Above All Else
Navigating Separation and Divorce in the Best Interest of the Child
by Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS
***This is part of the Navigating Separation and Divorce in the Best Interest of the Child Series
Above all else, children have the right to be safe, physically, emotionally and developmentally. If couples were able to navigate all of the details of separation and divorce effectively, a majority of these couples
would not need to separate.
Emotions can run high (and very low) at this very difficult time. Even so, on the issues of safety, it is crucially important that parents be able to sit down in a calm space and with professional support if needed and
agree on some key points.
Even if divorce has already been finalized, these key point might be important to formally agree upon.
The following are merely suggestions of points to discuss. Each person should identify the points that they feel are important. It MAY seem unnecessary, but these points should be printed out and each parent should sign and date the final agreement.
This agreement is a good faith attempt to put your child first. It should be completed as early as a couple is realizing a separation is going to occur and should not wait for a mediation or court process to take place, because not all professionals will include a document like this in the process. But as stated, even if
you are well into the process, it isn’t too late.
Items to Consider
(Father’s Name and Mother’s Name), parents of (your child(ren’s) name), agree to put our children first by
agreeing on the following;
· We will not discuss the details of our problems with each other with or in front of our child(ren).
· We will not question (cross-examine) our child(ren) about their time with the other parent.
· We will inform the other parent about certain things during our time so that the other parent doesn’t feel like they have to cross examine the child(ren), for example; the child not feeling well, a disciplinary decision, spending time with someone who is a stranger to the other parent, logistics about sleeping arrangements, babysitters, etc…
· We will communicate directly with each other (or an agreed upon family, friend or mediator) and not ask our child(ren) to relay messages for us.
· We will not ask our child(ren) to keep a secret. (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT)
· We will not ask our child(ren) to tell the other parent something that isn’t true.
· We will listen attentively and lovingly to our child(ren) about their feelings, but not lead them to believe that they are more powerful than they actually are in being able to have their feelings change things like visitation schedules, etc.
(This next part needs careful consideration. Your contract might not read like this. It will depend on your beliefs and in part, the developmental stage of your child.)
· We will give each other the chance to meet and approve or disapprove of any potential babysitters, including new girl/boyfriends. For potential caretakers age 16 and older, a CORI (criminal records check) may be requested. (You can inquire about how to do that at your local police department. I have been involved in a few cases where a new boyfriend was actually on the sexual offenders registry, but because the parent said, “He’s fine!” or “I trust him with the kids and I’m always around anyway” the other parent went through a great deal of difficulty trying to bring the issue into the court. Even still, it’s not a clear cut decision for the court. However, a signed contract like this one makes it a clear cut decision.)
· If or when either of us decide to date, we will introduce the boy/girlfriend gradually to our child(ren).
· If or when either of us decide to have a boy/girlfriend stay overnight during our time with our child(ren), the child will not sleep in the same bed with us. (This will need to be discussed and worded carefully depending on the developmental level of the child. For a child who still comes into parent’s bed at night, this will need to be spelled out.)
“Children who live with a single parent that has a live-in partner are at the highest risk for sexual abuse: they are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents (Sedlack, et. al., 2010).
These are just a few additional points, based on my experience with family court over the last 20 years. These points are not meant as legal advice, as I am not a lawyer. The “lawyer-of-the-day” is a resource for free legal advice/direction. Call ahead to see what days they are available and you will arrive and wait your turn.
1. The child will not come to court with you, nor will your child have a say in the legal proceedings.
2. A child’s voice MAY be conveyed through the court psychologist, however, this is very rare and if a child is seen by the Probate and Family Court Psychologist, it is likely that the parents will be also, and that the parents will be under a great deal of scrutiny.
3. Only in the most extreme of cases, i.e. severe abuse or neglect allegations, a tragic death, EXTREME parental conflict, EXTREME appearance that one parent is alienating the other, etc. will the court POSSIBLY appoint a Guardian ad litem (GAL). A GAL is a legal or mental health professional who is appointed by the judge to assist in sorting out the details of the case when a child’s needs are concerned. The only other circumstances in which a GAL would be appointed is a case in which the parents are required to pay for the GAL privately. Even if paid for by one or both parents, the GAL is still, essentially, the Judge’s investigator, and not on the side of either parent. Barnstable Probate and Family Court used to have one of the best
children’s advocacy services. Children were at times appointed a lawyer and/or a GAL in cases where it
looked like one was needed. The funding is no longer available for these services.
4. Especially since GAL’s are so rare these days, many lawyers of the day are directing parents to seek a letter from a counselor, such as myself, who will write a letter to be brought to court regarding the child.
There are many ethical considerations for a therapist to take into account when asked to write such a letter. A therapist who is qualified to work with divorce cases involving children can be very helpful. However, seeking a therapist for a child for the purpose of getting a letter for court is not the proper use of therapy services. It is not typically two parents asking for a therapist’s services for help with decisions at court, it is usually one parent. As stated, there are many ethical issues involved and when seeking support from a therapist, parents need to be sure to research qualifications of the therapist carefully.
Please consider getting support if you are going through a major separation, married or not married, especially if you have children. Family and friends can be very helpful, but even just a few sessions with a specialist can make a big difference.
Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS
Please see www.tracylamperti.com for more information about marriage and divorce.
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