As if divorce is not difficult enough, when you add children in to the equation, high-conflict parenting issues can result. In fact, one of the most contentious components of divorce often centers around custody of the children. When one parent is faced with some type of restricted contact with their children, they may immediately go into “battle” mode. Of course, the goal of all those involved should be to do whatever is in the best interests of the children. Unfortunately, in the heat of a controversial divorce, it can be difficult for parents to step back and truly see the best future for their children. Contested custody cases are rarely anything close to straightforward and require a significant amount of patience and understanding from those dealing with the parents.
Quite often, there is no “best” custody solution, rather there are many different ways to resolve the custody issue, all of which are likely to have a downside for at least one of those involved. Custody cases are stressful for all those involved and can cost the parents financially and emotionally, and the children emotionally. Mediated custody settlements are very popular, both with the judicial system as well as with parents. Unfortunately, there are many situations in a Florida custody case that can short-circuit mediation attempts.
Couples who are absolutely unable to communicate with one another during the divorce, or those who have engaged in any type of deception, manipulation, or threatening behavior with one another, will usually be unable to successfully mediate custody of their children. Although shared parental custody is certainly the goal, this may not be a realistic solution among high-conflict couples.
Who Are High Conflict Couples?
While “productive” communication between parents can result in problem resolution, turbulent communication between parents can quickly escalate into blame and anger, resulting in both parents digging in their heels even deeper regarding custody arrangements. Negative interactions between the parents tend to lead to even more negative interactions—a cycle that prevents the parents from calmly addressing the issues involved in custody and visitation. Soon, these high levels of conflict literally take on a life of their own, resulting in power struggles, coercion, and threats. Such destructive communication patterns between high-conflict couples make shared parental responsibilities doubtful in these situations, as it requires a high degree of parental cooperation.
Situations Which Can Add to the Problem of Custody Determination
While some high-conflict custody cases can be eventually resolved, others are much less likely to reach resolution, and will likely require a judge’s intervention. Some of the most common reasons a custody determination can be elusive include:
- Parental substance abuse. When one parent has a history of alcohol or drug abuse, it may be necessary to include mandatory drug testing and counseling in the custody agreement as a method of protecting the children. Obviously, the parent with the problem is not going to be happy with this, and is likely to aggressively dispute the allegations of substance abuse. Depending on the depth of the substance abuse problem, supervised visitation may also be appropriate.
- Instances of domestic violence. If there has been a history of domestic violence in the relationship, and particularly if that violence extended to the children, can alter the form of an eventual custody arrangement. If there are more than allegations, i.e., there is a first-degree misdemeanor conviction or a conviction for a more serious domestic violence offense, there is an automatic rebuttable presumption of detriment to the child (Florida Statute 61.13(2)(c)(2)). The parent convicted of the domestic violence offense must show there would be no harm or detrimental effect to the children. If the parent cannot do so, then he or she may not be granted shared parental responsibilities, or even time-sharing unless it is supervised. Thirty-six percent of divorce attorneys have noted a rise in cases that involve restraining orders, and a full 63 percent of those same attorneys believe domestic violence issues should more adequately be addressed by the courts during divorce and custody cases. Awarding shared parental responsibility to parents when one of them has been victimized by the other, merely perpetrates the victimization, as that parent is forced to deal with his or her abuser often as a result of the custody arrangement.
- Parental relocation—It is more and more common in our mobile society for people to move more often than in the past, as well as much farther away from their family members. Unfortunately, sheer economics can dictate that a parent relocate, for financial, family support or career enhancement reasons. Separating the parents by a considerable geographic distance can actually be good for their strained relationship, but not so good for the children. Barring special circumstances, the goal of the court is for the children to have frequent, continuing contact with both parents. Relocation can make it very difficult for one parent to have this level of contact. Because of this, some of the most bitterly contested custody cases in the state of Florida are centered around the relocation plans of one parent.
- Allegations of parental neglect or abuse of the child. When one parent alleges abuse or neglect of the child or children against the other during a divorce, it can be difficult to determine whether the allegations are made as a means of getting an advantage in the custody dispute or whether they are made out of true concern for the children. In most cases, a judge will require proof and evidence regarding such allegations, however, if they are found to be true, the parent who engaged in parental neglect or abuse could be denied access to the children or could only be allowed to have supervised visitation.
