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Child Custody Wars - The Innocent Casualties

January 24, 2018

Child Custody Litigation - How Winners Become Losers How many times has one heard “there are no winners in a child custody battle”? Clearly, many people have not gotten that memo. Victories are usually quite short-lived. You may be litigating again before you’ve made your last installment payment to your lawyer. Or to the parent coordinator. Or to the child custody evaluator. Or to the child’s attorney.

Losing a case about your own Child can have two very different effects on a parent. The first is “the Freddy Krueger effect”. The losing parent fueled by rage has difficulty hiding the target of his rage- the Child’s other parent. The losing parent will search for every future misstep of the “winner.” Did the “winner” get divorced again? Perfect opportunity to allege instability, or to force the “winner” to face legal battles on two fronts. The search for any opportunity to attack the vulnerable other parent becomes a quest. The losing parent will seek out his or her financial opportunities to re-group for the next “go-round” of litigation. An inheritance can fund the next round. A remarriage gives the loser financial and emotional stability to try again. Did the “winner” lose a job? Perfect opportunity to try to re-open the custody matter because the “winner” can’t afford a lawyer. The “losing” party in a child custody matter is reluctant to give up. Parent-child bonds are primal.

Except, sometimes they do give up. They cry “uncle.” They are demoralized. Their “parenthood” was attacked and it lost. This is the “broken bond” effect. The “loser” feels demoted to second class parent. The unintended negative consequences can be profound. The “loser” may turn to his or her new children. This includes children born after the divorce and may include step-children. The “loser” longs for children for whom the “loser” is the first class parent. This might be the path of least resistance for the parent whose rights were ordered to be subordinate to the other parent. Why not take the job across the country? Why not marry the person who lives in another state? Why not go back to one’s home town? When this happens, the child who is left behind will feel the effects.

The “new family” will take a specific painful place in the Child psyche. Financial resources follow the parent-child bond. The “new children” may get laptops, or have a car to drive. The “new children” go to sporting events and may not take out student loans for college. The Child of the custody battle may lose over and over again. It will be no comfort that the other parent was “the winner”. Children usually have the problem of wanting and needing both parents to meet their broad emotional and financial needs. If they feel the lack of one parent’s attention, affection or bond, the effect will be a lasting scar. If the “winner” is remarried, the new loving step-parent may be a salve, but there remains an underlying primal wound.

Custody litigation scars for both the “losing” parent and the Child can run even deeper than that. If the litigation required the Child’s participation, then the Child may have to live with responsibility that he or she “caused” the “losing” party’s hurt or rage. The Child may feel like he or she deserves the sub-par bond with the “losing” parent. Unfortunately, the “losing” parent may have taken opportunities to communicate in some way the hurt suffered. In fact, the ongoing dialogue may be about what the “winner” did to the “loser” for a long time if not forever. I personally know divorced people who refer to former spouses by very unflattering nicknames on a regular basis. They think the child is impervious to the moniker over-time but that may not be true.

The “winners” and “losers” syndrome stemming from child custody litigation is not lost on the legislature or the courts in Maryland. Except in cases of domestic violence, most custody matters are ordered to briefly mediate before going forward in litigation. The standard requirement is 2 hours, which is not a long time given the hundreds of hours spent in litigation, but it’s a start. Some lucky families “see the light.” Ordering the parties to attend co-parenting classes is another life-preserver in custody litigation. How many children and/or parents would avoid these tragic outcomes if the mediation requirement and education programming was more substantial and/or earlier in the process?

Making your own hard choices about custody with your co-parent is not more difficult that litigating- and it may not be easier either. The difference is the outcome after each process. But being the “decider” of your fate avoids the “winner” and “loser” labels. People who make their own choices are more likely to comply with those decisions. Becoming the “Freddy Krueger” parent or the “Broken Bond” parent is not good for any person involved in the situation. There are no winners in a child custody battle is a very, very true statement. Bend don’t break. Mediate your child custody matters. For your own sake. For your child’s sake.