Each year, thousands of parents living apart or divorcing look to the courts for resolution of their disputes. Sometimes they argue over money or property and sometimes they quarrel about their children. But fights over custody, access, parenting time and visitation have unintended victims, the children themselves whose emotional wellbeing can be harmed by their parents fight. In this tutorial, Elaine Gordon, a superior court judge who presides over custody trials talks to you over the reality of these custody disputes and their unfortunate consequences for children. Hello, my name is Elaine Gordon and I’m a judge who presides over custody disputes.
I’d like to talk to you a little bit today about divorce, custody fights, and what happens to the children whose parents have those fights. I do this in the hope that what I say will inform what you do and in terms of handling your case you’ll be able to do that in a way which does your children the least amount of harm. You know one of the problems that we have among couples who are getting divorced is they assume that everybody is fighting about everything and in fact if you come to court.
You will see the hallways filled with people, you believe that that is so. But in fact, that is not the case. Over 50 of the people who are getting divorced who have kids, resolve their disputes before they ever step foot in their lawyers’ offices. They recognize the custody dispute for what it really is, a personal family matter that parents need to resolve for themselves. Another 2030 of the people will, with a little bit of help from their lawyers or maybe the family relations office, will also be able to resolve their cases. Another 1020.
Putting Children First Minimizing Conflict in Custody Cases
Of people will go on to mediation either through our family relations office or through private mediators and they’ll be able to settle their cases. So who does that leave It leaves only about 10 of the couples who are separating or divorcing who have kids, who go on with the fight. The next step in a fight for those 10 of people, what they do that nobody else does, is that they enlist their children in their battle. How do they do this Well, they have a family relations evaluation, or a guardian ad litem is appointed, or an attorney for.
The minor children or a psychological evaluation. All of those things have the same result. The children are exposed to the fight, asked to participate in it, and in some ways become foot soldiers in their parents’ battle. That step involving strangers, third parties in the lives of your children does irrevocable damage to the kids and I’m going to tell you in a little bit later about what kind of damage that is. But first of all, you can see that asking a child, What do you think about your mom or What do you think about your dad.
Could have some dire consequences in terms of the power inside of the family or putting an undue burden on the children themselves. That’s the first and most obvious consequence. The others are even more devastating. Let’s think about this divorce from the point of view of a child. I like to try to think of it, actually, as thinking about it from the height of perhaps a smaller child, not adult sized, but child sized, looking at the world from basically behind their parents, because that’s what kids do. They rely on their parents to be the wall between them.
And the outside world. It’s a protective wall for them. And what most kids think about when they think about their family at all is pretty basic. They think Mommy loves Daddy and Daddy loves Mommy and they love me. And then one day, parents who are separating or divorcing come to their kids and say well, Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore, but don’t worry honey, we love you. That’s not what your kids hear. What your kids hear is Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. Uh oh. They can stop loving me as well. And.
So for every child in every family that is separating or divorcing, the overwhelming fear for those children becomes the fear of abandonment. The fear that somebody they love will leave them. And what we know is that in divorcing couples, if you recognize that this is the overwhelming theme of your child’s life and you take the steps to ameliorate this problem, your children will do better. What we’ve learned over the years is that it is not the divorce itself, which is the predictor of bad outcomes for kids, but how.
Big the dispute gets and even worse, whether the dispute becomes one that’s over them. The more you fight, the worse your children do. Children need something very basic in a divorce. They need to know that they can move freely back and forth between their parents’ homes, with love and affection from both, that there will be some consistency and that there will be some respect. You know, nobody’s asking that everybody continue to love each other. If you did that, you wouldn’t be getting a divorce in the first place. And we’re not even asking that maybe you even like each.
Other. We’re just saying, you’d better pretend that you do, at least as far as the kids are concerned. There should be civility and respect and encouragement in terms of letting the kids love the other parent even when you are mad. The further away you get from the model of two parents protecting their child in unison, the worse the kids do. Up at Mass General Hospital in Boston, a study was done and it now has been followed up on to determine what the effect of a custody fight is on kids.
I think that the results were probably not as surprising to people in the mental health professions, but they were shocking to those of us in the legal system. And I think they’ll be pretty shocking to you as well. One of the most important things that we learn is that the emotional profile of a kid whose parents have been fighting over them, that 10 of people who can’t resolve their own dispute without involving third parties, well, what happens to these kids They come out looking just like the kids, in terms of their emotional stability, just like those kids.
Whose parents have had their parental rights terminated for abuse and neglect. I think that’s pretty shocking to most parents who think that they are fighting for their children and to protect their children, to learn that the fight itself and just the fight has such devastating consequences. Let me break down exactly what the consequences are for kids. These results come from that Massachusetts General study and what the researchers did is they followed the children in what they called high conflict couples, and these are people that involved third parties in their dispute over their kids. And, this is.
What they found and they found this regardless of the children’s age. They found this in little kids and they found it with older kids. 65 of the children in these cases show symptoms of anxiety severe enough that they end up in a therapists office and I can tell you as a judge sitting on custody cases that I don’t think I’ve had a case in which the custody is being fought about that the children are not already in therapy, or about to start it. Well, that’s not a normal event in the life of most children, but in the lives of.
