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Red Shirting

From the Daily Beast: "As private kindergartens prepare to send out acceptance letters this week, competitive parents are trying to game the system with so called red shirting—delaying their kids' start in school so they'll be more advanced than their classmates." Read the article

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North Carolina Court denies mother custody because she has breast cancer

The Daily Mail (Uk) has an article about a woman with terminal breast cancer who says she has lost custody of her children because doctors do not know how long she will live.  A judge ruled that 37-year-old Alaina Giordano, from Durham, North Carolina, must give up both her children to her estranged husband after she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.The decision comes after a bitter legal battle that has included allegations of cheating and other domestic problems. Read this article 

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How Not to Talk to Your Kids

The inverse power of praise.

By Po Bronson Published Feb 12, 2007 The New York Magazine

Nymag What do we make of a boy like Thomas?

Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are “the smart kids.” Thomas’s one of them, and he likes belonging.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’s father tried to reason with him. “Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out some effort.” (Eventually, he mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father.)

Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?

Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

(read more)


Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying Is Normal

Nurtureshock200 All Things Considered, August 27, 2009 · Author Po Bronson believes that kids today hear too much praise -- much of it unearned. A couple of years ago, he wrote an article for New York Magazine on the subject, detailing how praise does not, in fact, lead to self-esteem and achievement as many parents seem to believe.

"Children today hear so much praise that they have decoded its real meaning," he explains to Robert Siegel. "When kids fail and all we do is praise them, there's a lot of duplicity in that, and kids begin to hear 'Nothing matters to my parents more than me doing great or me being smart,' and failure becomes almost a taboo subject."

Bronson expands on the subject of praise -- and other child-rearing issues -- in his new book NurtureShock, which he co-authored with Ashley Merryman.

He says he first became aware of the issue of overpraise as the coach of his son's kindergarten soccer team: "Until that point, I was telling the kids constantly, 'You're great, you're doing well' -- even when they were dribbling the wrong way on the field."

But once he read the research on the praise, Bronson says, he decided to change the way he spoke to kids. Instead of offering praise indiscriminately, Bronson focused on saying things that the kids would perceive as sincere.

"Over time, I learned to let kids develop their own judgment about how well they had done," he says.

In addition to praise, Bronson and Merryman also tackle the subject of why children lie -- and what parents can do about it. Lying, Bronson says, is a normal part of development.

"Almost all kids will experiment with lying at least by the age of 4," he explains. "We should expect all children to attempt lying. The question is, 'What do we do with it over time?' "

Bronson advises parents not to threaten lying children with punishment: "It turns out that increasing the threat of punishment only turns kids into better and more frequent liars," he says.

Instead, he recommends that parents pause children in the moment before they suspect a lie may be coming and say, "You make me really happy if you tell me the truth."

As for teenagers, Bronson says the best way to discourage lying is to set consistent rules, but to leave the door open to some negotiation.

"We're raised on this idea that 'no must mean no' ... but when [children] are older, we need to see that some arguing with parents is actually a good thing -- not a bad thing," he says.

"[Teenagers often feel that] they have two choices: telling you the truth and leading to an argument, or just outright lying. Arguing over the actual rules is a better alternative and a very different thing than arguing over your authority as a parent to set rules," Bronson says.


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Stepfamilies Try to Stretch Their Space

Published: April 19, 2007 The New York Times
 

WHEN Rebecca and Robert Blanche married nine years ago, they lived in a narrow three-bedroom house in Baton Rouge. There was plenty of space for the two of them and his four children from a previous marriage, who visited every other week. But when his children started to live there most of the time, and the Blanches had a baby in 2000, things got a little crowded.

''We were always in each other's faces,'' said Ms. Blanche, a registered nurse who owns a yoga studio. The baby slept in an upstairs kitchen, Dr. Blanche's daughter had her own room and his three sons slept in a room with a bunk bed that had a full-size bed on the bottom and a twin bed on top. ''I'd wake up every morning and no one was where I'd left them and someone was always on the couch,'' she said. ''I have no idea what transpired during the night to cause that, but it probably wasn't good.''

Such space problems are common. Many American children of divorce play a residential version of the schoolyard game Red Rover, shuttling between their parents' houses. But these children are not just visiting their mothers and fathers. Their parents often remarry or live with partners who have children, and sometimes the new couple has children too. With multiple stepparents, stepsiblings, half siblings and pseudosiblings, it's a whole new type of family, and with it comes the challenge to design a home where everyone feels welcome.

Members of these blended families, as well as psychotherapists, said creating a comfortable and inclusive home is fraught with difficulty. For adults and children alike, having a place in the house has parallels to having a place in the family. Hurt feelings and lasting resentment can spring from something as seemingly mundane as wall color or closet space.

Age, personality, privacy, full- or part-time residency and even sexuality can add to the emotional and architectural complexity. ''Visiting children need a place in the house that's theirs so they have a sense of belonging,'' said Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of the National Stepfamily Resource Center at Auburn University. That does not necessarily mean a bedroom. For many families, providing a separate area for each child is not affordable or even logical, because a room that is sealed off and useless much of the time is wasted space.

Robin Samet, a health care consultant, and her fiancé, Gregg Turk, an investment manager, will move into a high-rise condominium in Reston, Va., next month. Her home office will double as a bedroom for his 7-year-old son and a guest room will be a bedroom for his 10-year-old daughter when they visit every other weekend. The two rooms have custom cabinetry that conceals and protects the adults' things when the children are there and that stores and hides the children's things when they are not.

''Since we're the ones who live there full time, and we both work from home, the pink pony and Spider-Man motifs are not something we are interested in devoting precious space to,'' Ms. Samet said.

Therapists said children do not have to have their own bedrooms, but accommodations have to be made. ''It's not about equal or exclusive space so much as their own private space while they are there,'' said Anne Bernstein, a psychologist in Berkeley, Calif., and senior scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago concerned with issues affecting modern families. ''You can create little enclaves, carve out nooks, rearrange furniture -- there are lots of creative ways to make a special area for a child.''

Katie Gray, who shares a home in Tampa, Fla., with her fiancé, Philip Monson, has tried to do that for his two daughters, 8 and 10. Ms. Gray puts flower handles on the door to the guest room, lays out special pillows and clears closet space when the girls visit every summer. ''Since they don't live here full time, I try to do little things to make the room look happy and welcoming and like it's their place,'' she said, especially because her 2-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, who lives in the house full time, has a nicely decorated room of her own.

Involving children in designing their space is helpful, family therapists, child psychology experts and architects said. ''I quiz the kids in private to find out their concerns and what they want,'' said Kevin Harris, an architect in Baton Rouge. ''A lot of times the only thing they really care about is where the TV is going to be.''

Even if a child must share a room or sleep on a sofa, there are ways to promote a sense of ownership. Choosing the paint color for their half of the room or the linens for their bed can help make children feel at home.

''Because they aren't with them all the time, divorced parents often go overboard in decorating rooms for their kids,'' said Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, an interior designer and founder of apartmenttherapy.com, a popular design blog. ''But room design isn't compensation for poor parenting.'' A former elementary school teacher, Mr. Gillingham-Ryan said, ''The best way to honor a child is to give them a quiet, clean space to sleep and do their work.''

