Custody Battles? Listen To This Judge!
10 Tips For Parents Facing Custody Battles
Every day, my colleagues and I see the emotional carnage that results from high-conflict parental separations. We make the best decisions we can with the evidence we are given, which is often incomplete and almost always conflicting. We seldom find out the consequences of our decisions, and can only hope that the parents and children whose lives we touch have gone on to live happy and healthy lives. Although the work of a family court judge is sometimes discouraging, I am always heartened when I meet ex-partners who have learned to work together as a team for their children’s benefit.
If you and your ex-partner have recently separated, please know that you are not alone. Millions have gone before you and have emerged from their pain as strong, emotionally healthy people. In the weeks and months following a separation, it is human nature to be confused and afraid. This does not always bring out the best in us. However, chances are that in time, your pain, anger, and fear will subside, and you will make great strides in your personal growth.
I hope the following suggestions will help speed up that process, so that you and your ex-partner can devote your energies to being the best parents”and co-parents”you can be.
1. BE CHILD-FOCUSED
Parents must learn to love their children more than they dislike each other. Make your child’s well being the focal point of every discussion you have with your ex-partner. Before taking a position on any issue, ask yourself: “How will this affect my child?” Never let a discussion with your ex-partner be about your needs or his/her needs; it should always be about your child’s needs. The first step to being a mature, responsible co-parent is to always put your children’s needs ahead of your own.
2. LEARN TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN A BAD PARTNER AND A BAD PARENT
The fact that your ex-partner was a bad partner does not necessarily mean that he/she is a bad parent. The way that a person treats his/her spouse in an unhappy relationship when no children are present may not be a good indication of how that person treats his/her children. Your child is entitled to get to know the other parent in his/her own right and to have a relationship with the other parent that is independent from your own. If your feelings about the other parent are standing in the way of your child’s relationship with him/her, you should seek help from a counselor or therapist.
3. NEVER SPEAK NEGATIVELY TO THE CHILD ABOUT THE OTHER PARENT
Your child has a right to a loving relationship with each parent, free of any influence or brainwashing. It is unfair and cruel to place your child in a conflict of loyalties and make him/ her choose between you and your ex-partner, as this deprives the child of an important relationship. Never draw your child into your disputes with the other parent.
4. NEVER ARGUE OR FIGHT IN FRONT OF YOUR CHILDREN
If you and your ex-partner cannot behave civilly in front of your child, then don’t be together in front of your child. I cannot understand why so many parents have trouble pretending to get along with each other for the few minutes it takes to pick up or return a child at access exchanges. Why are parents able to behave well in a courtroom in front of a judge but not in front of their own children? There is absolutely no good reason for parents to expose their children to their conflict.
5. LISTEN TO THE OTHER PARENT’S POINT OF VIEW, EVEN IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH IT
If you are going to communicate directly with your ex-partner, remember that communicating with maturity starts with listening. In any disagreement, try repeating back to your ex-partner what his/her position is, and the reasons why he/ she is taking that position. You cannot decide whether you agree with someone if you have not clearly understood what he/she is saying. Even if you end up disagreeing with the other parent, you should at least be able to convey to him/her that you have understood his/her point of view. Good listening skills are not acquired overnight, but post-separation counseling can be very helpful in speeding up the learning process.
6. CONSIDER MEDIATION BEFORE GIVING THE DECISION-MAKING POWER TO A JUDGE
Too many parents react in a knee-jerk way to each other’s conduct by running to family court without first getting legal advice or considering the impact of starting a court case. It is essential to consult a family law lawyer before taking any steps to resolve a conflict with an ex-partner. It may not be necessary to turn the decision-making power over to a judge. Many thousands of parents have found mediation to be a beneficial problem-solving mechanism, so it is definitely worth exploring.
7. SEPARATE YOUR FINANCIAL ISSUES FROM YOUR PARENTING ISSUES
In any family breakdown, there are two types of issues to be resolved: financial issues and parenting issues. These are completely separate matters and should be dealt with that way.
Your relationship with your children should have nothing to do with financial transactions or property transfers. It can certainly be a challenge to behave civilly with someone whom you think is trying to cheat you financially, but the ability to keep parenting issues separate from financial matters is a hallmark of maturity.
8. YOUR CHILDREN STILL SEE YOU AS A FAMILY, SO COMMUNICATE
If you truly accept that your children are innocent and bear no responsibility for your separation, then you know that they are entitled to be part of a family and to have their parents behave like family members, even though they live apart. When a child is going frequently from one parent’s home to the other, it is vital that each parent knows about anything important that has happened to the child while in the other parent’s care, especially an illness. Parents should have equal rights to obtain information about their children from schools, doctors, and other service providers.
Both parents should be able to attend special events in the children’s lives, such as religious ceremonies, school events, sports tournaments and music recitals. Even if there is a restraining order prohibiting contact, speak to your lawyer about the possibility of amending the order to permit at least some minimal form of communication regarding your child, even if it is in written form, or through a third-party intermediary. Your children need you to know what’s happening in their lives even when they’re with the other parent.
9. BE FLEXIBLE AND REASONABLE IN MAKING ACCESS ARRANGEMENTS
By far, the greatest area of conflict between separated parents is that of organizing, carrying out and enforcing access visits. Family courts everywhere are swamped with parents complaining of each other’s frequent cancellations, lateness and a myriad of other misbehaviors. In a great many of these cases, a little common sense and fairness from both parents would have gone a long way toward resolving the problem. Be flexible and reasonable in accommodating your ex partner’s work schedule and travel concerns, as well as changes in your child’s routines. Remember that access schedules must be adjusted to accommodate changes in the parents’ and children’s lives. This is not only normal but is to be expected, so go with the flow.
10. DON’T HESITATE TO GET HELP
Family breakdown is one of the most stressful and painful experiences anyone can go through. You do not have to do this alone. There are specialized counselors and therapists who can help you. Many community organizations offer programs to help separated parents make the transition from ex-partner to co-parent. There are social workers and parenting coaches with the expertise to help you and your ex-partner develop a workable parenting plan.
(Excerpted from TUG OF WAR: A Judge’s Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and the Bitter Realities of Family Court, ECW Press/May 2009)
About the author: Justice Harvey Brownstone currently presides at the North Toronto Family Court. He was appointed a provincial judge in 1995, after serving as Director of the Support and Custody Enforcement Program of the Ministry of the Attorney General (now the Family Responsibility Office). He received his LL.B. from Queen’s University in 1980, and after working as a full-time Legal Aid duty counsel in the criminal courts, he joined the Legal Aid research facility, focusing primarily on Family Law.