Contested custody cases are hard on the parents, but even harder on the children. The children are often the helpless victims of parental conflict. While each parent usually has legal representation, it is rare that the children are represented in their parents’ custody conflict. Here are some do’s and don’ts to consider in a high-conflict custody case:
1. Do select an attorney who has an expertise in custody matters and a forensic custody and parenting time expert who is focused on the best interests of the children.
2. Do tell the children that the decision to divorce has nothing to do with them. Do tell the children together that you are getting a divorce, if possible. Otherwise, do arrange for a therapist to meet with the children and both parents (or even each parent separately with the children).
3. Do keep the children sheltered from adult issues and conflict, whenever possible. Children do not need to know the details of their parents’ divorce. Do tell the children that their needs will be considered and that their job is to do well in school, maintain friendships, and enjoy their lives.
4. Do allow children to develop their own feelings about a parent based upon their own experiences, not those of their parents. Children should be allowed to love each parent. If a parent is abusive, unfit or neglectful, tell your attorney, who should know what to do in such situations.
5. Do seek professional therapeutic help if the stress of a divorce or custody battle becomes too overwhelming. It takes a strong person to admit that they need emotional support, and this is the time for you to be focused and at your best.
1. Don’t select an attorney who you think is a pit bull; revenge is costly and usually counterproductive.
2. Don’t file a false domestic violence complaint to get leverage in a custody battle. It is often easy to obtain a temporary restraining order and much harder to get the final restraining order, especially with “he said, she said” proofs. If you lose the final restraining order, you also lose credibility with the court and create even more conflict in an already difficult situation.
3. Don’t bad-mouth the other parent to the children. Remember, children love both parents. When you bad-mouth the other parent, you are, in effect, bad-mouthing each child, who is a product of both parents (genetically and behaviorally).
4. Don’t ask the children to testify against a parent, if possible. Courts do not appreciate a parent who puts their children smack in the middle of your conflict, and the experience can cause emotional scars for years to come. If a judge decides to interview a child, don’t coach the child. Judges will ask for questions from your attorneys, and one common question focuses on what has been stated to the child.
5. Don’t make a parenting arrangement that is unrealistic and unachievable. Consider your actual availability and ability to spend the time you want with your children. Quality time is often more important than quantity of time.
Custody battles are costly, emotionally charged, and bring out the worse in litigants. Remember, parents are getting divorced from each other, not from their children. Parents always need to focus on the welfare of their children and try to shelter them from the conflict, whenever possible. Consider the above do’s and don’ts to help you navigate through this difficult process. There will be no winners if your children suffer.
Gale B. Weinberg is a partner in the law firm of Weinberg & Cooper, LLC. She has more than 25 years of experience in family law matters, including working as a Guardian ad Litem for children involved in high-conflict custody matters. She worked with children for several years after completing a master’s degree at Teachers’ College, Columbia University. She has been a leader and instructor for many family law professional organizations.