Japanese rice paper screens and wood veneer partitions sometimes used for office cubicles are ways to demarcate territory. ''If you block line of sight, you give a sense of privacy even if there is someone else just inches away,'' said Liz Howard, an interior designer in Honolulu who has installed wood blinds and fabric shades that draw up to the ceiling to create boundaries in crowded stepfamily homes. Privacy and physical boundaries are even more important in blended families when there are biologically unrelated members of the opposite sex. Another strategy, Ms. Howard said, is to have built-in beds high off the floor with draw around curtains hanging from the base to conceal each child's desk, dressing and storage space underneath.

If children are around more often, a more permanent solution is required. When Ms. Blanche in Baton Rouge was pregnant with their second child three years ago, she and her husband bought and remodeled a home so they would have enough space for the four of them and his four children from his previous marriage, who had begun to live with them full time.

They turned to Mr. Harris, the architect, who came up with a design that enlarged and reconfigured the main house as well as transformed the guest house, pool house and attic into children's rooms, bathrooms and play areas. ''With eight people in one house you have to be able to retreat to your separate corners before you kill each other,'' Ms. Blanche said.

Equally important are places where everyone can come together, like the large family room off the kitchen that Mr. Harris designed for the Blanches. Otherwise, wary stepchildren and teenagers in general tend to withdraw into their private spaces. ''Communal areas are important to encourage stepfamilies to casually interact,'' said Diane Ranes, a clinical social worker in Durham, N.C., who specializes in counseling stepfamilies. She suggests putting televisions and computers in a common room ''to draw kids out of their private spaces.''

Family dynamics experts said moving to a new house as the Blanches did is ideal when blending families because no one feels like an interloper. ''It's hard not to feel like an intruder when you are moving into another family's house,'' Dr. Bernstein said.

When Ryan Asper, a lawyer in Katy, Tex., a suburb of Houston, remarried six years ago, he briefly moved into the home of his wife, Jennifer, and her daughter, who was 12 at the time. His 6-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter visited on weekends. Since there were only three bedrooms, they converted a dining room into a bedroom for his son. ''It wasn't the best situation,'' Mr. Asper said, which is why within a few months they moved to a new house with four bedrooms where, he said, ''everyone felt like they had a room that was really theirs.''

If moving is not possible, stepfamilies frequently raise roofs to add another partial or full floor, or they may turn a basement or a garage into living quarters. Anita Malootian, a medical writer in Hillsborough, N.J., enlarged her Cape Cod-style house last year to accommodate her two children and two stepchildren, ages 8 through 15, by adding a second floor and finishing the basement. Her husband, David Kravitz, a software developer, moved in with her after they married in 2002 and he got primary custody of his children the following year. ''It was unexpected and we couldn't afford to move because most places with five or six bedrooms are big mansions,'' Ms. Malootian said.

In the years before the renovation, Mr. Kravitz's son and Ms. Malootian's son shared a room and his daughter stayed in a guest room while her daughter had her own room. ''No one complained, but we just felt maybe as the kids got older, everybody was going to want their own room,'' Ms. Malootian said. Since the couple did not have enough money to add a third bathroom, Ms. Malootian said they had a double vanity installed in the laundry room so her teenage daughter could ''blow-dry her hair and do whatever else she does for 45 minutes every morning getting ready.''

The addition also allowed Ms. Malootian to reclaim the guest room for a home office; the finished basement gave her children a place to hang out and her husband space to pursue his hobby of brewing beer. And with the children's bedrooms now upstairs and the parents' bedroom remaining downstairs, the couple have more privacy, which Ms. Malootian said has been a ''big bonus.''

Indeed, family therapists agreed it is best for the parents' bedroom in stepfamilies to be somewhat removed from those of the children. ''Any hint of sexuality in these situations makes children extremely uncomfortable,'' particularly if the children are adolescents, Dr. Adler-Baeder said. She warns parents and their new partners against overt displays and advises ''to create as much physical distance as possible between your bedroom and the kids' rooms'' or at least make sure you have soundproof walls.

Couples need their own space to bond. ''Particularly in stepfamily situations, they need privacy to talk, for sex and to just be alone together,'' said Judith S. Wallerstein, a psychologist and an author of ''The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study.'' Second marriages fail even more often than first marriages, which she attributed to the additional stresses and strains of stepfamily life.

''Before you call an architect or invest in bookcases or furniture or anything, parents in stepfamilies need to invest in time alone together,'' Dr. Ranes in Durham said. ''Marital harmony has got to be your foundation.'' Otherwise, the home, no matter how well designed, is not going to last.

(read more on child custody)


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Child Custody FAQs

1. What is "custody and visitation"?

2. What are the types of custody orders?

3. What are the types of visitation orders?

4. What is a "time-share plan" or a "parenting plan"

5. What does the law consider when deciding custody and visitation?

6. What is "the best interest of the child"?

7. If we have joint legal custody, do we have to agree on everything?

8. If we have joint physical custody, do our children have to split their time equally between us?

9. Do grandparents have the right to visitation?

10. What is the process for getting a custody and visitation court order?

11. Can a custody and visitation order be changed?

(Read more on Child Custody)


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Jackson's mother wins kids' custody despite drama

LOS ANGELES — The wishes Michael Jackson expressed in his will began to come into reality Monday during a lengthy court hearing, with his mother placed firmly in charge of rearing his children and the two men he designated still at the reins of his financial empire.

As a media frenzy buzzed outside, a surprise motion from Jackson's longtime dermatologist injected some drama inside the courtroom: An attorney for the doctor, Arnold Klein, tried to enter objections to the parenting of Jackson's children.

Klein has had a lengthy part in Jackson's story line. He not only served as Jackson's doctor, but one of his employees, Deborah Rowe, married Jackson in 1996 and gave birth to two of the singer's children. Most recently, Klein's medical records have been subpoenaed as part of the police investigation of Jackson's death.

Given tabloid reports that he is the biological father of Jackson's two oldest children, the attorney, Mark Vincent Kaplan, quickly told the judge and dozens of reporters covering the hearing that biology wasn't the source of the objections.

"Legally, he is not a presumed parent," Kaplan said. Rather, he said Klein knew Jackson and his children well and had concerns about their education and other day-to-day parenting issues.

Kaplan's objections created a few tense moments in the courtroom, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff quickly dispatched him, saying Klein didn't have legal standing.

In a statement issued Monday evening, Klein's attorneys, Mark Vincent Kaplan and Bradley Boyer, wrote he was not objecting to Katherine Jackson, but rather "acting on promises he made to Michael with respect to assuring the long term health and stability of the children and their ability to enjoy as normal of a life out of the spotlight as could be reasonably possible."

"Dr. Klein has always had a special relationship with Paris Katherine and Prince Michael, loves and cares deeply for these children and is looking out for their best interest."

The statement said he hoped to have ongoing involvement with the children and "offers his guidance and protection forever."

The appointment of Katherine Jackson as permanent guardian of her son's children didn't disperse the crowds of reporters who convened on the downtown courthouse. Satellite trucks lined the street outside the courthouse, reporters arrived more than an hour before Beckloff took the bench to try to get a courtroom seat, all while a smattering of onlookers waited outside and played to the cameras.

"Who gets the Ferris wheel," one man questioned an attorney for the men administering Jackson's estate after the hearing, which stretched from 9 a.m. until mid-afternoon.

The hearing itself was decidedly more low-key.

Katherine Jackson arrived at the courthouse early and entered the courtroom from a back entrance, flanked by daughters LaToya and Rebbie and son Randy. She and Beckloff exchanged pleasantries shortly after the judge named her permanent guardian of Jackson's three children.