Children whose parents fight over them, 65 of them wind up in a therapists office. You’ll see that the increasingly serious disorders are increasing symptoms of anxiety. Remember what I told you about the kids needing their parents to get along. If your parents aren’t getting along, the anxiety gets higher for you and the consequences get worse. 56 of the children develop attachment disorder, now I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a mental health professional, I can’t give you the technical definition of attachment disorder, but I can tell you the layperson’s version. If you start out with a child who is fearful.
Of being abandoned by the persons that they love, if you fear that abandonment becomes as severe for these children, what happens is that they get afraid of being hurt, afraid of being left by the people that they care about, and so they won’t stick themselves out or put themselves out in any way to develop interrelationships. So, their friendships suffer, they can’t establish appropriate friendships, they don’t put themselves out there, and they get very little therefore in return. It spells disaster for their ability to go on and become.
Functioning adults in a healthy emotional relationship. They won’t trust anybody for fear of getting hurt and left and this will create amazingly difficult times for them throughout their own adult lives. 48 of the children wind up with fears and phobias that have never existed before and are not explained by anything other than the fact that the children are increasingly anxious. 44 of the children, including girls, become physically aggressive. Again, that’s anger and anxiety finding a way to express itself physically. 31 of them, and this I think.
Is an amazing statistic given what we know about our sleeping children, 31 of them suffer sleep disorders, which is a completely odd thing to happen to children whose sleep we normally envy. 29 of the kids become withdrawn and uninterested in the activities which interested them before and that’s not surprising because 27 of them are clinically depressed. 24 of them develop oppositional behavior. They become uncontrollable. They throw tantrums that last for hours and exhaust themselves and their entire family. 21 of them, the girls and the boys, become prematurely sexualized, sexually active or knowledgeable before it.
Is appropriate for them to do so. 13 of them are bedwetting into their adolescence and 10 of them become so psychiatrically impaired, that they become disassociative. Now again, I’m not a psychologist, disassociative used to be called multipersonality disorder but what it basically means is where you are living becomes so emotionally difficult, so hard for you to deal with, that you find an alternative place to be. You can space yourself out and disappear into your other existence. It’s a severe psychiatric impairment and 10 of these children have it.
So, what you get when you have a custody fight is an atmosphere in which your child, who you think you’re helping, is actually being harmed by the fight. I told you earlier that they come out with the psychological profile of children who are abused and neglected. Well, in some sense, I’m not talking about physical abuse, but there is neglect going on here. It’s an emotional neglect because children need the love of their parents and that stability and parents who are fighting, who are exposing their children to the fight,.
Are not able to emotionally care for their children. You could say that the fight itself is a sign that the children are not being emotionally cared for. Now I’ve been on the bench for almost twenty years and I was a family lawyer before that and I have a lot of experience, most of the other judges who are sitting in family courts also have a lot of experience and we try to do the best that we can in these kinds of cases. But, we are not social workers, we are not miracle workers, we are not psychologists,.
Or mental health professionals. What we do for a living is we make decisions. So normally in a custody fight, we can’t work out all of those fine points that you would be able to do in mediation or by talking to each other with the assistance of your attorneys or with a family relations officer. In court, pretty much somebody wins and somebody loses. Now that’s not a great outcome for the kids and in fact, the trial itself can be a very difficult proceeding and one that will almost guarantee that the relationship with which you start,.
Which was not good, will become worse. You know, we all watch TV and we see these television shows in which everything wraps up and the people have great scripts and they’re witty, intelligent, and incisive. But in real life, that’s not what a trial is like. A trial is a very structured, very limiting proceeding. You only get to answer the questions that are posed to you and then after you’ve had those structured questions asked and you’ve given the answer that may sometimes be interrupted by the lawyer claiming that you’re not being responsive, the other side gets up and gets.
To cross examine you, put words in your mouth and tear your testimony apart. It is an unsatisfying experience and I don’t think you’ll ever find anybody anywhere who has been on the stand tell you that it was an easy thing to do. So you come off the stand and you say Well I didn’t get across what I wanted to get across. I don’t think the judge understands how I feel about my child and I don’t think they understand what’s going on in my family. Well, that may be so. Any judge who hears.
Your case will at best get a thumbnail sketch of your family. We will never know your child the way that you know your child. Custody decisions are best done by parents working cooperatively, not by judges or as I’d like to say, strangers in black robes. Let’s say you get through the trial. You survive being a witness. Well what happens then Well the judge, somebody like me, will evaluate the evidence and make a decision and tell you somebody wins and somebody loses. Well that’s fine, but what’s happened Well, each.
Of you has gotten on the stand and perhaps even called other witnesses, who will say terrible things about the other because that’s what you have to do in a trial. Nobody who really wants to parent their child cooperatively with another parent would ever say these things out loud, but yet that’s what trial forces you to do. And the trial is over and what’s changed, aside from the fact that one’s a winner and one’s a loser Nothing! Nothing has changed. The same dynamic that caused the problem in the first place is still in.