- Parental alienation—more and more often parental alienation syndrome is being recognized as a complicated manifestation of emotional and mental abuse which results when conflicted parents fight for custody. In instances of parental alienation, one parent will constantly disparage and make accusations about the other to the child and in front of the child. The parent may even describe the child’s other parent as being dangerous or may tell the child the parent does not love them. In most cases, the other parent’s faults are greatly exaggerated by the parent engaging in parental alienation. A child who is old enough will recognize that one parent wants them to distrust and even hate the other parent, and may even join in the denigration against the parent as a way of pleasing the maligning parent. The parent who engages in parental alienation may be doing so as a way of coping with their hurt and anger over the divorce and things that happened during the marriage. Parental alienation is very damaging to children, however, may not be recognized until the damage is extensive and possibly irreparable.
Parental Conflict—Devastating for Children
Parental conflict can truly devastate the lives of the children involved. Children want to love both their parents, yet when they are forced to choose one over the other, they may feel guilt over doing so. The issue of parental conflict is so pervasive, it has been specifically addressed in the Florida statutes—“Parental conflict related to divorce is a societal concern as children suffer potential conflict.” (61.21 (a)) Depending on the age and maturity level of the children, the following can occur:
- The children may have to deal with feelings of worry, anxiety and depression over the situation with their parents;
- Some children may engage in acting out, with such behaviors as disobedience or aggressiveness;
- Academic performance may drop, even among formerly stellar students;
- Some children may begin having trouble with attention and concentration;
- Some children may begin having sleep-related problems;
- There may be an inability to adapt to new situations by many children involved in a high-conflict custody case, and
- Some children may begin to resent authority.
It is clear that a high-conflict divorce is one of the worst things that can happen in a child’s life, therefore parents and all those involved must do all they can to alleviate the stress placed on the child or children. Most judges will understand that it is rarely completely the fault of only one of the parents in a high-conflict divorce and custody dispute and that when there is significant conflict between the parents, where the children actually sleep at night becomes somewhat less important. Despite the circumstances of a high-conflict custody case, the judge must find a way to utilize the least destructive method of solving the problem. While denying one parent from having any parental parenting time would certainly solve the problem of conflict between the parents, this is rarely the best solution for the children. Therefore, most judges will try the following methods prior to denying parenting time:
- In some cases, a parenting coordinator could be appointed. A parenting coordinator is a mental health professional who has both the training and the experience to assist parents in learning to cooperate and make good parenting decisions together. The parents may meet with the parenting coordinator together, individually, or both, making an effort to set reasonable goals to lessen the conflict and ease the strain on the children.
- The judge may assign mandatory family counseling to the parents as a method of reducing conflict. As with the parenting coordinator, the parents may meet with the family counselor together, individually, or both, as well as with the child or children involved. The counselor may even meet with the children without the parents present. For some high-conflict parents, family counseling can allow them to step back and realize the harm they are inflicting on their children, as well as to learn how to communicate with one another with less conflict.
- The judge may assign a mediator or negotiator who has been trained in family therapy to help the couple reach agreements with less conflict. A therapeutic mediator may break the mediation into shorter sessions which can keep the conflict at a lower level.
- If there is a specific problem that is causing the conflict in the custody case the judge may set a court hearing to discuss only this issue. As an example, perhaps the mother wants the children to attend Catholic school while the father is adamantly against the idea. Or, perhaps the father believes the couple’s son should take medication for his attention deficit disorder, but the mother believes their son will outgrow the symptoms of ADD and she is concerned about the side effects of the drug. When the judge narrows the focus of the conflict down to one specific issue, he may get a better sense of how to solve the problem in a way that is best for the child.
- The judge may decide to give decision-making authority to one parent regarding one specific issue. If the judge is unable to decide on an issue, such as the two listed above, or if he feels the issue is better decided by a parent, he or she may give authority to one parent to make that decision. In other words, if the mother in the case of the Catholic school above is a Catholic and attended Catholic school, while the father who objects to Catholic school offers no alternative and has no religious beliefs of his own, the judge may decide the mother should be allowed to make this decision.
- In rare cases, the judge may decide that one parent has become so malicious and unreasonable, that he or she is the one keeping the conflict at a high level. If a parent has indeed gone out of his or her way to create the conflict seen in a custody case, the judge may surprise everyone and award primary parental responsibility and physical custody to the other parent. This means that if you are involved in a high-conflict Florida custody case it is imperative that you take a step back and examine your own behaviors or you could end up losing time and decision-making authority for your children as well as invoking the wrath of the judge.
It is important to have an experienced Ayo and Iken custody attorney by your side during a difficult high-conflict custody case. We know how to best diffuse hostility and reach agreements on parental time-sharing, decision-making responsibilities, and other child custody dispute issues.
In a custody case, if there is a specific issue causing conflict, the judge may schedule a court hearing to discuss only that issue. This approach allows the judge to gain a better understanding of the problem and determine the best solution for the child. Examples of such issues could be disagreements regarding religious education or medication for a child’s condition.