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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seal Beach California Custody Dispute Ends in Murder

So incredibly sad. Devastating, really, for so many people, so many families, an entire community. An act of violence in the context of family/intimate relationships is always shocking and horrific even for the people who say "I saw it coming." And sometimes it seems predictable because we do know something about patterns in domestic violence relationships. But these acts of intimate family violence are not identical and they do not follow a progression that can be clearly identified and so they can rarely be prevented.

None of us really know how we would react if our relationship with our child was threatened. And no one knows which parents in the midst of these custody disputes in the family court will act out violently against self, other, or both. In this case, the father was the one who crossed some invisible line between hopefulness and hopelessness and took final and fatal action.

The couple divorced in 2007, and the battle over the child continued unabated for over four years. The day prior to the shooting, the father's request for primary custody was denied by the court based on a custody evaluation that concluded that the 50/50 shared parenting plan was working well for the child. While a final decision was delayed until yet another hearing December 20, 2011, the emotional upheaval after such a decision is often like a powerful earthquake for some people. It may shake the very foundation on which they stand, on which they have built a life because the outcome they seek provides the sole meaning in life. The sense of hopelessness that follows the perceived failure in their pursuit of justice can be so overwhelming that suicide or homicide feels like the only option. And so people act out of that hopelessness.

Four years is a long time to be at war. It would wear anybody down. And families are often shocked by the lack of fairness and justice in family court when parents are unable to make their own agreements and decision about their children. If parents can't agree, they must rely on the best efforts of professionals working in an often over-burdened system ruled by laws and procedures that feel adversarial and intimidating. And the process is slow and frustrating. For example, a high conflict family may have 70-80 court hearings over the course of four years, and still have no final decision.

While there is no exoneration or redemption for the human being who acts out in such a violent manner, it is possible that there could have been a different outcome for this family had the system been better equipped to provide adequate support to intervene earlier to help the parties cope with the losses that accompany divorce and changes in custody. These are huge transitions and the adversarial setting of the family court is often not conducive to helping the parties cool down and be able to disagree in a civil and business-like manner. Alternative dispute resolution approaches are used by some jurisdictions, and mental health intervention approaches are used by some.

One example of an under-utilized tool for families in the early stages of family upheaval is called supervised exchange. This service has the potential to provide the parents with a buffer zone that can help prevent escalation of the fear, anxiety and anger that are often present as the parents separate and try to rebuild their lives. Emotions run high when there has been a custody dispute over sharing of the children. These disputes are rooted in the belief of one parent that the other parent is "unfit" in some way. So declarations are written and a case presented to a judge who decides whether the allegations of unfitness are believable and rise to a level as to potentially represent a threat to the health and well-being of the child.

This process takes time. Typically these allegations/accusations are made and remain unresolved for 3-4 months before there is actually a court hearing and the possibility of a decision. For one parent this may mean that they completely lose contact with their children for that period of time if the other parent withholds them. They cope with the loss, grief and emotional pain of that loss. For the parent who has taken charge of the children, they tend to become increasingly committed to their belief that that they are in the right.

Supervised exchanges allow the children to go back and forth between Mom's House and Dad's House without the parents having any contact with each other during the transition between the homes. A professional trained in assisting with these transitions acts as a go-between so the parents are able to express their needs and concerns and even communicate appropriate coparenting information without the emotional challenges of direct contact with each other. The children are freed from the fear of their parents fighting every time they see other, and the children no longer have to worry about choosing between the parents.

For some parents, supervised exchanges are a temporary support during the initial very emotional months of family transition. For these parents, they will be able to move towards a cooperative coparenting relationship with each other as their lives normalize. For other parents, they may use supervised exchanges indefinitely when the parents just have too many differences to comfortably interact with each other. This is particularly helpful when there is a history of domestic violence or other traumatic history between the parents. While not a panacea, supervised exchange can provide a sense of safety for both parents.

Just as there is no way to know what parent is going to become violent, there is no way to know what support each parent may need to navigate the challenges of these difficult family transitions. We need to focus on tools that help with cooling down the emotional heat, for the sake of the children and the larger community.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

San Diego FCS Recommendations/Court Orders

For any parent who has received a Family Court Services Report from the Superior Court of San Diego, Family Court Services, the following is probably language you recognize:
"Neither parent shall make negative statements about the other parent in the presence or hearing of the child or question the child about the other parent. The parents shall communicate directly with each other in matters concerning the child and shall not use the child as messenger between them. The child shall not be exposed to court papers or disputes between the parents, and each parent shall make every possible effort to ensure that other people comply with this order."

Here is proposed new language as an alternative for those parents who do not understand that this is intended to be a guide to the spirit in which all communication about or between the other parent needs to be handled:
Neither parent shall make negative statements/gestures/facial expressions/Facebook posts/text messages/emails or any other form of communication about the other parent in the presence or hearing of the child or question the child about the other parent, whether directly or indirectly. The parents shall communicate directly with each other in matters concerning the child and shall do so outside the presence and/or hearing of the child. The parents shall not use the child, the child's back pack, the child's diaper bag, the child's lunch box, or any other item that accompanies the child back and forth between the parents as a messenger between them. The child shall not be directly, indirectly, overtly, covertly, actively, passively, aggressively, or passive-aggressively exposed to court papers or the contents of any court papers. The child shall not be exposed to disputes, disagreements, nasty comments disguised as friendly, or any direct communication other that at least minimally cordial between the parents. Each parent is responsible to ensure that other adults observe all of these guidelines for communication about and between co-parents raising 2-home children."

Or, put another way, being technically in compliance -- at least in your own opinion and would point out that you are checking your own homework here -- because the language is vague and not comprehensive enough does not pass for good parenting in any one's book. Okay, a little preachy, maybe, but every day brings amazing examples of the mean, destructive and manipulative ways that co-parents find to undermine the success and well-being of their own children. And, of course, the nastiness always seems to follow or be preceded by the phrase..."in the child's best interest!"