John Branca, one of the men who Beckloff ruled can continue to administer the singer's estate, sat across the aisle from the Jacksons. Branca served as Jackson's longtime attorney and was named along with music executive John McClain to serve as co-executors of Jackson's will, signed in 2002.

To date, court records show the men have recovered some of Jackson's personal belongings, $5.5 million in cash, and the singer's life insurance payout, all of which will end up in a private trust account.

That money will help pay for a monthly stipend that Beckloff approved for Katherine Jackson, 79, and for each of the singer's three children, Prince Michael, 12, Paris Michael, 11, and Prince Michael II, 7. The youngest is also known as Blanket and was born to a surrogate mother who has never been identified.

Diane Goodman, an attorney for Katherine Jackson, said the surrogate did not have any parental rights. No one else formally filed for custody of the children, although a pair of women who dogged Jackson throughout his life claiming relationships had sought the youngsters, and exorbitant amounts of money.

Beckloff did not acknowledge either of their filings on Monday.

He also did not reveal how much Katherine Jackson and the children will receive per month from the singer's estate. Similarly, he did not disclose any terms of a deal reached by concert promoter AEG Live and other groups involved with the King of Pop's planned comeback concerts in London and the singer's estate.

Beckloff ordered AEG Live to turn over records related to the settlement and the contract for the 50 shows to Katherine Jackson, but placed restrictions on who else could see the information. The judge has a week to review the settlement and decide whether to approve it.

The settlement is another piece of Jackson's finances that is being placed into a private trust set up primarily to provide for his mother and children. The four have a combined 80 percent stake in Jackson's estate, with the rest going to unspecified charities.

Howard Weitzman, an attorney for the estate's co-administrators, said the agreements had the potential to earn the Jacksons millions of dollars.

Branca, one of the co-administrators, said the deals included Columbia Pictures, which owns rehearsal footage of Jackson's preparations for the concert, and another company that had merchandising rights.

Weitzman said co-administrators were "quite pleased" with the rulings. Branca and McClain will remain in charge of Jackson's estate until at least October, Beckloff ruled.

The judge will consider a motion by Katherine Jackson's attorneys on whether she can disqualify the men from administering the estate on grounds of their capacity or potential conflicts of interests.

Beckloff said he needed more information about the motion, including a copy of the private trust that contains a "no contest" clause stating that anyone who challenges Jackson's will should be disinherited.

The judge said he thought the law allowed Katherine Jackson to challenge Branca and McClain based on narrow arguments and scheduled an Aug. 28 hearing on the issue.

One of the quickest issues resolved was also one of the most important — Beckloff admitted Jackson's five-page will drafted in 2002 for probate, a procedure that grants it significant weight.

"It means it is the will that has been legally recognized as the will of Michael Jackson for the purposes of the administration of the estate," said probate attorney Michael G. Dave, who is not affiliated with the case.

The will was entered without fanfare, objection or any hint of drama.

AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.

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Debbie Rowe tells US reporter she'll seek custody of Michael's children

Debbie-Rowe-bDespite earlier claims, it now appears as though Debbie Rowe has said she is looking for custody of their two children. The former nurse broke the silence she has maintained since the singer's death during a late phone call to a local NBC reporter, who quoted her as saying: "They are my flesh and blood. I'm going after my children." 

Debbie gave birth to Michael Jackson's two elder children, Prince Michael, 12 and 11-year-old Paris Katherine, during their two-year marriage. She has also reportedly said she would consider raising his youngest, seven-year-old Prince Michael II, born to a surrogate mother. 

After the news broke of her desire to seek custody, Debbie's lawyer said she was still considering her options, and had "not reached a final decision".

Lawyer Eric George did not challenge the accuracy of the NBC report, however. " I came to learn this morning that she shared some of her thoughts late last night with a local reporter," he said. 

"I have no reason to doubt that what was reported from that conversation was accurately and ethically reported But that said, it would be a distortion of the truth to allow that single snapshot from a single conversation to stand in the truth of Debbie's position on these sensitive matters." 

A custody hearing which was scheduled for Monday has been postponed until July 13 at the request of Debbie's team.

Fifty-year-old Debbie relinquished parental rights after her divorce in 1999, but sought them again in 2003. An appeals court hearing then ruled there was an error in the petition she had filed to give Michael full custody, but the former couple settled out of court in 2006. 

In his will, filed this week, there is nothing to suggest that Debbie would be guardian to his children, with Michael naming his mother Katherine Jackson and Diana Ross as a backup.

Michael's 2002 will includes a clause which states that the pop star "intentionally omitted to provide for" former wife Debbie Rowe Photo: © Getty Images


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CHILDREN'S PREFERENCES IN CUSTODY DISPUTES

By Warren R. Shiell

 

           Loving parents usually listen to their children before making important decisions even if it means that their views do not necessarily determine the final outcome. For example, one might ask for a child’s opinion before buying a new house or deciding on a new school but that doesn’t mean that they get to make the final decision. So when parents divorce it is only natural to discuss children’s preferences. An influential therapist has said, “Children feel powerless at divorce and should be invited to make suggestions that the adults will consider seriously. In this way they can feel active instead of passive agents in the crisis.” FN1

            However, when parents cannot agree on a parenting plan and the matter goes to court, one of the most difficult issues facing parents, therapists and courts who are called upon to make decisions about custody is the extent to which the preferences of children should be taken into account and the how they should be taken into account. In many states, a child’s preferences must be taken into account in determining their best interests.

            In a custody case there seems to be a common misperception that once a child is twelve they get to decide which parent they live with. This is an urban legend. FN2.

            Similarly, a judge is not going to ask a child to testify who they want to live with. In fact, many judges are extremely reluctant to allow a child to testify in court or even to speak to the judge privately in chambers. They do not want to place the child into the middle of the dispute and add even more emotional baggage for the child. Children in such situations end up carrying an enormous load of guilt if they favor one parent at the expense of the other.

            Nonetheless, a child may want to express a preference about where they want to live. In such cases, there are usually ways for a court to hear the preferences of the children through a custody evaluation by a therapist who is trained in interviewing children. FN3. Some jurisdictions may appoint a minor’s counsel or guardian for the child. Before agreeing to such an appointment you should make sure that the attorney has the proper training to interview children.

            When children are interviewed about their preferences, an evaluator will want to know the rationale for the child’s preferences and to consider them in the light of all circumstances of the family relationships to understand how they fit into the child’s best interests.

            The first question is whether the child is expressing a genuine preference or they are mirroring the preference of one of the parents as a result of direct pressure or threats or a desire to please. In dysfunctional relationships, preferences may reflect the child’s alignment with the parent they most fear, or the parent they regard as the most unstable. Clues as to reliability can be discerned by the timing of the child’s statements, the type of words used by the child, and the extent they mirror the parents language. FN4  

            The second question is whether a child’s stated preference to live primarily with one parent is a result of factors which are clearly not in their best interests. Younger children may lack the developmental capacity to understand what life would really be like if their preferences became reality. They may not have a mature sense of time and not have a clear idea what a week without one parent would be like. Also a child may state a preference impulsively or for reasons which are not in their best interests. For example, an adolescent boy may state that he wants to live with his father. Upon closer examination, the evaluator finds out that the real reason for his preference is that the father provides no structure or discipline, lets him drink, stay out all night and so forth. Another example, would be a 5 year old girl who says she wants to live with her father because he buys her candy. Children are fickle and they may express a preference as a result of some minor frustration, “Mom, made me do homework and wouldn’t let me go out.” They may take a position in the heat of the moment just after an argument.  Kids also tend to think that the “grass is always greener” and their allegiances fluctuate depending who they’ve just spent time with. That’s why a series of interviews over a period of time and after they’ve been with each parent is a good idea.

