Weapons of Mass Destruction
Weapons of mass destruction are not just military arms. They can be Court orders issued after allegations of domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect, addiction, or mental health issues are made in Family Court. The Court subsequently issues temporary orders that usually preclude the accused parent from having physical custody of the children. These orders may allow a parent and a child to see each other only under the watchful eyes of a professional monitor while the case is going on and until a final judgment has been issued. Whether the accusations prove to be true or false, a parent who finds himself or herself separated from their children and only allowed visitation with a professional monitor present, can cause the family members to spiral into a tragedy so big that it can feel like a weapon of mass destruction has exploded. The impact can be financial, legal, and psychological in nature, and its effects be felt throughout the extended family.
Many times, cases can deteriorate for a variety of reasons. For example, court orders for visitation that are not detailed and that are not specific to the family dynamics of that particular case. Another issue can be hiring a monitor who lacks enough training or experience to effectively handle the case. Finally, there are parents who want to use monitoring as an opportunity to punish the “bad” parent, and end up punishing the children as a result. All of these reasons can cause the situation to deteriorate.
Many times, families that are seeking legal counsel may not initially be able to disclose important details to the attorney because of the trauma they are dealing with. Since the temporary visitation orders are usually issued by the Court very early in the process (often as the very first step), it is incumbent on family law attorneys to know the case thoroughly prior appearing before the Court to obtain the visitation orders. It is also requisite for attorneys to understand what types of visitation orders are going to work for the dynamics of a particular family. Ineffective court orders can range from those that provide minimum visitation (one hour, for example) or infrequent visitations (once per month, for example), to orders that do not take into account the activities of the children or the work schedules of the parents. Orders that are too specific in their times and days can also create difficulties for the parents, the children, and the monitors.
Another recipe for disaster is the hiring of a professional monitor who lacks sufficient training and/or experience that is specific to the needs of the family. There are the non-professional visitation monitors, for example, friends or family members, who have no training or direction about what their actual role is. There can be an advantage to hiring an agency which employs various monitors in that backup for the assigned monitor is available.
Even worse than unworkable court orders are those “high conflict” parents who are willing to harm the children in the process as part of their vengeful “atomic bomb” approach to Family Court. It is not unheard of to have a custodial parent want to “brief” the monitor about all the evils of the non-custodial parent; they often seek the endorsement of the monitor—something that runs contrary to the acceptable position of a monitor as a neutral third party. Non-custodial parents often have no concept of what they have done to harm the children or the other parent. Often these parents will continue to practice harmful parenting, even during a visitation.
Custodial Parents sometimes can use the Court to victimize the non-custodial party by trying to alienate the children from the Non-Custodial Parent. A good professional monitor is able to re-direct this parent and is prepared to stop the visitation should the Non-Custodial Parent not follow the rules for visitation. In addition, a good monitor can reflect to the court what is really going on with the dynamics of a particular family by submitting detailed reports of every visit to assist the Judge in making the best decision for the family. Reports that come from inexperienced or incompetent monitors can be devasting to the Non-Custodial Parent, especially when taken out context.
Some parents are so traumatized and are dealing with grief and loss over the lack of contact with their children and with the stress of the court process, that they can barely go on. These feelings sometimes affect how they behave on visitations. There are an abundance of anecdotes detailing the devastating harm that parental separation does to children, as well as to the parents; this devastation can result in societal harm.
In every case, all the monitor can do is report and document for the Court what is observed; they do not act as child custody evaluators or therapists, even if they are trained as such. While the monitor does have the latitude to stop a visitation to protect the children from harm, most of the time they are only recording what is happening for the attorneys and the court. There are ways a parent can make the time count during the temporary period and really “win,” not just in family court, but in the bigger sense of the word—for the sake of their children and for their own well being. In California, monitors are governed by Family Code § 3200.5 and the California Rules of Court Standard 5.20 Uniform Standards of Practice for Monitors, and, depending on the county, local rules may also apply.
In Los Angeles County, there are approximately 30,000 children in foster care, according to the Department of Family Services 2017 data snapshot. That’s a small town of children separated from their primary attachment figures. According to the 2017 Judicial Counsel of California’s Statistics Report, there were over 43,000 dependency and over 35,000 juvenile delinquency cases filed in one year. Marital filings (dissolutions, legal separations and nullities) accounted for 138,520 cases and other family law filings (e.g. paternity, child support) totaled 249,329 cases. That is approximately half a million cases involving families and children filed per year in California. According to the study, only about 2,000 judges or judge fill-ins oversee these cases, and there are no requirements for judges to have family law training or fully understand monitoring. These orders can be made without the judge being aware of how their orders affect the family because lack of information from attorneys. Furthermore, this lack of information does not always take into consideration children’s ages, developmental needs, or the relationship with the non-custodial party before supervise visitation started. A mindful, child-centered approach is the best method to minimize the damages to families.
These numerical statistics unfortunately do not quantify how many children are involved in family law matters, and who are subject to crossing over into dependency or delinquency cases. Who really wins in visitation depends on the thoroughness of the attorneys, the Court, and the professional monitor. Visitation monitors, mental health professionals, judges, and attorneys need to work together to create more mindful court orders. Better orders will reduce stress on the court system and on the families affected. Working together in a mindful way can create a winning situation for all parties.