedback.
- Preparation for mediation.
- Mediation follow-up.
- Continuing services from #2 as needed.
Agreements can even be temporary, if both parties agree to it. Besides, as children grow up, their needs change. A parenting plan for a two year old isn’t the same as for a thirteen year old. This isn’t rocket science.
Perhaps divorce, when children are involved, should begin with a mandated visit with a family “mental health” specialist/children’s advocate. Maybe two or three visits would be necessary for the specialist to determine whether the family can proceed directly to mediation, or, when significant conflict is assessed, whether coordinated combinations of individual, couple and family counseling (with and without the children, depending on age) need to take place. Thus, more individualized approaches to separation and divorce could occur, especially in the presence of high conflict.
Going to court for divorce and child access exacerbate anger, hurt, fear, sadness, humiliation, etc. that interfere with parents’ ability to negotiate and agree with each other. The adversarial approach also ignores how those negative emotions affect parents and their parenting before, during and after the divorce. In the court case I observed, the judge actually said he doesn’t have any regard for reports from parenting experts who’ve observed parents with their children. Unless he’s presented with evidence of harm to children (What does he consider harm?), he’s in favor of shared custody, with children spending one week at a time with each parent. OMG. I wonder in how many other domains that judge considers himself more knowledgeable than experts who’ve spent years in their fields of expertise.
It’s your family. Work it out yourselves. Get help if you need it, but, don’t put your family’s future in a stranger’s hands.