           

            Another problem with giving great weight to children’s preferences is that it may weaken a parent’s authority over the kids, if the kids believe that they can control their parents by threatening, “If I don’t get what I want, I’m telling the Judge that I don’t want to live with you anymore.”

           

            The above reasons are not reasons why you should not consult with and listen carefully to your children’s feelings and concerns when you divorce. However, it should be done sensibly with their best interests in mind and children should not be made to feel that they are porns in a battle between two parents.

 

This information is provided for educational purposes only. For more information about divorce and family law in Los Angeles  please visit www.la-familylaw.com

           

FN1.    Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1989).

FN2.    In Texas, however, a child may file with the court an affidavit stating who they would like to live with. Texas Family Code section 153.008.

FN3.    An excellent review is Richard A. Warshak’s “Payoffs and Pitfalls of Listening to Children.” Family Relations, 2003, Vol 52, No. 4.

FN4.    The Art and Science of Custody Evaluations (2007) Gould and Martindale.


HOW TO COMMUNICATE DURING AND AFTER THE DIVORCE PROCESS

Los Angeles Divorce and Family law Attorney 

             One of the most important tools for making cooperative parenting work and, for that matter, negotiating any issues in a divorce or raising any matters of concern is to discuss them in a reasonable and non-accusatory manner. In her excellent book, “Mom’s House, Dad’s House,” Dr. Isolina Ricci, suggests applying what she refers to as basic parent-business principles,” when relating to one another. One of these principles is keeping your feelings in check. In a business relationship, feelings may run high, but good business people understand that feelings should not get in the way of negotiating solutions to problems. If many spouses talked to their bosses the way they talk to their partners they’d be fired on the spot.

             In a business relationship one of the keys to success is to be solution focused instead of focusing on blame or past mistakes. For example, if a couple are negotiating how they should share taking children to after school activities, it is more productive if the parties focus on working out a plan that realistically accommodates their schedules and provides certainty for the children than trading accusations about how one parent was always too busy to get involved before the divorce and why are they now suddenly showing an interest.

             However, applying “parent-business principles” is often easier said than done when the relationship has broken down in a hail of accusations and re-criminations and your ex-partner knows exactly what buttons to push. Even in the best relationships reasonable demands (e.g. How many times do I have to ask you to …….) can be met with tit-for-tat accusations in which there is no winner. In a divorce situation, especially where children are involved, acrimonious conflict serves no-ones best interests.  While you cannot change the past, you can change the way you communicate.

             One of the reasons dialogue gets out of control lies in the way requests are made. They often involve YOU STATEMENTS which feel like a first line of attack and invite defensiveness or a counteroffensive. They are guaranteed to start an argument.

             “Polite Requests” involving I STATEMENTS are a way of making a non-threatening requests for change. They begin with an "I" statement where you identify and take responsibility for your feelings and thoughts. They are an integral part of making a “Polite Request.”

 YOU STATEMENT =            "You are always late".

I STATEMENT =                   "I get very frustrated when I have to wait for you.”

 "I feel/felt ______________________ (insert feeling or word)

when __________________________ (this happens)

and what I'd like is _________________ (insert your request)

 This is what an “I” statement sounds like:

 "I feel angry when you let our son watch R-rated moves, and what I'd like is

for you to leave him with me when you want to go to an adult movie.”

 "I feel worried when Tasha comes home smelling of smoke and what I'd like

is for you to consider smoking outside.”

 Consider how you would discuss the following scenario with your ex-partner using a Polite Request Strategy:

 Your daughter tells you that she is having trouble getting to sleep at the

home of the other parent. You see that she is tired when she returns from

time there. You are not sure why she's having trouble sleeping, but you are

concerned.

 If the going gets tough and meaningful and courteous communication becomes difficult or breaks down, Dr. Ricci makes the following suggestions to minimize conflict:

 Make communications direct and formal and if necessary use email or leave voice messages.

  • Keep the agenda to what is best for the children.
  • Avoid the temptation to push buttons.
  • Try to acknowledge the other parents positive contributions.
  • Do your job as a parent, let him or her do their job as a parent.
  • Be reliable and live up to your side of the bargain. Do what you are going to say.
  • Be flexible. If he or she wants something, maybe you can trade.
  • If communications fails, use a mediator!   


Young Children should not watch TV




Led by Frederick Zimmerman and Dr. Dimitri Christakis, both at the University of Washington, the research team found that with every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new vocabulary words than babies who never watched the videos. These products had the strongest detrimental effect on babies 8 to 16 months old, the age at which language skills are starting to form. "The more videos they watched, the fewer words they knew," says Christakis. "These babies scored about 10% lower on language skills than infants who had not watched these videos."
It's not the first blow to baby videos, and likely won't be the last. Mounting evidence suggests that passive screen sucking not only doesn't help children learn, but could also set back their development. Last spring, Christakis and his colleagues found that by three months, 40% of babies are regular viewers of DVDs, videos or television; by the time they are two years old, almost 90% are spending two to three hours each day in front of a screen. Three studies have shown that watching television, even if it includes educational programming such as Sesame Street, delays language development. "Babies require face-to-face interaction to learn," says Dr. Vic Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "They don't get that interaction from watching TV or videos. In fact, the watching probably interferes with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development." Previous studies have shown, for example, that babies learn faster and better from a native speaker of a language when they are interacting with that speaker instead of watching the same speaker talk on a video screen. "Even watching a live person speak to you via television is not the same thing as having that person in front of you," says Christakis.
This growing evidence led the Academy to issue its recommendation in 1999 that no child under two years old watch any television. The authors of the new study might suggest reading instead: children who got daily reading or storytelling time with their parents showed a slight increase in language skills.
Though the popular baby videos and DVDs in the Washington study were designed to stimulate infants' brains, not necessarily to promote language development, parents generally assume that the products' promises to make their babies smarter include improvement of speaking skills. But, says Christakis, "the majority of the videos don't try to promote language; they have rapid scene changes and quick edits, and no appearance of the 'parent-ese' type of speaking that parents use when talking to their babies."
As far as Christakis and his colleagues can determine, the only thing that baby videos are doing is producing a generation of overstimulated kids. "There is an assumption that stimulation is good, so more is better," he says. "But that's not true; there is such a thing as overstimulation." His group has found that the more television children watch, the shorter their attention spans later in life. "Their minds come to expect a high level of stimulation, and view that as normal," says Christakis, "and by comparison, reality is boring."
He and other experts worry that the proliferation of these products will continue to displace the one thing that babies need in the first months of life — face time with human beings. "Every interaction with your child is meaningful," says Christakis. "Time is precious in those early years, and the newborn is watching you, and learning from everything you do." So just talk to them; they're listening.


Successful Children of Divorce

Thanks to Marie at http://www.justdivorceblog.com/ for this

IStock_000007308947XSmall_opt(2) Our current president, Barack Obama, is the second president (after Gerald Ford) to have experienced the divorce of his parents. It is possible, as this Huffington Post article points out, that Obama learned from this experience how to navigate difficult situations with grace:

Indeed, most divorces require negotiation, compromise and agreeing to disagree. You learn the importance of being reserved and reflective vs. being rash. And why perhaps he likes being No Drama Obama.

