Sometimes it seems like the types of cases we see come in waves. We don’t have many cases of a particular type or with a specific theme and then (bam!) all of a sudden we have five or six, and we’re all grappling with similar issues. Of course, especially in custody, no two cases are the same, and the way a case is decided can be determined based on one specific fact, so it can be hard to take particular points away from a specific type of case.
That doesn’t stop us from trying, though! And one of the types of cases that we’ve seen lately that we hadn’t seen quite as much of before is reunification. If you’re facing a reunification case, you’re probably rolling your eyes in frustration (after all, what kind of dad just disappears and then suddenly expects to be reintegrated seamlessly and quickly into an unsuspecting child’s life?) – but you’ll definitely want to read this.
Reunification is a fancy word we use to describe when one parent hasn’t been involved in a child’s life and wants to get involved. It’s “reunification” in the sense that a family is reunified (though, of course, the term sounds grandiose and positive, and doesn’t really address the fact that – by choice – dad disappeared for a period of time), so that a child has the newfound opportunity to bond with both parents.
We see reunification come up a lot of times with deadbeat dads who, for whatever reason, have suddenly had a change of heart and want to spend more time with their children. As you can probably imagine, it’s a really frustrating situation for a mom, who has been there the entire time, to suddenly find herself involved in a custody case when dad had been previously nonexistent. I was talking to a client a little while ago who said to me, “He knew where we lived. He had my phone number. He changed child support! If he wanted to have a relationship with his child, why didn’t he just…try?” Instead, after more than seven years of being uninvolved with the child’s life (and, during the time when he was MIA, not even sending any birthday or Christmas presents, cards, texts, or even making a single phone call), he files a petition asking for custody and visitation. (Oh, yeah, did I mention… Dad lives in Texas, and he wants to bring the child to Texas to visit with him—all summer?)
As you probably already know, visitation with a child who doesn’t know or doesn’t remember a parent isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. After all, you’re worried about emotional trauma to the child; who just ships a kid off to Texas to see a man that the child doesn’t even remember? Reunification cases can be difficult because of the amount of time the non custodial parent (the parent who has the child less) has been out of the picture. Even though, on its face, a reunification case seems like a simple custody and visitation petition, there’s often a lot more involved.
If a parent has been out of the picture for a substantial period of time, getting them together with the child may be more of an undertaking than just scheduling specific time for visitation. We’re talking about a living, breathing child here—one who doesn’t know or understand what’s going on—and it’s not just a matter of lumping dad and child together and seeing what will happen. There’s potential for damage here and, as a mother, you want to tread carefully.
It’s not like you want to keep your child’s father from being involved at all, and, frankly, even if you did, you’d probably be unsuccessful on that score. These days, courts encourage the involvement of both parents, and I think you’ll find that, eventually, dad will get some kind of visitation in place.
Remember—when it comes to custody, the court is looking at the best interests of the child factors. The court, for the most part, believes that it is in a child’s best interest to have access to both parents. That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that dad can snap his fingers and expect visitation to resume like he didn’t disappear for years at a time.
What should I do if I think that I may be facing a reunification case?
If your child’s father has petitioned for custody and visitation out of nowhere, don’t panic. It happens and, really, it was probably bound to happen sooner or later. Even though it’s frustrating to find yourself suddenly wondering whether you’ll need to hire a family law attorney to keep the custody that he never wanted before, it’s not the end of the world.
Remember: you’re in the stronger position here, as the person who has been the historical caregiver for the child. Though I do think that it’s likely that your child’s father will get visitation sooner or later, you have some power to make sure that the way that happens is in a way that will take your child’s best interests into account.
One of the most common objections I hear is that, “he’s only doing this to lower child support!” And, though that may be the case, there’s really nothing I can do about it even if that is the case. It’s not going to make you look good to the judge or the guardian ad litem (more on that later) by pointing it out, so you should probably just let it go and focus on what you can control. (Child support is set by the statute and it’s based on a very specific formula depending on the amount of time each parent has with the child; it isn’t going to change in your case.)