Existence, only it’s worse. It’s worse because of what you’ve had to say. Its worse because of the emotional toll a trial has taken on you and its worse because now one person feels justified and the other person is victimized. Judges are more than willing to make the decisions. It’s what we are supposed to do and we will do it with all the justice and fairness and kindness that we can muster. But we will still always just be a stranger to your family. As a judge, I can understand why people would come before me and let me make these decisions.
But sometimes, I wonder on a human level, why would anybody trust me, just another human being to tell them the most personal of things, and when, and where, and how and for how long they can see their children Shouldn’t that be a parent’s responsibility Why has it become mine I’ll take it if you give it to me, but I’ll always wonder why somebody wants to give it to me in the first place. As a lawyer, it was a question I always asked of my clients. Why do you want to let this stranger make these decisions for you And I urge you as.
You’re thinking about your case to ask yourself that question. Why would you want a stranger to make these decisions that affect the most precious things in your life, your kids Throughout the system you have lots of opportunities to settle your case with the assistance of our family relations officers, with the assistance of your lawyers, or with the assistance of other private professionals who you can hire. Working on the causes for the dispute, trying to get it settled is the only way in which the dynamic between two people who are not.
Getting along will change, and that is what actually settles custody disputes. Parents recognizing their responsibility to first take care of their kids and then doing whatever it takes to do that. You know, people that are married, intact and happy, don’t necessarily agree about what they’re going to do for their children. But they learn to compromise and to get along and what we all learn as parents is that the first rule of parenting is that we sacrifice. The first custody dispute that we know of comes from a story from the Bible in which Solomon was faced with two women who both.
Claimed to be the mother of a baby. And Solomon, who is supposed to be a wise king, stood out of his throne and raised his sword over his head and said, Well, I can solve this problem, I will cleave this baby in two. At which point, one of the women threw herself upon the child to take the blow rather than let the child be harmed. And Solomon said, Now I know who the real mother is. What I’m urging you to do is whatever may be driving your dispute, be it anger, resentment,.
Vindictiveness, selfrighteousness, pride, whatever, I’m asking you to put it aside for the benefit of your children and to give it a shot. Try to get the case settled. Try to use the facilities that are available from court or those which your counsel can arrange for you and try to settle your cases. For the kids, living through a custody fight is like living in a war zone. Nothing good comes from them. I promise you that if you don’t like each other now, if you have a custody dispute, you’re not going to like each other even more later. Those of us who do this for.
A living, lawyers and judges, we can tell you that the outcome for kids is terrible and we can give you all this advice, but it’s only by looking at yourselves and trying to figure out what you can do differently that can stop the dispute or resolve a dispute that is ongoing. I’d like to tell you a story before we close and it’s a story that I tell often to the litigants in my courtroom. It’s a story about two different families. In each of these families there is a divorce, one of them has a son and the other has a daughter. At the time.
Of the divorce, the son’s parents resolve their issues and come up with a custody and parenting plan and they don’t like each other all that much but they have a good working relationship. They’ve learned to respect each other as the other person’s parent and they learn to keep their mouths shut about a lot of things that bother them and they get along well enough. The daughter’s parents have a fight over her and have a custody dispute and one of them wins and the other loses. When this happens, each of the kids is about twelve years old and about thirteen years.
Later, when they are about twentyfive, the boy and the girl meet and they decide to get married. For the boy, the wedding is not a problem, but for the girl, it is a planning nightmare. Her first question is can she invite both of her parents to the wedding because they have not spoken a civil word to each other since the divorce. Each time they have been in the same room they have gotten into an argument and they have humiliated her and made her life difficult at recitals, soccer games, graduations, parties, etcetera. She’s.
Concerned that if they are both there, her wedding will be ruined. Once she figures out that perhaps she can invite both of them and still have other members of the family watch them, she then has to figure out whether she can have anybody walk her down the aisle. If she has her dad walk her down the aisle, her mother will tackle him no doubt. So she chooses to walk down the aisle by herself. On the night of the wedding after the ceremony, there are completely different things going on both sides of the room. On the groom’s.
Side you have parents, and stepparents, and stepgrand parents, aunts, and uncles and you can’t tell who’s married to who and who’s divorced because they are all enjoying themselves and celebrating the good fortune of their son. On the other side of the room, the bride’s parents are at opposite sides of the hall and there are designated watchers among the aunts and the uncles making sure that the bride’s parents stay separate and apart and the bride is of course minding all of the minders. She cannot take a picture with both.
Her parents in it, so there is no wedding picture of the three of them. What is supposed to be the happiest and best day of her life has been ruined and is another casualty of her parents’ custody dispute. You have the opportunity, no matter what stage your case is at, to choose which of these families you want to be. We know which one helps the kids and I’m asking you to think about this absent, abuse, or neglect of the children. Is there really any reason important enough to have a custody dispute to sacrifice your children’s emotional health, wellbeing,.