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A System Broken, A Child Forgotten
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A System Broken, A Child Forgotten

Studies have shown that the visitation schedule set for noncustodial parents, as outlined in the Standard Possession Order, has produced a negative effect on the behavioral development of our children. Children who already are experiencing the conflicting and confused emotions inherent with divorce must now deal with one parent, predominantly the father, being reduced to a visitor in the child’s life. Though the typical noncustodial visitation schedule consisting of the first, third, and fifth weekends of the month has been determined by the court as being “in the best interest of the child,” it has produced many negative effects: higher rates of teenage pregnancy, drug use, and other behavioral problems (Hughes). The noncustodial visitation, as outlined in the Standard Possession Order, has proved ineffective and not in “the best interest of the child.” Implementing and enforcing a system that acknowledges the need for frequent contact with both the father and mother would ease some of the trauma experienced by children of divorce.

More than thirty years ago, Margaret Mead stated in a lecture to the Childrens Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that “Children should not have to lose a parent because of divorce,” yet courts in America operate on a “win/loss principle” (Levy). While most states have removed gender designation from their statutes to be more gender-neutral, there still remains a preference to choose the mother as the custodial parent. A report to the U. S. Commission on Children and Family Welfare shows that mothers received sole custody in 72 percent of the cases, while fathers received sole custody in only 9 percent (Cathcart).

The initial custody challenge during the divorce decree, as any attorney will advise, is by far the most important. However, most often the Standard Possession Order goes unchallenged for a variety of reasons. Divorces involving children are expensive, and many fathers are not financially prepared to challenge custody. Others, such as military fathers, may not be geographically located to file for shared custody since it involves both parents living within the same school district. Some fathers simply do not know they have a choice.

After the court establishes visitation rights, the real struggle often begins. The custodial parent may set boundaries that are in clear defiance of the original court order. If the custodial parent does not want the other parent to see the child, he/she simply withholds visitations. In order to regain visitations, the noncustodial parent has the choice to either spend thousands of dollars in litigation or tolerate the behavior. If the choice is litigation, the matter is brought before the court, and the family court usually will do little to the custodial parent other than ordering that visitations be restored. Another quite common tactic used by custodial parents is to make false accusations to the court or child protective services. A 1990 study conducted by Wakefield and Underwager noted that “false accusations have become a serious problem in vindictive and angry divorce and custody battles.” In the 21 years since, the problem has only escalated. False accusations have become common because they are an effective method to quickly end visitations and force the noncustodial parent to spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend against them. Even when the accusations are found to be unsubstantiated, again, little or nothing will be done to the parent.

Family courts do not prosecute false allegations and, in fact, attorneys may advise keeping the accusations vague so as not to involve any investigative agency. Family court judges can order the accuser to jail for contempt of court, which is used to incarcerate parents who fail to pay child support, but judges are reluctant to do so regarding accusations or withholding visitations, and have done so in only a handful of “extreme” cases. In 2010, a Nassau County (New York) Supreme Court justice did sentence a mother to spend several weekends in jail on contempt of court charges for “attempting to alienate her daughters from their father”; however, the mother had repeatedly made false accusations of molestation to child protective services and the father spent more than a hundred thousand dollars in litigation (Crowley). Since false allegations are so effective and often go unpunished, there is no deterrent. Even after the accusations are proven false and visitations restored, the accuser is still victorious knowing that she/he has left the accused financially and emotionally drained.

It seems that noncustodial parents have fought, are currently fighting, or will be fighting against a common enemy – the system currently in place. After each battle, all that seems to have been accomplished is spending thousands of dollars in litigation to enforce a visitation right previously established by the court, or defending against false accusations. The noncustodial parent is incurring the financial burden to enforce the right to be involved in the life of the child, as well as the cost of medical and dental expenses, and child support. If the noncustodial parent were to withhold child support payments, he/she could be sentenced to county jail for up to six-months.

When a child is denied access to a parent, the child suffers the emotional pain associated with the loss of the parent. Since this emotional pain was brought on purposely by a parent who is withholding visitations or visitations are withheld as a result of false accusations, this makes it is psychological child abuse. The problem lies within a court system that defines “in the best interest of the child,” but seldom deals directly with the child. The child has become an industry with an array of professionals: attorneys, psychologist, therapist, parent coordinators, and forensic investigators, all of whom profit from a parent manipulating the system. While it is necessary for the forensic investigators and psychologists to determine if the allegations are true, if proven false, the accuser needs to be held accountable. False allegations need to be punished, not ignored. The same should apply in regard to withholding visitations. Once parents begin to pay fines or serve time in a county jail, the motivation to make false accusations or withhold visitations will diminish. The child has the right to be involved with both parents and should not be used as a tool to avenge a failed marriage by a “vindictive and angry” ex.

References

1. Cathcart, M. R., & Robles, R. E., (1996), Parenting our children- Report of the U. S. Commission on Child and Family Welfare, retrieved from the Hathi Trust Digital Library website, November 25, 2011.

2. Hughes, R. The effects of divorce on children (July 2005), Retrieved November 25, 2011 from the Department of Human & Community Development, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign website.

3. Levy. D. (Ed.), (1993). The best parent is both parents: A guide to shared parenting, Norfolk: Hampton Roads Publishing.

4. Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1990) Personality Characteristics of Parents Making False Accusations of Sexual abuse in Custody Disputes retrieved November 25, 2011 from the Institute for Psychological Therapies website.

5. Crowley, K. & Greene, L. (2010) An ‘ex’ to grind, retrieved November 25, 2011 from the NY Post website.


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