I recently attended a family law conference where a panel of eight family court judges answered questions presented on various issues, including a number of child custody and visitation matters. When it came to the issue of children addressing the court under Family Code section 3042, judicial officers agreed that children generally wish their parents would not argue and that the children do not like being in the middle of their parents’ dispute.
It seems like disputes over visitation increase around the holidays. Perhaps one reason for this involves the resentment which builds in highly contested custody matters. The nature of such cases invites animosity as the parties find themselves responding to attacks by the other party regarding his/her ability to parent. Often the parties’ Declarations merely recite negative qualities and alleged misconduct of the other parent. Attacks sometimes extend to that parent’s family members who the children may be exposed to while in their custody. Understandably, emotions run high when the parties have traded several rounds of declarations attacking the other parent and defending themselves, their new significant other and family members. Built up resentment can easily find expression in trying to hit the other parent where it hurts, time with their children during the holidays. Reasonable requests for flexibility to accommodate family traditions or to allow the children to see extend family are denied. Many times a parent may not even realize that he/she is using the children to hurt the other parent.
In addition to litigating family law matters, our firm provides mediation for couples who have decided to handle their divorce outside of court. I found myself deeply inspired by a couple I recently met with. Initially, I was impressed with the dignity and respect they each extended to the other. No harsh words were spoken. They never interrupted the other parent. Most remarkably, they had worked out a wonderful co-parenting schedule prior to our meeting. Not only did the shared parenting plan accommodate each parent’s work schedule to maximize quality time with their children, they even planned a family night each week in which they did a simple activity TOGETHER. Imagine that! I couldn’t help but think how fortunate their children are to have parents who remained child-centered, notwithstanding issues that led to the break-up of their marriage.
If you find the above example difficult to imagine under your circumstances, I challenge you to remain focused on the best interest of your children. Under the best interest standard, the health, safety and welfare of your children is a primary concern for courts. Of course, serious matters must be timely brought to the Court’s attention to protect your children. However, it is easy to shift focus to a parent’s best interest in visitation matters. The best way you can avoid this is to not allow the other parent to draw you into a battle of such tactics. Approach each day anew and each custody and visitation decision with your children’s best interest as the guiding factor. Even when the other parent acts contrary to this principle, remain committed on your part. Remember that your children do not want to be in the middle of any conflict between their parents.
Some bright-line rules can help prevent embroiling your children in visitation disputes:
- -Don’t discuss the issues of the divorce with your children. This includes leaving court papers around the house where children can find them. If your children have access to it, they will probably read it.
- -Refrain from using your children as messengers. Parents often slide into this during daily phone calls without realizing it. For example, telling your child, “I have tickets to _______ this Sunday. Do you want to go?” (and this happens to fall on the other parent’s weekend, and other events have been planned by the custodial parent). This situation is easy to avoid. Simply talk to the other parent outside of the presence of the children regarding such requests BEFORE mentioning it to your children. Court-approved communication programs such as Our Family Wizard and Talking Parents facilitate effective and appropriate communication in this regard.
- -Attend co-parenting classes and apply the advice. The Court will generally order the parties to complete both individual and joint parenting classes when there is a custody and visitation dispute. However, filing a certificate of completion with the Court does not mean that parent will apply the information.
I still remember what the mediator said during the first session in my divorce nearly 20 years ago, “when you have children together, you never really get divorced.” These words ring true for me, especially now that my children are all well into adulthood.
If you find yourself embroiled in a highly contested custody dispute, my heart goes out to you, but even more so to your children. If this is a difficult and stressful time for you, imagine how difficult it is for your children. Religious beliefs aside, the holiday season reminds us to extend good will to all. Perhaps by extending the olive branch in some small way you can start a new path to co-‐parenting which will only benefit your children.
So I sign off this blog with a wish for all the children in a divided family:
“Sleep well, little children, pleasant dreams through the night.
Tomorrow is Christmas all merry and bright,
Soon you’ll hear the bells rings, time for dreams to come true,
As the world wakes to bring merry Christmas to you.”
Words by Alan Bergman
Do you want to hear more about the latest information on family law? If you have questions regarding child custody & visitation, please contact our office to schedule a consultation. The Law Office of Family Law Specialist Richard E. Bawden handles legal issues regarding adoption, annulment, mediation, domestic violence, child and spousal support as well as pre and post-marital agreements. Telephone (909)792-0222, or email us at [email protected]