During the times that Obama was growing up, divorce - and bi-racial children - were not the norm. Yet Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, handled these "problems" with grace and dignity. She was a positive person who taught her children how to navigate difficult waters without becoming overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on past wrongs or current difficulties, Obama's mother chose to focus on a brighter future.

The qualities that Obama learned from his mother are reflected in how he has run his life and - most recently - how quickly he was able to overcome differences with Hillary Clinton to select her as Secretary for the Department of State. 

A great leader is someone who can think long term and put petty personal issues aside. These are the same qualities that parents going through a divorce can teach their children.

Conclusion: Divorce is incredibly difficult and painful for everyone involved. However, if handled properly, divorce can teach children the necessary skills for a successful future.

www.la-familylaw.com


Kids keeping the peace when parents divorce

This article from moms logic


Today's New York Daily News has a headline that screams Madge's Lourdes Works a Miracle. No, Madonna's teenage daughter isn't healing the sick or parting the seas. According to the paper, what Lourdes has done is even more miraculous -- she's managed to make peace between divorcing duo Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

A source tells the paper that 14-year-old Lourdes came the couple begging, "Please don't be mean to each other." The teen told her mom and Guy that she wanted everything to be as friendly as possible. According to the source, Guy and Madonna have buried the hatchet and are making every effort to make things as civil as possible for the sake of the kids.

The fact that teenage Lourdes is managing to do what even divorce lawyers can't is a definite sign of the times, according to psychologist Cooper Lawrence. Cooper, author of "The Cult of Celebrity" tells momlogic, "It's different now than when we were kids. The way they parented us is different from the way parents raise kids today. Today, kids are involved in every family decision from what car are we going to buy to what kind of dog are we going to get. You can't have it both ways -- you can't expect the child to be involved in family decisions and then all of a sudden make a life-changing decision and expect the child to have no say."

Cooper also adds that watching Lourdes take an active role in her parents' divorce sends a powerful message to other children of divorce. "Lourdes is a little girl who grew up with the paparazzi as part of her public life. She has a public image and it matters what she says and does. When she says be nice to one another it sends a different message, it's influential to other kids."

But even so, Cooper cautions about having children act as peace keepers in their parents divorce. She asks parents to be careful about their behavior and warns that children should never be put in a situation where they feel they need to step in to keep the peace. "The children have nothing to do with the divorce. When you put the kid in the middle you're screwing up your kid. It's cruel. Children learn from your behavior and how you treat people."

As a rule, Cooper tells momlogic that parents need to keep the arguments to themselves; no child should have to hear you badmouth, fight or yell at each other. "Some kids take this stuff personally. You don't want the kids to somehow think that the divorce is their fault -- and even if you say that it's not, if you continually bad mouth your ex to the child, you're sending the message that somehow the child is involved."

And above all, remember, although you want to be your child's friend, you are first and foremost a parent. Don't use this as an opportunity to talk about what went wrong in your relationship, that's not a conversation any parents should have with a child. Cooper explains, "Don't talk to the kids about the divorce except for conversations about their own feelings. You have to reassure them that it's going to be ok. Mommy and daddy might not love each other any more but we both love you."

Los Angeles Family Law


Divorce Law: Breastfeeding and Child Custody

Another article I wrote for divorce 360. If you are interested in this subject I suggest you take a look at Jill Lapore's excellant article in the New Yorker about the history of breastfeeding and baby food at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/01/19/090119fa_fact_lepore


Legal: In Custody Dispute after Divorce, Can Breastfeeding Limit Overnight Visitation?


By WARREN SHIELL

Q: Our son is now 18 months old and I am involved in a custody dispute in which I am asking for overnight custody. His mother is still breastfeeding and argues that overnights would disrupt her breastfeeding schedule and her bonding time. I am convinced she is only doing this to deny me visitation. She has produced studies and data showing the health, psychological and emotional benefits of breastfeeding. She has even argued that breastfeed is a “privacy right” guaranteed by the Constitution. I thought that breastfeeding was recommended only for the first 12 months and I cannot understand why she can’t pump so that I can feed my son when I have him for overnights.

A: I am not a pediatrician, but your wife is correct that there are many health, psychological and emotional benefits of breastfeeding for both the baby and the mother. Studies show that breastfeeding increases an infant’s immune response and leads to fewer illness, improves growth and vision and accounts for an increase in cognitive capacity and higher IQ. It also increases bonding between infant and mother and improves the mother’s health reducing the risk of breast cancer and diabetes. [1]
 
Before we get to the big question, you make a good point that one solution, if the mother were willing, would be for her to pump and provide you with enough breast milk to get you through the night. Contrary to your wife’s claims there are no cases guaranteeing a privacy right in the Constitution, but it is unlikely that a Court would order her to pump since an order would be difficult to enforce.[2] You would probably have to use formula.

In any case, it sounds like Mother would not agree to this solution. She may argue that she cannot pump enough or that pumping might affect milk supply or lead to “nipple confusion.” [3]  In the face of these objections, you would have to consult a pediatrician. If pumping is not the solution, it leaves unresolved the bigger question which is whether the “breast is best” argument trumps all others. While breastfeeding is important does it outweigh the benefits of father-child bonding and, if so, for how long? There is a wealth of developmental literature that shows that it is in the best interests of the child to have early father-child bonding and sooner or later bonding requires overnight custody. 

The problem in your case is that the data doesn’t really address this balancing of interests and needs. The American Academy of Pediatricians in a revised 2005 policy statements states: “Exclusive breastfeeding is ideal nutrition and sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months after birth. Infants weaned before 12 months of age should not receive cow's milk feedings but should receive iron-fortified infant formula. Gradual introduction of iron-enriched solid foods in the second half of the first year should compliment the breast milk diet. It is recommended that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.” 

So you might argue that by 18 months the benefits of breastfeeding are outweighed by other factors such as father-son bonding. This conflict also needs to be viewed in a wider context. Public recognition of the health benefits of breastfeeding is a relatively new phenomenon. According to U.S Census Bureau data in the 1970’s only 10 percent of mother’s continued to breastfeed their children for six months and from 1990-1993 this figure had only risen to 28.4 percent.  It is highly likely that the lawyers and judges handling your case were themselves formula fed with no long term harmful consequences. It would seem that on balance you have a good argument for seeking overnights although much depends on many other factors. You should in particular determine whether the Courts in your area have issued any parenting plan guidelines in your jurisdiction.

For example, Los Angeles County Superior Court has issued tips for creating a parenting plan that do not recommend overnights for non-custodial parents for babies up to 6 months. Instead they recommend three non consecutive days per week for up to two hours each day. For infants, 7 to18 months of age overnights are only recommended, if appropriate. Again it may be necessary to retain the services of an expert or to request that the court order a child custody evaluation if you still cannot agree. You might even consider serving a subpoena on your son’s pediatrician to see what his or her opinions are. Other considerations which you should explore are whether the mother has exclusively breastfeed other children for such a long period of time and, if she works, does she exclusively breastfeed at work.



[1]  For an excellent discussion of baby development see “How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life” written by Lisa Eliot, Ph.D (Bantam Books, 2000).
[2]  See Shana M. Christtrup, “Breastfeeding in the American Workplace” Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law [Vol 9:3] at
http://www.wcl.american.edu/journal/genderlaw/09/9-3christrup.pdf?rd=1
[3]  Studies show that “nipple confusion” – difficulty switching from one form or feeding to another -- is most prominent when an infant is about three months old.


