I hate these cases. Really, really hate them. I see moms with some frequency who come in and tell me that they were trying not to make any future issues with custody and visitation, but that their child asked them to intervene for one reason or another. Usually, these children are older teenagers (15+) and they’ve asked, for whatever reason, not to be forced to go to visitation with their fathers.
The moms, more often than not, feel honor bound to at least look into the child’s request and see what would be involved. After all, they almost always tell me, due to some fault or other of the father’s, it’s just not really a good environment. And the child is so mature, so intelligent, so reasonable… Surely, at some point, the child’s preference is taken into account, right?
This particular issue is positively fraught with potential problems. The short answer is that, yes, at some point, a child DOES have a right to have a preference – and that point, legally, is when he or she turns 18.
That’s not to say, of course, that a judge or a Guardian ad litem, in a contested custody case, wouldn’t talk to the child and take his or her preference into account – but it’s certainly not the only point the judge would consider in rendering a decision. In fact, even IF the child’s preference is taken into account, that doesn’t mean that no visitation would be awarded to the child’s other parent.
Do I have to force my child to go to visitation, even if he or she doesn’t want to go?
Well, yeah. I mean, maybe force is the wrong word, especially where an older child is concerned. But if there’s a court order entered in your case, you are obligated to follow it.
Logistically, that may be difficult. How are you going to tell your nearly full grown man of a son that he has to go to visitation with his dad? Are you going to carry him, fireman style, kicking and screaming to the car? Yeah, probably not.
What about your daughter, who can roll her eyes at you (in that infuriating way teenaged girls have), get in her car, and drive away?
But the reality is that there are all sorts of potential issues for you if this visitation falls apart. The most common problem I see is that dads, whenever their children don’t want to see them, cry parental alienation.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation is the claim (actually, a pretty commonly made claim) that one parent is using his or her (usually her) influence to poison the children against the other. Because, obviously, the only reason your child would refuse to see her father is because of what you’ve said about him to her, right? (Insert eye roll here; yes, the one just like your daughter’s.)
It’s not really a laughing matter, though. Courts tend to take claims of parental alienation seriously, and, since it’s really hard to disprove, it can turn court into a three ring circus. That’s not to say that something dramatic would happen – like you losing custody – but it’s possible, and additionally, it can take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, and potentially be even more damaging to the children.
Unreasonably denying access to the children
Another problem I see with these kinds of cases is that unreasonably denying time to the other parent is frowned upon by judges. If the judge feels like you are doing this by not allowing this visitation to take place, it can work out poorly for you in a petition for modification of the current custody and visitation order.
If you try to prevent visitation from taking place – which I can understand, if your child has asked you that the visitation not take place and you’re trying to protect him from this unwanted time with dad – you could be up against this problem, too.
More and more often, the courts want to see that both parents are supporting the other parent’s relationship with the child. Though that sounds good, there are lots of situations I’ve seen where this is difficult or impossible, based on the decisions and behavior of the other parent involved. You may feel that it’s holding you, in your case, to a pretty unreasonable standard – but I also find that it’s hard to make a judge understand an entire case’s back story in the amount of time allotted in even the most contested custody cases.
But he’s just damaging his relationship with the children even more!
You’ve put your finger right on one of the main points most moms make in these types of cases. “I want him to have a relationship with his dad,” they’ll tell me. “But right now, I think he’s doing more harm than good, and I don’t want to see the relationship damaged forever.”
Though that may be reasonable in your case (in fact, as I type this, I am thinking about one of my cases in particular where the mom said this to me and I believe her to be 1,000% right), it may be difficult to convince the judge.
And, I know – it’s difficult to force your child to go to visitation when he doesn’t want to go, especially when you feel like the child is being hurt by the visitation.
If there’s a material change in circumstances, you can always petition the court for a modification of custody and visitation. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to talk one-on-one to a Virginia custody lawyer so that you have a chance to talk about all the unique factors involved in your case to determine whether this course of action is a good one.
It can be hard to imagine that a child doesn’t automatically have a say in a custody and visitation decision, but, in Virginia, that’s the law. The judge and GAL CAN take it into account, but it would depend on the child’s age and maturity – and, even then, that doesn’t mean that exactly what the child wants will be ordered. (As you can imagine, children aren’t always that good at asking for or understanding what they really need, and often need adults to help enforce a better framework for their own development. Otherwise they’d all grow up eating ice cream for dinner every night and playing video games until their fingers bled.)
Keep your expectations minimal, and don’t make any rash decisions until after you’ve talked to an attorney about your specific case. To set up an appointment with an attorney today, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.