Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Musings on custody matters

I do a lot of custody cases where the parties are not married, and these can be the most difficult cases.  With a divorce, the parties loved each other at one time, have developed a relationship, although it is obviously not healthy at the time of the divorce, but they are used to the idea of working as a partner with that particular person.  The partnership may not be healthy, but the dynamics of a partnership are present.

In juvenile custody matters, the parties are typically not married, and likely had very little if any relationship to work on.  Usually they were dating and they were boyfriend and girlfriend, but they were just having fun, not worrying about paying bills together, saving money together, planning a future together.

And then a baby comes along.

Now you have two independent people who have to carve out not only a relationship, but an unexpected relationships that is guaranteed to last at least 18 years, whether they can stand each other or not.

And this is where the ability to compromise becomes essential.

Of course, it is not appropriate for one parent to "compromise" by giving in to all of the demands of the other party, but it is important for the parties to figure out how to work together.

But there are so many barriers to this.  For one thing, one or both of the parties may feel abandoned or ignored by the other party, or they just may feel embarrassed about the obvious - that they had a sexual relationship with that person and birth control failed or was not used.

Both parties are not used to the idea of partnering with another person to make important life changing decisions.  Until the baby came along, they were deciding where to go to dinner or where to spend a vacation together.  They were not trying to figure out how to clothe, feed and educate a child.

The new parents are also not used to the idea of deferring gratification for the benefit of another.  Usually these parents are young and they are still being told that the future is whatever they want to make of it, that they have opportunities, that the world is their oyster.

These barriers can also serve as an impetus to change and grow.  The future is still whatever you want to make of it, you just have to remember that your child needs to be part of that future.  You can still reach out for your dreams, as long as your other hand is holding your child's hand tightly.  The world is still your oyster, you just have to share it with your child.  AND you have to keep the other parent involved as well with regard to issues involving your child.

This may not sound much like legal information, but these issues need to be addressed early on in an custody or paternity case, because the way we decide to handle this matter will impact everything about the child.

If the parents can figure out how to make shared parenting work, for example, then they are both assured of having full involvement in the raising of that child.  If both parents have their own ideas of how the child should be raised and cannot reach a middle ground, there is a risk that they will always be competing and might even risk alienating the child from one or both of them.

Often a new parent will tell me all of their dreams for their child, and I am happy that they have dreams for their child, but I also know that the child is going to reach an age where the child is going to start having his or her own dreams, and as a parent we have to learn to nurture those dreams and let our child know that the future is whatever he or she makes of it and the world is his or her oyster.  I usually don't say anything, though, because I think the new parent sitting in front of me will probably have to find that out on his or her own, much as I had to do.

In the meantime, legally, we have to make decisions, such as custody, visitation or shared parenting, that will have a long lasting impact on the relationship between these three people at a time where the parents are usually not ready and the child is a complete unknown.  For example, it breaks my heart to have to remind the parents of an infant that we need have flexibility in a shared parenting plan because we do not know if the child will actually be able to attend a particular school that the parent wants guaranteed.  Maybe that school won't work because a parent has to move outside of the school's district or the child won't be able to cut it or their might be a special need that the school cannot address.  When you have an infant, you look at these comments as negative.  Once you have raised a child, you understand that these challenges are all part of the joy of raising a child and you revel in the joy that you were able to guide your child through that difficult time so that your child was able to overcome those obstacles and strike out on his or her own.

And this probably explains why I love doing this work.  Even when the parents are fighting, I know that this is just part of the process that can result in a win-win situation for the child.  My goal is to help the client navigate to a position where the child is protected and my client-parent feels that he or she has a voice in making decisions for the child and in raising the child.  This is usually a struggle, and sometimes is more of a struggle than other times, but it is a noble goal and I am happy that so many clients agree to let me be part of the mechanism that helps them get there.

Anyway, enough for musing.  Back to work.