Warren R. Shiell has practiced law for more than 15 years in the United Kingdom, New York and California. His firm in Beverly Hills, Calif., is devoted exclusively to family law issues. His web site is http://la-familylaw.com/.

New York Times article about the role of religion in custody disputes

Published: February 13, 2008

A 27-year-old single mother at the time, Mrs. Snider felt she had ruined her life through a disastrous marriage and divorce. But in her kitchen that night, after reading pamphlets and Bible passages that her boss had pointed her to, she realized she was a sinner, she said, she prayed for forgiveness, and put her trust in Christ.

Four years later, the conservative brand of Christianity Mrs. Snider embraced became the source of a bitter, continuing custody battle over her only child, Libby Mashburn.

Across the country, child-custody disputes in which religion is the flash point are increasing, part of a broader rise in custody conflicts over the last 30 years, lawyers, judges and mediators say.

“There has definitely been an increase in conflict over religious issues,” said Ronald William Nelson, a Kansas family lawyer who is chairman of the custody committee of the American Bar Association’s family law section. “Part of that is there has been an increase of conflicts between parents across the board, and with parents looking for reasons to justify their own actions.” Another factor, he said, is the rise of intermarriage and greater willingness by Americans to convert.

Nobody keeps track of who wins in these religious disputes, but lawyers say that judges are just as likely to rule in favor of the more religiously engaged parent as the other way around. That is because, for constitutional reasons, judges are reluctant to base their rulings primarily on the religious preferences of parents.

Judges do not want to take on custody disputes rooted in religion, said lawyers like Gaetano Ferro, who until recently served as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Mr. Ferro said, “How will a judge say in any rational fashion that Islam is better than Buddhism, Catholicism better than Judaism, or Methodism better than Pentecostalism?”

As a result, more and more states have tried to keep custody disputes out of court by mandating mediation. But the effect has been piecemeal, and religious disputes have proven to be among the most difficult to resolve, lawyers said.

From the age of 1 month, Mrs. Snider’s daughter had lived with her, and later Mrs. Snider’s new husband, Brian Snider, with occasional visits to her biological father.

But in 2003, when Libby was 6, an Alabama court gave primary custody to her father, William Mashburn, after he and Mrs. Snider’s own family argued that the strict religious upbringing Libby received at her mother’s home, which involved modest dress, teachings about sin and salvation, and limited exposure to popular culture, was damaging her.

“We were easy targets because we were made to look like cultists,” Mrs. Snider, 36, said. “I think whether anyone admits it or not, almost all of the ruling had to do with religion. Nothing I had done was called into question except that.”

Generally, custody disputes are resolved outside the courtroom, lawyers said.

Such cases have increased, however, because a generation ago, mothers almost always got custody and were responsible for nearly all aspects of children’s upbringing. But now, both parents are usually involved in raising children after divorce, and that can lead to dispute. Data regarding custody cases are not uniform, according to the National Center for State Courts, but for 10 states for which it has data from 2002, all show an increase in custody cases coming to trial.

Conflicts sometimes arise when an interfaith marriage dissolves or when one parent converts to a different religion after divorce.

In Oregon, a dispute between James Boldt and his former wife, Lia, was recently decided by the State Supreme Court. Mr. Boldt, the custodial parent, converted to Judaism after the divorce and sought to have their son, now 12, convert, and be circumcised.

The court ruled that custodial parents could generally decide if a child should be circumcised. But given the son’s age, it ordered the lower court to ascertain his wishes. If they conflict with his father’s, the court may have to reconsider the custody arrangement, the court ruled.

Tensions can emerge when one parent takes a turn toward fundamentalism. In 2006, the United States Supreme Court let stand a decision by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania that permitted Stanley Shepp to tell his 14-year-old daughter about polygamy.

Mr. Shepp and his former wife, Tracey Roberts, were Mormons living in York, Pa., when they married. But Mr. Shepp espoused polygamy as a tenet of their faith.

Ms. Roberts contends that Mr. Shepp spoke to one of her daughters from a previous marriage about marrying him, which he denies. She left Mr. Shepp and has primary custody of their daughter. He was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for his polygamist views and is now part of a Mormon fundamentalist movement in Utah.

Mr. Shepp petitioned for better-defined custody rights for his daughter, but Ms. Roberts objected because he had exposed the child to polygamist Mormon communities. The court upheld Mr. Shepp’s right to teach his daughter about polygamy, saying it could not find evidence that such teaching harmed her physical or mental health.

Judges risk violating the separation of church and state if they try to choose the faith a child should be raised in, legal experts said. But in situations like Libby Mashburn’s, judgments about parenting can become entwined with religion.

In upholding the rulings of lower courts to grant primary custody to Mr. Mashburn, the Supreme Court of Alabama said the Sniders’s involvement in missionary work took Libby away from her extended family in Alabama. The Sniders are quietly, unapologetically fundamentalist. They believe that American culture, even conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, has drifted perilously far from biblical teachings. They attend a large Independent Baptist church in Madison, where the music, the sanctuary and the congregants are unadorned and old-fashioned.

Women wear skirts as a sign of modesty. They do not swim in mixed company. They eschew rock music and nearly all popular culture. They do not drink, smoke or swear.

The Sniders have raised Libby, now 11, in that tradition. But it has put them at odds with Mr. Mashburn and Mrs. Snider’s family. Mr. Mashburn and his lawyer declined to comment .

Mrs. Snider said she understood that Libby might wear pants at her father’s home or go to the movies. But she insisted that Mr. Mashburn not swear or drink in front of Libby or expose her to inappropriate movies and music, which, she said, he has repeatedly done.

The Sniders have repeatedly appealed to win back primary custody. They are awaiting yet another decision from a hearing in November.

At the last hearing, Libby, who spends about 40 percent of her time with the Sniders, testified against Mr. Mashburn.

“I’m more of my mom’s religion, and my dad sometimes talks bad about my mom,” she said. “He called it a cult, and it’s definitely not a cult. It kind of makes me mad sometimes. Maybe he thinks her religion may be bad for me, but I think mainly he doesn’t like my mom and is using that as an excuse.”

Some states like California and Connecticut have taken innovative steps to get parents to resolve custody issues outside court. In Connecticut, for example, those seeking a court order have to meet with a family-relations specialist in an effort to negotiate. If that fails, they attend a daylong session to settle their differences before a panel that includes a lawyer and a mental health professional.

Even after a case goes to court, little may be resolved.

Aaron Petty of Minneapolis and Gineen Gove of Black River Falls, Wis., had their daughter, Basyl, 17 years ago. The couple split up when Basyl was 4. Soon afterward, Ms. Gove married, and she and her husband converted to Old Order Amish.

As Mr. Petty saw his daughter over the years, he became concerned, he said, when Basyl was about 11 and he learned that the Goves would not let her go to school past eighth grade, a common decision among the Amish.

Mr. Petty petitioned for primary custody so that Basyl might continue her education. “This case wasn’t about religion for me,” he said. “It was about her education.”

He won the case when Basyl was 14, but she disappeared. Mr. Petty said he suspected Basyl was living within the Amish community. The Goves declined to talk about the case.

“I wanted to offer my daughter options for her future, in case she grew up and didn’t remain Amish,” Mr. Petty said in a phone interview. “At 12, 13, 14, making lasting drastic decisions based on faith isn’t an appropriate time.”