If you’re facing a reunification case, here are a couple of tips, just for you:
1. Enroll your child in therapy.
I know, I know. You probably don’t want to. But, still, a therapist (you also need to make sure that the person you use is someone who would be willing to testify in court if we needed it) is going to be a really helpful person when it comes to determining what would be appropriate for the child.
If the therapist comes to court and testifies that your child is distressed about the prospect of reunification, it may very well encourage the court to move more slowly. If you don’t have a therapist, it may be harder to slow the court’s roll as far as reunification is concerned. Though there’s no question that the judge and the guardian ad litem (and, certainly your family law attorney, if you have one) will be focused on what the best interests of the child might be, there’s also no question that judges and attorneys and guardians ad litem (all of whom went to law school, and studied law and politics and philosophy, rather than psychology) aren’t really the best people to determine what’s developmentally or emotionally appropriate for a particular child in a specific set of circumstances. And, though we can use your testimony, you’re a little biased and, besides that, probably not really an “expert” in the field of child psychology, either. We need someone who can testify with authority and give gravity to our argument.
Find a therapist, and find one sooner rather than later. The longer your child works with a therapist, the more information she (or he) will have to draw on when it comes time to go to court.
2. Establish a good relationship with the guardian ad litem.
Guardian ad litems are often involved in custody cases and will almost certainly be involved in your case, given these specific issues. A guardian ad litem is an attorney who is appointed by the court (or sometimes agreed upon by the parties) to represent the interests of the child.
All too often, parents and the guardian ad litem get off on the wrong foot. It’s easy to think that, because this person is an attorney (and also because they’re there to decide custody, and will certainly be talking to your child and your child’s father), they’re on your side. That you can tell them what’s happening, in pure, unadulterated detail. That you can let them know what a POS your child’s father is, and how unacceptable you find his behavior.
I get it. You’re upset. And you have every right to be. But you need to censor your speech when you’re dealing with the guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem is not there to be your friend or confidant, or to take your side in the custody case. The guardian ad litem is a powerful person who will ultimately make a recommendation to the court about custody in your case, so you should make a good impression. A few helpful hints:
• Don’t bad mouth your child’s father. (Let the GAL figure it out on her own.)
• Don’t treat the GAL as a confidant.
• Focus on the GOOD things you’re doing, rather than pointing out the bad things he’s doing.
• Discuss how you plan to keep your child’s father a part of your child’s life. (They want to hear that!)
• Stay positive; don’t complain.
It can be hard, but, if you need to complain or gripe about your case, you should talk either to your friends, your family law attorney, or your therapist (but preferably your attorney or therapist). The GAL is not your friend, and you shouldn’t start thinking of her that way—no matter how nice or understanding she seems to be.
On the other hand, if you HATE the guardian ad litem (many people do), don’t let it show, either. Don’t lose your temper, or go to great lengths to try to get the GAL removed from your case. You almost certainly will not succeed, and then you’ll have to go forward with a GAL who doesn’t like you and a judge who thinks you’re difficult. Go with the flow, and stay as positive as possible. Don’t give the GAL anything to criticize.
3. Hire a family law attorney or attend Custody Bootcamp for Moms.
These types of cases are difficult, and you shouldn’t do it alone. Reunification raises more issues than a normal custody and visitation case does; you should be prepared to deal with the specific issues head-on.
Obviously, having a family law attorney is ideal but, if you can’t afford one, you should have done some research ahead of time so that you understand how Virginia law works. If you’ve got a therapist, for example, that you’re wanting to testify, you should be prepared to question your witness. You’ll also want to prepare for being questioned (and, worse, cross examined!) yourself. You’ll want to know how to get your evidence in, and keep his evidence out. Custody cases are complicated, and, though you CAN handle it on your own, you do sort of have to ask yourself—is it worth the risk?
For more information about handling a custody case on your own, request a copy of our free report, “Can I REALLY Represent Myself in a Custody Case?” by clicking here. For more information about Custody Bootcamp, click here.
Reunification cases are hard, but not impossible. And now you’re armed with information that can help make planning and organizing your case, whether or not you plan to hire an attorney, a little bit easier. For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our family law attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.