Children of Families in Transition

Kelley_Barbara_webIf newborn babies could speak to their parents, they might say something like this:

During the last nine months, all my needs were met without me having to do anything. I learned to trust that anything I needed to survive and thrive would be provided for me. I am uncertain and a bit afraid of this new world that you brought me into. Can I trust both of you to love and care for all my needs like before you brought me here? I really need love, support and patience from both of you. I also need to trust that both of you will teach me all the things I need to learn so I can thrive and eventually take care of myself.

Working as a professional family supervisor, I have observed many families in the process of crumbling, as parents become more deeply involved in their own personal, unresolved issues. Parents blame one another when things don’t go right for one of them individually, or for one parent’s lack of quality/quantity time spent with the child. They then end up in Family Court where all allegations are taken seriously. Judges don’t have the opportunity to experience life with each parent, so convincing the court on which one is the better parent becomes a process of persuasion, and the children are caught in the middle.

When parents become preoccupied with their own emotional needs and negativity toward the other parent, rather than focusing on their child’s emotional and developmental needs, they deny their children the opportunity to reflect upon their own feelings and establish a secure sense of autonomy.

When I hear the parent of a 10-year-old say to the child, “You have to tell [the other parent] that you want to spend more time with me—you have to stand up for yourself,” or when a 6-year-old child tells the visiting parent, “Talk to the judge to see if you are good or bad to see who I will be with,” it is distressful to witness the innocence of these children being ripped away from them.

Between the ages of 18 months and 12 years old, (the predominant ages of children I have supervised), children are still learning the basics—how to establish an attachment bond with their parents; how to develop a sense of independence, autonomy and a sense of self; how to take initiative and control impulses; how to learn skills that will help them be competent and industrious; and how to gain a sense of comfort with their own relationships. It is unfathomable to expect these children to have any notion of how to emotionally or psychologically deal with their parents’ personal issues.

Based on my experience as a professional family supervisor during the past 10 years, I offer a suggestion for improving family court services to support the best interest of the children. I believe that professional family supervisors should work to create a standard reporting form to document parent behavior during supervised visitations.

This form, which could be based off the guidelines presented in the Parent Orientation Handbook under A Child’s Rights in Divorce, would present judges with a more accurate and clear picture of parent behavior during supervised visitations. As a result, judges would have something more substantial on which to base their custody decisions than undocumented and dubious allegations from parents.

The last “right” that is listed in the document, A Child’s Rights in Divorce is, “I have the right to not ever be forced or encouraged to choose between my parents. This is a decision for wise adults.” Parents however, can’t always be trusted to wisely make their children a priority while they are battling it out with one another. Family Court Services, therefore, must take steps to increase parent accountability and make well-informed decisions that are truly in the best interest of the child.

Barbara Kelley is a Professional Family Supervisor, working with Family Court Services of Contra Costa County to provide supervised visitation services in court ordered child custody cases.

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