Divorce, Custody, and the Phrase, "Putting the Children First"

When "Putting the Children First" is Nothing More than Lip Service

In divorce situations, the phrase, "putting children first," is the phrase everyone seems to use. Most people agree with the idea of putting the children first - in theory. In practice, whether or not anyone really puts the children first is an entirely different matter. In reality, the phrase, "putting the children first," is often nothing more than a joke that isn't at all funny

There are, of course, divorcing couples who will work together to place the children's needs first, but many divorcing parents won't or can't work together toward that aim. In some cases, one parent may be completely committed to putting the children first, but the other is not.

Even before a couple decides to divorce there's a good chance one or both partners were not putting the children first, because if they were they may have been more willing to work together to save the marriage. There are, of course, completely one-sided marriages, and there are abusive situations; both of which may be the fault of only one unwilling, uncooperative, or unreasonable partner.

Parents who show disrespect to the other parent in front of the children, and parents who fights in front of other children, are not putting the children first.

In divorce it is not putting the children first when one parent underestimates the relationship the other good, loving, parent has with the children. On the other hand, when one parent is not a good, loving, parent it is s/he who is not putting the children first by being the kind of parent s/he ought to be. Parents who underestimate the other's parent's relationship with the children don't even know they're doing it. They believe they're putting the children first.

The same applies to parents who underestimate the character or mental stability of the other parent. Again, parents don't always realize that when they try to keep their children away from an ex-spouse about whom they don't think very highly, there's at least the chance that - in the ugliness of divorce - they are wrong about the other parent (and wrong in trying to limit his/her time with the children). Under circumstances in which neither parent is negligent or abusive, any time either parent is willing to allow too little time with, or too much distance from, the other parent, s/he is not putting the children first.

When parents are able to be reasonable enough to put aside their differences and try to do what will be best for the children, their loving, parental, good sense can be undermined when the divorce actually ends up in court. In "Child Custody Guidelines: Suggestions from One Judge"

(The Family Law Advisor, Volume 6, Issue 3, Sept. 2002, Divorcenet.com) it is noted that retired judge, Edward Ginsburg (Massachusetts) shared his views in the August 5, 2002 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. As of the 2002 The Family Law Advisor writing, the former judge's views are described as follows: "Judge Ginsburg opposes placating parents by awarding shared physical custody or even allowing joint decision-making. He contends that leads to on-going conflict after divorce.".  The judge was said to have invited colleagues to avoid delay in deciding custody cases by deciding within six to nine months. This, of course, implies that a time limit is more important that the facts of the cases or the children's best interest. 

The Family Law Advisor noted about this one judge, " ...undoubtedly critics will challenge the Judge's notion that there should be a primary residential parent with the noncustodial parent visiting every other weekend and one evening a week. Another quote from The Family Law Advisor's piece on child custody and divorce is that the judge is "dismissive of parent coordinators who end up 'serving as a parent to the parents'. He goes on to argue that courts should take back control of the decision-making process to protect children, the 'innocent victims of divorce.'" People with an understanding of what it really means to put children first, and with any understanding of children, themselves, would not see any hint of putting children first demonstrated by the views of a judge like this.   While many divorcing parents are not, I’m sure, the most reasonable; the fact that is overlooked by judges with this attitude is that there are many capable, good, parents who are far better equipped to make decisions about what is in their own children’s best interest than a stranger is (judge or not).  Sometimes those “innocent victims of divorce” are innocent victims of judges and others in The System.  In fact, it may be that this is more often the case than not.

This judge's views are only the views of one judge, but this individual is not the only one (and certainly not the only judge) who views custody cases this way. "The courts should take back control of the decision-making process to protect children..." - when has it ever been putting the children first to have courts "take control" over divorces that, in many cases, could have been worked out between the two parents. Even when that's not possible, when is it ever putting the children first if the court completely usurps control when exercising such control on only an "as needed" basis might do the job?

Perhaps judges know more about putting children first than the rest of us do. After all, it happens that the former judge mentioned above presided over the notorious Fagan case, a custody case that took place

more than 20 years ago, in which some claim the judge disregarded "copious evidence" that mother was not capable of caring for the couple’s two daughters. The father then brought the little girls to Florida, changed his and their names, told them their mother was dead, and lived a new life until he was caught by authorities. Whether Judge Ginsburg disregarded evidence about the most capable parent or failed to protect the girls from a father who would take them away as he did may not be something the public can know for certain.  Either way, such a failure by any judge should give us pause when it comes to believing that any court ever really puts the children or their well-being first.

Some judges may also be reluctant to modify custody orders after the initial ruling just because they believe there must be an end to custody battles, and the children need stability.  One question, however, whether unwillingness to modify custody orders in the interest of “stability” is ever blind commitment to what may have been insufficient facts when the first custody order was put in place.  More importantly, one might question whether this is always in the best interest of the children.

Fathers' Rights groups all across the country voice anger over the treatment of fathers. It isn't just fathers who are "kicked to the curb" by the court system. There are cases when women leave their husbands for reasons family members don't know, and end up being brought to mental health facilities as a result. How many of those women end up staying for a few days or weeks before anyone figures out the truth is something this author doesn't know. What is known, however, is that once these mothers' mental health has been questioned the court process may not include getting to the truth that would help put the children first.

When a couple divorces even members of extended family may be guilty of not really putting the children first. Angry parents-in-law and siblings-in-law may refuse to talk to one of the parents. They may say, "I care about the kids, and I'll do what's right for the kids - but that's it." These are people who may try to do any number of things for their grandchildren or nieces and nephews; but the one thing they won't do, and the one thing that would put the children first, may be being supportive of, and civil to, both of the children's parents.

Anything and anyone who undermines children's relationships with their parents is not putting the children first. Neither is it putting the children first when anyone or anything takes any action that hinders either parent's ability to parent, to financially support, and/or to emotionally support his/her children.

"Putting the children first": It's a phrase everybody seems to use. It's an idea so many people believe they embrace. In reality, it may be a rare person who even tries to put the children first; and it may be an even rarer person who manages to do that in spite of the legal system.

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