Mr. Petty’s voice caught as he continued. “Was that case worth fighting? In hindsight, no. I haven’t seen my daughter in two-and-a-half years.”

Warren Shiell is a Los Angeles Family Law Attorney

         


Parental alienation: The latest weapon in nasty divorces

Source Lawyers USA

"Welcome to the swamp."

That's what a judge once told a client of Anchorage divorce attorney Steve Pradell when accusations of parental alienation were leveled against the client in a custody hearing.

Parental alienation syndrome - a controversial diagnosis to describe a child who compulsively denigrates one parent in response to consistent brainwashing by the other parent - has become a common weapon in custody cases.

"It happens all the time," said Michael R. Walsh, a divorce attorney in Orlando, Fla. "If Mom can't hurt Dad another way, what has she got left after she's tried to rake him over the coals on everything else?"

According to Richard Gardner, the psychologist who is considered the father of the syndrome, it typically manifests itself as a campaign of denigration by one parent against the other, which is accompanied by weak, frivolous and absurd rationalizations for the deprecation. As a result of this steady campaign of insult, the child reflexively supports the alienating parent and experiences no guilt over their own cruelty towards the targeted parent.

But the mental health profession is far from agreement about the existence of the syndrome. Noting the lack of supporting data, the American Psychological Association has "no official position on the purported syndrome," according to a statement in its website.

The legal community is divided as well.

While many family lawyers believe the syndrome is a legitimate psychological diagnosis, others view it as nonsense. They say it's used primarily by parents who want someone to blame for their poor relationship with their children.

"I think it's more of a code word that gets used in trial because one parent is not maintaining the relationship with the children and believes the other parent is interfering with the relationship," said Minneapolis divorce attorney Susan Gallagher.

Like it or not, parental alienation has become a common weapon in courts across the country. Even in jurisdictions that don't recognize it as a diagnosable syndrome in children, lawyers can still argue straight parental alienation - that one parent's attempts to turn the child against the other parent indicates that the first parent is not fit to have custody.

Sometimes the behavior that prompts charges of parental alienation is subtle - frequent disparaging remarks within earshot of the child or setting up appointments and activities for the child during times when the other parent is scheduled to have visitation. Other times it is openly aggressive, such as unfounded accusations of child abuse or neglect.

In some cases, a parent is deluded enough to believe their unfounded accusations - and other times when the accusations are true - so sorting out what is real and what is not can be a tall order for the courts.

"I can't tell you if the syndrome exists psychologically, but I can say it's very troubling and one of the hardest things for a judge to figure out if it's really happening," said Pradell.

It's also possible for the child to be alienated from one parent without any campaign of denigration by the other.

"Just for the sake of illustration, a 13-year-old girl finds out before Mom that Dad is cheating on Mom. That 13-year-old girl may become alienated from Dad, not because of Mom, but the alienation is there," said Patrick O'Reilly of Buffalo, head of the Family Law Section of the New York Bar Association.

As the Anchorage judge said: "Welcome to the swamp."

Making it stick

 

Although parental alienation has become a common weapon in custody cases around the country, proving it can be a tall order.

"It's like everything else in a custody case - it all comes down to what you can prove at trial. A lot of bad things happen, but they're very difficult to prove," said Ben Stevens of Stevens MacPhail in Spartanburg, S.C.

The best place to begin is with witnesses - anyone who was present when one of the alienating interactions occurred. In some states, clients can record telephone calls or other conversations to create audio evidence.

O'Reilly suggested that lawyers encourage their clients to communicate via e-mail and voice mail to create a tangible record. This will be far more effective in court than the typical he-said/she-said battles that dominate most custody battles.

But the heart of any parental alienation case is the expert testimony, according to Stevens.

"Take the child to a mental health professional and let him do testing," he suggested. "Then you've got an expert witness to come and say, 'In my expert opinion, this is what's going on.'"

It many cases the judge will require a court-appointed psychologist to work with both parents and the children in order to obtain a non-partisan expert opinion. In a similar vein, lawyers may want to ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem who will advocate on behalf of the child to determine whether parental alienation has occurred.

In the end, though, lawyers should be prepared for a tough battle.

"It's very hard to prove, because if you have the client from whom the children are estranged, you don't have a child willing to cooperate with the process, and that's where most of the proof would be," O'Reilly said.

 

efending against a charge

 

These same strategies, and a few others, are useful if unfounded allegations of alienation are leveled against your client.

"Obviously they have the burden to prove the client's doing something," said O'Reilly. "It's not, 'The child doesn't talk to me, res ipsa it's your fault.' You have a little bit of advantage."

First, make sure your client always takes the high road. Although the natural instinct of clients is to become indignant and defend themselves vehemently, protesting too loudly could undermine their credibility in the eyes of the court, said Gallagher.

Instead, develop an action plan for how your client can build a stronger relationship with the children. Change any behavior that is suspect. Have clients tell the judge that while they don't feel there is evidence to support the allegation, they are seeking the help of a professional as a precaution, and are prepared to change any behavior that is deemed inappropriate.

"Who is not confident in a parent who is going to do and say that?" Gallagher asked.

But just as in the case of the accuser, the most powerful weapon for a client who is accused of alienation is the psychological expert.

"A good forensic expert has credibility because that person doesn't represent your guy and doesn't represent the other party - he's appointed by the court," said Tom Carnes of Carnes Ely in Houston.

Third-party witnesses can also be a powerful weapon in court.

"Try to line up witnesses that would have had the opportunity to see [the parent] interact with the child. Teachers, scout leaders, dance teachers, karate teachers - people who see them during times when parents let their guard down and can say, 'I've never seen Dad say anything bad about Mom or Mom say anything bad about Dad,'" Stevens suggested.

Finally, Carnes suggests that lawyers request more visits between the targeted parent and child in an effort to strengthen the relationship between them.

Of course, the best defense against an alienation charge is to make sure it's never made in the first place. Advise your client not to get in the middle of disputes between the child and the other parent, O'Reilly advised. If a child refuses to go with the non-custodial parent, the custodial parent should insist. He or she should tell the child that the judge has required the visit.

"I encourage my clients to act reasonably, assume anything they do or say could be shown to the judge - or better yet, that the judge is standing there watching," said Stevens. "I don't know if that's great advice or I've just had good clients, but I haven't had many alienation claims alleged against my clients."

 

Keep your sanity

 

Custody cases are among the most frustrating cases a lawyer takes on, O'Reilly said.

Although he said he doesn't duck under his desk when a potential client walks into his office with an alienation claim, "there's certainly a gastro-intestinal response that says, 'Oh jeez.'"

And there's more than your professional satisfaction at stake. Choosing the wrong clients could damage your firm's reputation.

"We represent the alleged perpetrator more often, but we make sure we think they're not a pervert or hitting their kids before we ever take them on," said Carnes. "If we take people who are in the gray area, the court is going to develop a different view of us over time."

Stevens is also careful to take cases he believes in strongly.

"It's not worth it to me to deal with clients who are acting deliberately," he said. "If they're going to do that to their child's parent, I'm going to have a problem with them at some point."

But that approach concerns Pradell, who worries it will make it difficult for the parent who really is guilty of alienation to find adequate counsel. He believes lawyers should take the assertions of prospective clients at face value, while maintaining a willingness to fire any client who wants them to do something unethical.

To maintain his sanity, Carnes periodically takes time off from custody cases and concentrates on his business litigation practice.

As gut-wrenching as custody cases can be, Pradell said there is something that keeps him coming back for more. He recalled a case he took on when he was starting to burn out after 15 years of family law.

