Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What if the Other Parent is Irresponsible?

I recently saw a report in the American Bar Journal online about a Georgia court case where the issue was whether a father could allow his children to be around his gay and lesbian friends. Apparently, the divorce trial court had issued a ruling preventing the father from letting gay and lesbian friends be around his kids. Apparently, there was no evidence introduced in court that the friends had acted inappropriately in front of the children.

I am not aware of a similar case arising in Texas, but I would assume that the Texas courts would probably reach a similar result. Regardless of whether the issue was about different sexual orientation, race, age, religion or some other factor, it should normally come down to whether there is evidence that something improper has occurred. If there is just a potential for problems, it is not likely that a judge would impose restrictions about who can be around children. If something happened, but no one was injured by some event or activity, there's probably not sufficient evidence to support restrictions.

It can be very frustrating when the other parent seems to be irresponsible or potentially endangering children, but that is not sufficient to support restrictions on the other parent. As bad as it sounds, the courts almost require someone to be hurt before they will intervene. If you have a situation that creates concerns about your children's health or safety, you should discuss them with your attorney. You may not be able to directly impose restrictions at that point, no matter how concerned you are or how reasonable and logical your fears are, but there may be some things you can do to help. Here are some ideas:

1. Discuss the situation with your ex. Don't overlook the obvious, direct solution. But, since you may not have any real leverage, you need to work on being diplomatic and conciliatory, no matter how hard that may be for you. It is certainly cheaper, faster and more effective if you can do something by agreement. There is also less chance of drawing the children into the middle of the dispute. Of course, you will probably be dealing with an emotional issue, so that will make it harder to be "nice". You can get some ideas from your attorney or a counselor to help you plan your approaches for the discussion.

2. Request that you and your ex meet with a counselor to discuss the issues. Hopefully, a few sessions will make it possible to come to an agreement in a safe atmosphere.

3. Here, in Tarrant County, Texas, you can contact Family Court Services at the courthouse and set up a meeting with an Access Facilitator. A Facilitator is a specially trained social worker who helps the parties meet and work out differences in how to raise children and share time with their children. Good News -- they are not only qualified, experienced social workers, but they are FREE!

4. Go to a mediator. This can be done with or without attorneys. You and your ex can split the mediator's fee. If one side uses an attorney, the other party should also bring an attorney to equalize the negotiations. Mediators have a very high success rate, so they are an excellent option.

5. Hire an attorney and go to court. This is the most expensive choice, but could be necessary if your ex is uncooperative.

6. Try using Collaborative Law. Both sides would have to agree to use the process, if it is to be used. Your ex might agree to it to keep the matter private, to get expert help or to be able to deal with the issue on his/her own schedule, instead of a court's schedule. The main point to keep in mind is that both parties would need to utilize attorneys trained in Collaborative Law, so you should ask about that when you are hiring an attorney. Using the process may minimize the damage to the relationships between the parties, which is important for the children.

There are obviously many different ways to approach an issue about the children. What you should not do is just get angry, start accusing your ex of misbehavior and being making demands. You will almost never be in position to solely determine the outcome, and such an approach will almost guarantee an expensive, ugly and protracted battle. Why do that when you have other effective options?

(I want to give credit and thanks to Nancy Van Tine of the Massachusetts Divorce Law Monitor blog for referencing the ABA story. She also has an excellent blog that is worth regular viewing.)

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