What can you do when you don’t trust your child’s father to keep your child safe during his parenting time?
In many cases, it’s difficult to show the court all the ways that a bad dad (though not necessarily an outright physically abusive one) doesn’t show up for his kids in a meaningful way. It’s risky, too, because the court is so jaded that, in many cases, without specific, concrete evidence of dad’s abuse, it infers that you are part of the problem – or, worse, that you’re actively alienating your children from their father.
In fact, a lot of times, I advise my clients not to raise actual, legitimate issues because I’m afraid that the court won’t take them seriously and will unfairly deduce that my client is the problem. Unfortunately, that’s how it can look.
But I’ve seen some cases where there are real issues – issues that, left unchecked, might pose a health or safety concern for the children involved. Raising these issues with a court is always going to be a bit like rolling the dice in the sense that you don’t know how it’ll be perceived or what will be done about any of it.
An example? Happy to share one.
A friend of mine was telling me that her soon-to-be ex husband is in a new relationship now. She’s not the nicest, even though my friend went above and beyond to establish a cordial relationship with her. But she’s not the problem. She’s just there.
The problem is dad. Dad is so wrapped up in his new side chick that he’s not putting his daughters needs first, and one of those daughters has a food allergy. On a recent visit, one of the daughters had an allergic reaction. Dad had to take her to urgent care. Now, though, the daughter is extra stressed. She was surprised by the reaction, and it didn’t feel like any she’d had before. She feels now like she can’t tell what’s an allergic reaction and isn’t sure when or if it’ll happen like that again and catch her by surprise.
My friend described it as PTSD. Like, this child is distraught.
The worst part? Dad is teasing her about it, and making specific plans to go to restaurants that specialize in foods she’s allergic to.
In every case, though, there’s two specific courses of action we could take: the in-court one, and the out-of-court one. Though an attorney can really only help you in court, you’d be unwise not to consider your out-of-court options, especially if those options involve empowering your children.
We could raise this issue in court, sure. But what evidence would I have? How could I show that dad teased her? I can’t really bring the child in to testify. I don’t have evidence. But that behavior is abusive and unacceptable – and dad is bad (maybe not as a human being, maybe he’s going through some stuff too, and I am mature enough to extend some grace) for teasing her. Dad is bad for not taking her concerns seriously. Dad is bad for not hearing and helping her.
Would it matter to a judge, if we raised the issue? It’s impossible to say. It depends on the judge, the court, the day, the GAL, the dad – so many variables. This is just one instance, too. And what happens when dad raises something else, whether completely made up or not? It quickly becomes a he said/she said mudslinging battle that makes it difficult to tell which parent is actually the problem.
Maybe dad’s a jerk. Maybe mom’s is a helicopter parent who just can’t let go. Maybe none of the above, maybe all of the above – in any case, it’s really hard for the truth to come out in court. It’s possible, too, that a failure to coparent effectively together could wind up with one parent or the other being awarded custody at the expense of the other. I’ve seen that happen.
It really depends on the issues, too. I just talked about one example, but there are literally millions. I’m sure we all know that there are bound to be some parenting style differences between mom’s and dad’s houses; that’s not what we’re talking about here. And we’re also not trying to police what dad does with the kids on his own parenting time. We just want to make sure that the kids are safe, that they feel safe, and that their feelings are validated.
In some cases, the only solution – after, of course, raising your specific issue with your attorney – is to take matters into your own hands, without the courts. Find a way to empower the child. Whether you help her have a conversation with her dad where she stands up for herself, whether she goes back to an allergist for testing and re-testing to see what made this reaction so much worse or different than the ones before it, whether she’s in therapy or finds some other solution – give her a way to cope with the situation in a way that gives her some control over it.
At the end of the day, she – like all of us – needs to learn to rely on herself first. If she feels heard and empowered and is given the tools to help rise to the occasion, she may be better off than if you had litigated the issues.
Custody cases, especially at the juvenile court level, are always a bit of a gamble. And, ultimately, when it comes to custody and visitation, you and your child’s father are going to have to find a way forward. Maybe he’s a jerk. No parenting plan ever made a jerk into NOT a jerk, so you’re going to have to parent your child through this as well as you can, whether the court will listen to you or not.
You should always work through your plan with your attorney, but keep in mind that non judicial remedies can sometimes be even more effective than judicial ones.
For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.