His client was a father who was awarded custody of his child and an unborn sibling because the mother and her boyfriend physically abused the child. The woman disappeared before the birth. But many months later, Pradell received a call from the police in Washington, who had just raided the home of the mother and boyfriend. The officer found a copy of the signed order giving custody of the unborn child to Pradell's client. The baby girl had a broken arm, but doctors expected her to be okay. The state confiscated the child and delivered her to her father.

Six months ago, Pradell, who is also a magician, performed a show at the little girl's birthday party. "At the end of the show I sat with her and I said, 'I knew you before you were born,' and she goes, 'You must be magic.'"

"That case changed me - now I know I make a difference."

By Amy Johnson Conner Contributing writer


PREPARING A CUSTODY DECLARATION

OVERVIEW

A request for a temporary custody order is usually made by filing an Order To Show Cause (“OSC”). This consists of a Judicial Council OSC Form (Form FL 300), an Application For Order (Form FL310) and supporting sworn written declarations of the parents and other witnesses. Because of the heavy caseload of family law matters in most Courts in California, judges have come to rely on sworn written declarations instead of taking oral testimony of witnesses in Court. You should, however, check the local rules of your Court to see how they handle OSC applications.  In many counties, the “preferred practice” is for judges to make decisions based upon written declarations, supplemented by offers of proof of counsel at the hearing, and only occasionally by oral testimony. The entire hearing may take less than twenty minutes. That is why your written declarations are so important to winning your case. Judicial Council Forms can be found at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/.

FORMAT OF YOUR CUSTODY DECLARATION

You declaration should be in the correct format on numbered pleading paper, with separate paragraphs and must end with a perjury declaration e.g.

 

DECLARATION OF JOHN DOE

1     I am Petitioner/Respondent in this matter. The facts stated herein are within my personal    

2      knowledge and I further affirmatively state that, if sworn as a witness, I could and would

3      competently testify thereto.

4                     2. [insert facts]

5                      3.

6     I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that

7      the foregoing is true and correct to the best of my knowledge.

8     Executed this____ day of ____, 2006, at Los Angeles, California.

9     ___________________________________

10             [Sign your name]

 
A copy of a blank declaration for in WORD is attached here.Download declaration_client.doc


Your first paragraph should consist of a short summary outlining what relief you are requesting. For example: “I respectfully request that the Court award me joint legal custody and primary physical custody of John Doe (date of birth ____ age___) “the minor child,” with Respondent having visitation on alternate weekends from ____to ____with Respondent picking him up at [place] at [time] and returning him to [place] at [time].

Lead with your strong points and remember that the Judge who will be reading this may know nothing about your case. You can view a declaration filed with the Los Superior Court in the case of Denise Richards v. Charlie Sheen here.Download richards_declaration_april21_2.pdf

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS

When you discuss what you want for your children, you should focus primarily on your parenting skills and your positive contributions to raising them. It’s a mistake to focus only on bad or negative things about your spouse. If the Court has to make a decision about the best interests of the children, it wants to hear about both side’s parenting abilities and what plans they’ve made. Once you’ve discussed your role in raising the children, then you can explain why you think you are the better parent and describe any traits or incidents that show your spouse’s poor parenting choices/judgment. The chances are that your spouse will also level accusations against you, so you should be prepared to discuss this.

One objective of your declaration is to show the Court that your proposed parenting plan is, as a practical matter, better suited to both parents schedule and your children’s schedule. Before you even start writing your declaration it is a good idea to start by charting out the schedules of your children, your schedule and your spouses. Take a calendar and chart out in a colored pen the activities of each of your children (e.g. when they leave and return from school/day care each day, when they go to different activities such as music lessons, when they have vacations etc.) Next, take a different colored pen and chart your activities and commitments. Include when you go to and return from work, go to meetings, go out with friends etc. With another colored pen do the same for your spouse. You should then compare your desired parenting plan and your spouse’s desired parenting plan to see if there is any common ground and why your plan is more appropriate.

WHAT TO PUT IN MY DECLARATION

The following is a list of issues you should consider when preparing your declaration. This list is by no means exhaustive but will provide a basis for helping you discuss why your proposed plan is in the best interests of the children. Some questions might be less appropriate depending on how many children you have and how old they are. It’s important to try and be as specific as possible. If you are describing an event, it’s a good rule of thumb to try and answer in terms of “what,” “when” and “where”. If there’s a specific incident, try to remember a specific date or a month when it happened e.g. “last month”, “about six months ago”. If you are describing a particular behavior describe how long it has been going on and it’s frequency. For example, “he/she has been drinking since 2002,” “he/she drinks frequently several times a week,” “he/she usually drank at home in the evenings ” etc.

Example:

                      WRONG: Respondent has a drinking problem.
BETTER:
When Respondent and I lived together, he drank 6 to 7 beers a day and up to 12 a day on Saturday. When he picks up the kids on Friday, I can smell alcohol on his breath, his speech is slurred and he has difficulty maintaining his balance. Three weeks ago, Respondent showed up at my house with alcohol on his breath and swore “*****” at me in front of the children….etc.

 ISSUES TO ADDRESS WHEN PREPARING YOUR DECLARATION

  • What is your proposed parenting plan? Describe what days you wish to have your children. Who will pick them up and return them and to what location e.g. school or one  parent’s house? Describe how you propose to make such a plan work. Will you need additional child care? Can your job and work schedule realistically accommodate such a plan?
  • Prior History. Describe the procedural history of your case if you have already been to Family Court on these issues. Discuss dates of court appearances, Court orders, agreements.
  • Describe your children’s relationship with you and your spouse?
  • Describe your contributions to raising your children. Were you the primary caregiver who stayed at home while your spouse worked during the marriage?     
  • Describe you and your spouse’s responsibility for taking the children to doctor’s appointments, babysitters, school, church etc.
  • Describe who does homework with the children.
  • Describe how you and your spouse take care of the children’s personal needs such as     bathing, changing diapers, arranging for sitters, haircuts, feeding?
  • Describe how you and your spouse discipline the children and set structure for them?
  • Describe what kind of personal attention each of you gives to the children, such as      teaching problem solving, reading, playing together, sharing activities?
  • Describe you and your spouse’s involvement in the children’s social, educational and religious activities. For example, who attended most teacher-parent conferences, took the kids to the gym etc.
  • Who do the children turn to when they have problems or need someone to talk to? Describe any incidents you think are significant.
  • What do the children do on the weekends?
  • Do the children spend time with relatives and who takes them?
  • Describe why you think you are the better parent?
  • Describe what you’ve done to encourage your spouse to remain involved in the children’s lives.
  • Do the children have any special educational, medical, dietary needs?
  • Describe any incidents in which your spouse has shown poor parenting judgment or made bad choices? Describe any incidents when your spouse has not been as emotionally or financially supportive of the children as they should have been.
  • Describe any other problems you have with the way your spouse parents?
  • Describe any habits or any behaviors of your spouse which negatively affect the children?
  • Describe any preferences your children have expressed about who they want to live with?
  • Describe any major disagreements you’ve had with your spouse about how you raise      the children? For example, over issues such as religion, lifestyle, schools, friends etc.
  • What kind of custody/visitation do you think is appropriate for your spouse?
  • Describe any childcare arrangements you’ve made.
  • How will these plans affect their education? Will they stay in the same school? Who will pick up/drop off?
  • Describe any incidents of domestic violence.